April of 1968, in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Baltimore is set afire by rioting. On Monday in the wake of the Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, the city burned. For Baltimore, April is the cruelest month.
Much of West Baltimore rots depressed, an unreal city, a dystopia, desolate and depopulated, haunted by ghosts from the past, as though the riots of 1968 were yesterday. Perhaps they were. The boarded up homes lining Baltimore’s streets seem to be stuck in a confluence of gravity, time and space, a stagnant crunch as life surges forth elsewhere.
Just a few miles south, Washington DC springs anew after cantankerousness decades of urban blight, shootings and crime, transforming into rejuvenation, building, cranes, prosperity, confidence, and optimism. Meanwhile Baltimore withers in its inimitable waste land, like a disquieted Dickensian London of brown fog and abandoned streets.
The latest police killing was merely a spark. The conflagration that followed was primed and prepared over decades of neglect, countless silent abuses, shootings, intimidations, and police “rough rides.” Each exploitation, akin to tossing a lush inflammable branch of holly onto a dry stack of twigs and sagebrush, just waiting for a flash. Fuel in wait for a match.
In December 2014, Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, vetoed a city council bill mandating police body cameras, claiming she needed a further study of their effectiveness. City Council members warned her Baltimore was a tinder box waiting to detonate and that she couldn’t spare to wait a moment more for further study. One oracular tweet read:
The Mayor of #Baltimore just did two of the top things she will most regret in her life http://t.co/NE0a28b8c5 #plasticbags #bodycameras
— Zafo Jones (@zafojones) December 2, 2014
Perhaps she can count Monday’s wholesale rioting, rampaging and mayhem as prophetic proof of her incompetence.
On Sunday, she quipped, “I … instructed (the police) to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. … We also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that.”
The Mayor’s incomprehensible and incomparable stupidity has provided the Crips, the Bloods, and the Black Guerrilla Family ample space to act accordingly. The New York Times’ Ron Nixon, wrote that a Bloods member calling himself Charles, described how he and gang members pointed looters away from black owned businesses and toward Chinese and Arab owned stores. Caustic Middle Eastern style tribalism corroding metro Washington, DC.
As for myself looking upon this turn of events in Baltimore, a straight white guy reared in the upper- middle class neighborhood, it jarred me how distinct and dissimilar our different worlds can be.
In childhood, Mayberry wasn’t fiction. On my walk to elementary school in Waban, a village of Newton, Jim the traffic cop greeted me with a smile every morning, and asked about my family.
However, in the 1980s, as an art student in Boston, I encountered an altered urban landscape. I asked a hair-stylist neighbor to put henna highlights in my hair, and he dyed it cherry red. Friends and family hooted at the opulent hairdo, and I rushed to a hair salon on Newbury Street to get it fixed.
While I was looking for a parking spot, two undercover cops in a fancy red convertible orchestrated an accident. They demanded my license and registration. I retorted that I wanted their license and registration because they caused the fender bender. They pulled out cell phone bricks (when cell phones were big and rare), and a scrum of police and cruisers surrounded me, as they pulled me out of my car and roughed me up.
As they flipped out handcuffs, a well-styled woman came over, weeping. She screamed at one of the cops, “I stood on the curb and saw the whole thing and you set this up! I will go to any court anywhere to testify to what saw!”
The cops scurried into their multiple marked and unmarked cruisers and disappeared. No accident report. Something that never existed.
I often think of that afternoon, and what would have happened to me had not that mysterious woman saved me. Even my patrician family would not have been able to reach me in an anonymous lock up.
I am certain that the Boston cops mistakenly mistook me, with my flaming red hair, for a gay guy on fashionable Newbury Street, and they were keen to abuse me as they wished. I shiver at the thought.
For a few hours in my life, I was a minority, and I experienced how horribly one can be treated as such.
With copious police snuff films, from the murders of Eric Garner to Walter Scott and Michael Brown, I am grateful these incidents were caught on camera, for had they not, they would not have happened. Dust. How many incidents were erased from memory? With mere memory, the police are frequently given undo deference.
Now, with the ubiquitous presence of the cell phone camera, an enigmatic stranger such as my mysterious woman, can broadcast a police encounter on the street and silence doesn’t erase memory.
T.S. Elliot’s wasteland was a modern city of stony rubbish where a man can recognize only a “heap of broken images.” In 1921, he was struggling with the terrible slaughter of the World War. Today, we struggle with our cultural DNA, the consequences of multiple social ills, from the legacy of slavery to the present day discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Perhaps the corpse buried in our garden is that legacy and the fires blazing in Baltimore seem minimal in comparison.
Douglas Christian is a multimedia Capitol Hill reporter. He has covered the 2016 Democratic and Republican conventions as a photographer and has produced numerous audio and video reports for Talk Media News. He has written scores of articles and op-ed pieces for the Baltimore Post Examiner, touching on politics to the arts and to hi-tech.
Douglas has worked as a photographer for decades. He has produced a few books on Oriental rugs; one was on Armenian Oriental rugs and the other was published by Rizzoli and co-authored by his uncle entitled, ‘Oriental Rugs of the Silk Route’. Douglas attended the Putney School in Vermont, a tiny progressive school in Vermont, where he became enthralled with photography and rebuilt a 4×5 camera. Later during college, he attended the Ansel Adams Workshop at Yosemite, where he determined to pursue photography. He transferred to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and received a BFA from Tufts. He has photographed an array of people including politicos such as William F. Buckley, Jr., George McGovern, Edward Teller and Cesar Chavez. His photography URL is www.photographystudio.com. His twitter feed is @xiwix. He currently resides in Washington, D.C.