I tried to write this as an actual letter, but it was kind of silly, so I stopped. Instead, I am going to break down what I have to say into four parts: My relationship to Baltimore; an analysis of the situation as of tonight (April 27, 2015, 11:30 p.m. EDT); some lessons learned from our experience in Los Angeles; and a conclusion.
How Charm City Charmed Me
I moved to the Washington, DC metropolitan area at the end of my Peace Corps service in 2003. I met my wife, a Bawlmoran by birth and inclination, at a DC bar in 2005. She first took me to the city under tragic circumstances in 2006. Her family immediately decided I was one of them. I have been ever since. They live all over the city, and two of my sisters-in-law live in the heart of the area that is worst hit tonight. I have been to ballgames at Camden Yards, Pride in Druid Hill Park, and other festivals and gatherings galore. I have eaten crab cakes at Faidley’s and my family has watched gleefully as I polished off a chicken box (apparently, the appreciation *really* shows on my face). We drove in from Montgomery County just to have snowballs in the summer. This Christmas, we went to Baltimore for Miracle on 34th Street (lights, not a movie), a visit to Lexington Market, and to show friends around the Enoch Pratt Free Library (the central branch). I love Baltimore. The people are friendly and polite, the food is amazing, and the spirit of the place is hard to beat.
What’s Going On Here?
Baltimore is a great city, but it also bears many of the classic markers for conflict. City government is starved of resources and infrastructure and services are weak. Unemployment is high (by U.S. standards) and poverty is close to 25%. Parents have had a decades-long, wearying fight to bring most city schools up to the minimum Federal standard. As a result, many students are left with few prospects once they graduate. The population also skews very young. If Baltimore City were a country, it would be at great risk of state failure.
When you add to this a long history of discrimination against the majority African-American population, things get pretty grim. Police in Baltimore see themselves as fighting, rather than protecting, the people. Other organizations, both legal and illegal, have stepped into the empty space left by ineffective government. As in many fragile situations, all it takes is a spark to turn a latent conflict into an overt one.
That said, protests in Baltimore have been remarkably peaceful considering all the factors that are at hand. Remember, this is a city known for its politeness. Have outside agitators come in to ruin Baltimore’s reputation? It’s possible, but not necessary. Remember the young, unemployed, hopeless population. Then realize that the first places that were shut down were a main transit line and the city mall – right before school let out, in a city where all students rely on public transit to get to and from school. The mall is a transfer point for buses coming to and from a number of city schools. It is within walking distance of four middle schools and two high schools, right next to a community college. It gets heavy traffic from high schoolers every week day, and the police, acting as enemies of the people, closed it just before school let out. Any decent conflict analyst could have told BCPD what the result would be. That part of the city is burning. It is terrifyingly near where my in-laws, including my youngest nephew, live.
Lessons from L.A.
Let me be clear here: riots destroy the local economy. My neighborhood saw the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, the Watts Riots in 1965, and the Rodney King Riots in 1992. After 1992, many local businesses shut their doors forever. West Adams is a beautiful area, full of historic homes on tree-lined streets. There are cultural centers, foundations, famous restaurants, and museums. We are 20 minutes from everything in Los Angeles. We are freeway close. We are on two brand-new subway lines and very close to two more. Yet the economy is slow compared to the rest of the city. Property values are not growing as quickly as they are elsewhere in the city. We bear many of the same alarming characteristics as Baltimore City: a young population, high poverty, and troubled schools. Rioting made doing business in the area feel chancy and unprofitable. Local people lost jobs. Homelessness is rampant.
Yet in one way, the Rodney King Riots worked. The Chief of Police was forced to leave office in disgrace. Amnesty International released a damning report on police tactics in Los Angeles. Ever since then, LAPD has been struggling to change its tactics and culture. Progress has been mixed, but progress has been made. Over and over, people tell each other that rioting does no good, but that is manifestly untrue. It at least does some good, some of the time.
Do protests do more good? The record of protests is as mixed as that of riots. We need a new playbook. When the police decide that the people are an enemy, one can hardly blame the people for going to war, yet war is destabilizing and when war is conducted willy-nilly, a win can be worse than a loss. In Los Angeles, churches served as honest brokers between the government and the people. Baltimore needs some good mediators. My nieces and nephews should never have been forced to live like this in the first place. As a society, we need to work together to turn this bus around.
Baltimore is unlike Los Angeles and other cities to the west in that it has played a central role in American life since the 17th Century. We need Baltimore; it is part of our identity, as much as New York or Boston. The people of Baltimore once saved the United States as we know it. Americans should stand with the residents of the city and demand real change in its institutions, just as we should demand change from institutions all over the country that are stacked against minorities, the poor, and women. This struggle did not end in the 1960s, friends. We have a long, long way to go.