Like so many things in my life, it started on Facebook.
“Anyone free tomorrow?” My friend JR asked Thursday night, sharing a post from the Maryland Young Democrats. They were giving out food in West Baltimore Friday afternoon and needed some volunteers to help.
I’d been following the news incessantly, both through official channels like CNN and through personal ones like Twitter. The reports were provocative and conflicting. I had no idea what was really going on, but I wanted to know. And I wanted to help, I knew that for sure.
I re-posted the status and asked if anyone wanted to come with me. Within minutes, three people replied and I had a team. I contacted the event organizer and said we were coming. It was official–we were going to Baltimore.
I didn’t tell my parents or put it on Facebook because I didn’t want someone to talk me out out going, partly because I thought maybe someone should. I could imagine getting arrested or getting my car stolen. But my friends were counting on me now. Yes, I was a little scared. But I was going.
The first thing we noticed driving in was how familiar everything looked. “I feel like I’ve been here, but it’s just because of ‘the wire’,” one of my friends commented. It was true–the boarded up buildings on decaying blocks did have a cinematic feeling to them. We pulled up to the address we’d been given, which turned out to be a church. Outside there was a long line of mainly black people and a few white people with clipboards. One of the clipboards promptly took us inside and pointed to towering mountains of canned goods and bottled water. “Make sure everyone gets one of each” she said, then vanished.
A young black woman showed us the ropes. She said the food all came from food banks in the area and private donations. She pointed out a black woman in a red tracksuit. “That’s the former mayor, Sheila Dixon. Yesterday the Baltimore Ravens were here.” She told us.
We stood in a line, offering our wares to the men and women who shuffled past us. Some had grocery bags, others had carts. A few dragged large black hefty bags behind them. They held the bags open, we dropped the food in. Most thanked us, some profusely.
A few wished us blessed days. We didn’t have a lot of time to interact. We tried to smile, say “you’re welcome”.
We–four white kids–could not say “I am sorry for my privilege,” or “I hate the system that values property damage more seriously than the lives of your families”. We had to hope it showed on our faces, could be read in the hunches in our spines. We had showed up. It would never be enough, but we hoped it was something.
Most people were in high spirits because the policemen implicated in Freddie Gray’s death had been charged that day. There was a TV in the back of the hall with nonstop news about the charges and people stared at it incredulously. I had to admit, I could hardly believe it myself. It’s sad when Justice seems unbelievable, but after Ferguson that’s where I was.
Eventually a delivery had to be made. Terry told the organizer I had a car, and so we piled foodstuffs into my trunk and backseat, cramming things in until the trunk didn’t really shut the whole way, and set off to an address Terry scribbled on the back of his hand.
On the side of the road, we saw the National Guard in full riot gear, looking bored standing in front of three tanks. The next block held a burned-out car. “You should write about this,” Terry said.
At the next intersection, we were stuck behind some traffic. Suddenly, blaring gongs rang out, startling us. We looked around nervously, trying to identify the source of the noise. In the middle of the street, a black man in a white suit stood right in the center of the traffic. All at once, the gongs resolved into a vey familIar beat and the man started moonwalking. This guy performed Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” as people clapped and took pictures from the sidewalk. He was really impressive and we would have watched him for much longer, but the light changed and we had to go. It would not be the most surreal thing we saw that afternoon, but we didn’t know that yet.
After the drop off, we drove past a house with a lot of broken windows. “Do you think those windows were broken recently?” I asked. Terry said that a few must have been due to the shattered panes still in the window, but probably most of them had been out for a while. That’s the thing–it was hard to tell how much of the damage was new because everything was so broken down.
Back at the distribution site, I talked to Martha McKenna, the woman who originally sent the tweet asking for help. She is a short, white woman in her late thirties or early forties, with cool glasses and a friendly face who nevertheless projects an effortless aura of authority. “This is going to sound really stupid,” I said, “but why are we handing out food? Are the grocery stores closed?” Martha was either too kind or too tired to laugh at me. “There were never grocery stores here.” She said. “Antonio, how many grocery stores in this whole side of the city?” She hollered across the room. A young black man in a tie and nice slacks came over to us. “Three. In the whole area. Used to be one a little ways from here, but it got looted. Most of these people do their shopping at rite aid, CVS. They got burned down. Now they have no food.”
“What’s the best thing to do to help, if you can’t make it up here?” I asked Martha and Antonio. I felt a little silly, pretending to be a journalist, but I was there. “Send money. No Borders Coalition has been working in this area for a long time, not just for this. They know what they’re doing.” Martha said, then got called back to the command center on the other side of the room. I asked Antonio my final question, the one I felt was most important but also felt dumbest asking.
“What do you wish people out there knew about what’s going on here, what’s not on the news?” I asked, barely above a whisper. Antonio raised his arms, gesturing around the room. “This.” He said. “We’ve been giving out food all over the city and will keep doing it. I was at a senior center yesterday. They are right outside a CVS, and steps from a train station. The trains haven’t been running since Monday and the CVS is burned. They really felt trapped. But we got them food.” He said. I thanked him for his time, then belatedly introduced myself. He handed my his card. It turns out Antonio is Antonio Hayes, the representative for the Maryland House of Delegates. He told me he’d been in office for less than 200 days. With a shrug and a smile, he got back to work.
Between him and the ex-mayor, there were a lot of requests for pictures. Dixon in particular was a favorite with a smile and a hug for everyone. One white woman with three small kids cried when she saw her and told a story about a kindness the mayor had done for her mother years ago. Dixon was one of those people who you can just tell is the real deal–she truly cared about each person in that endlessly long line.
The food ran out and we headed home. On our way out of the city, a teenage white kid, filthy dirty, held a sign saying he was beaten and robbed. He needed money to get out of town. We didn’t have any cash, but we offered him some bottled water, which he took. In the rear view mirror, I saw a tank pull up. My friends and I watched on the edge of our seats as the homeless kid walked up to the tank. He wasn’t quite as tall as the tire. Framed more perfectly than a movie shot, I watched in my mirror as a camo-clad arm reached down from the tank and handed the kid a snickers bar. I didn’t see how it ended. The light changed and we had to keep going.
The silent baseball games. The massive tanks. The man lip-synching to Michael Jackson. The burnt out buildings. What do they all mean? I don’t have a clue. I feel like I know less now than I did before I drove north on Friday.
What I do know is that people in Baltimore are suffering. They have been for a long time before this, though. Idiotic drug policies, a corrupt police system, some dodgy politicians and some deep ambivalence about equality from whites made Baltimore a war zone long before the riots broke out.
Justice for Freddie Gray’s killers is a good start. Drug policy reform and some serious policing reform will be better. And I don’t know how it’s going to come out, or how long it will take. But I do know that I am going to keep speaking out. I have to.
There’s a quote going around Facebook by MLK about the “white moderate”. I think it’s really true that being silent–even while condemning racism in your own home–is part of the problem. If you’re white, your voice has power just by virtue of your whiteness. Use it! Don’t condemn black rioting for justice if you don’t equally condemn white rioting for sporting events. Don’t value property over human life. And don’t believe what the news is telling you about Baltimore. The city is going to put itself back together–wonderful people are working tirelessly to ensure it. But back together misses the point. Baltimore–and every city in America–needs to move past “where we were” and into “where we should be”.