What I Witnessed in Baltimore
By Dominique Hazzard
This is me trying to process, trying to share what I witnessed yesterday in Baltimore, trying to amplify voices. Mostly what I saw were young black people overflowing with pain, exasperated at their core, keenly aware of the structural violence they have been subjected to for their entire lives, and willing to do whatever they need to do to end it because everything else they have tried has failed. One young man said he is willing to die for liberation.
I met a young man who in one breath grieved #FreddieGray, said Freddie used to buy his son candy, and in the next breath lambasted tax policies that subsidize second home ownership for the rich “Who owns these houses? People who don’t live here, and buy them for cheap to get a tax break, then let them sit here boarded up.” He talked about the problem of so many Baltimore police officers commuting into his neighborhood from the far suburbs. He stayed out at Monday night’s uprisings as long as he could, until he had to go pick up his son. He said he’s marched and that didn’t work, he’s boycotted and that didn’t work, he’s voted and that didn’t work, and asked “So just what the hell am I supposed to do? But the police tryna tell us we can’t have human emotion.”
Another talked about looting, about its roots in economic despair. “I saw my people out here gettin’ toilet paper. Toilet paper. Because they need toilet paper to wipe their ass, to wipe their kid’s ass. You gon’ send em to jail over toilet paper? I want a job. People want to take care of their families.”
I saw a small business owner and her daughter, Asian Americans, sitting in the busted doorstep of their store. They said everything had been taken. It was sad. Even sadder, to me, and I promise you this is not hyperbole, is that the state of that store looked indistinguishable from some of the homes that the students we were delivering lunches too LIVE IN. I could not tell the difference between blocks that had been hit by riots, and blocks that had not; that is the level of economic violence people are living under. I am now even more flabbergasted by the questions of “Why are people destroying their own community?” Folks straight up told me “We don’t own anything here,” and it was crystal clear to me that communities had already been destroyed by poverty, by exploitation, by structural racism long before any riots connected to the murder of Freddie Gray. As Jamilah Lemieux said in Ebony yesterday, “Baltimore Been Burning.”
There are war tanks roaming the streets in groups in the middle of the day, passing kids playing tag like it’s normal, like any of this makes sense. There are SWAT teams taking over random residential streets just because they can, and elderly women with grocery carts stressing out trying to figure out how to get around them to get home. There are police harassing clean up crews of volunteers and city citizens; police would allow them onto the street and then 5 minutes later start advancing upon them, asking them “Why are you on my street?!”, forcing them to move. There are helicopters flying over neighborhoods constantly, and the woman I spent the day with told me that it isn’t because of the uprising, it’s like that every day, every regular ass day there are helicopters hovering over these citizens, surveilling them.
And in response: there are Baltimore heroes. There were churches opening their doors, and teachers knocking on their students doors to see if they had lunch.
There was Baltimore determination. I met a young woman who was shot by rubber police bullets on Monday night while standing in the crowd. She caught one in the back and one in the foot, and lost feeling in her toe. Still, she returned.
There was Baltimore bravado, self-affirmation. I heard a young man proclaiming loudly “They think we aint human cause I sell drugs? They think we aint human because we don’t speak the King’s English? We rejected that shit! And we are smart, smarter than ever. I know I’m smart.” He pointed to the broken-windowed apartments across the street. “I grew up in those apartments. My momma was a crackhead. I been out here since I was 11 years old. Surviving.” Another young man said, “Black brothers and sisters… we together out here against these police. I’m a liberator, I’m a revolutionary… I know my worth, I know my books because I study… What Malcolm X said?”
There was Baltimore resilience (resilience being, the things we do to bring ourselves joy during trauma) — two blocks down from one of the tank barricades someone had brought out a boom box. “They Don’t Really Care About Us” was blasting, a neighborhood man known as “Michael Jackson” was performing, and at least 40 people had gathered and were dancing with him.
I really encourage folks to get as much of your news about Baltimore as you can from social media. Try to read updates from organizers on the ground, listen to the stories of those most affected. Because the whole frame of so much of the Baltimore coverage is just trash.
Photo Credit: Dominique Hazzard