The first thing I notice is all the garbage, then the assembling crowd. All have something in their hands. It’s mostly shovels and brooms. The mess has been neatly collected in heavy-duty black trash bags and piled up in front of a store with broken windows. It’s just past 10 in the morning. Like most people in Baltimore, I didn’t sleep much, went to bed with the image of a burning Baptist Transition Center, and turned on the news as soon as I woke. I called some friends. I didn’t want to write anything. I didn’t want to add one more white guy think piece to the pile. I finally wanted to clean something. Finally, so did everyone else.
Since coming out of the basement as a cannabis appreciator I’ve made some really great friends, and one comes to pick me up. We drive to the corner of Presstman and Pennsylvania, where we find a group who has totally cleaned up the block and is looking for something else to do. While we wait, we hold hands and pray. When we break, I look north and see even more people arrive, black and white, men and women, young people and old, wearing ski resort fleeces and utility uniforms, regular hoodies and college hoodies, all ready to help rebuild.
“Dolphin and Penn needs some help. Anybody here from that neighborhood?” Someone steps forward, a small circle briefly forms, and they head south. We’re looking for another cohort, Morgan State alumni who are friends of my friend, so we head in the opposite direction.
Baltimore’s vacancy problem is well known to anyone living in town (or anyone who’s seen The Wire), and walking north on Penn, we try to figure out which buildings were destroyed by rioters and which by neglect. I think about how whenever they show overhead shots of Baltimore row homes, several are without roofs; looking at this from the ground doesn’t fully convey how thoroughly we have abandoned these neighborhoods, how completely we have disregarded our neighbors.
A few blocks later and we are in front of the burned out CVS. There are cops in riot gear, standing behind shields, not interacting with the citizens. There’s nothing to clean here; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Baltimore CVS parking lot so void of debris. There are some people on megaphones; there are a lot of children here with their parents, and every kid I see is helping. All over the place people are carrying cases of water and handing out bottles to whoever wants one. At other times we are offered food. We find our group, and we get to work.
It’s not even noon, yet we are the stragglers. So much has already been accomplished. We’re carrying our shovels through the streets looking for people who need a hand. Cars stop us to ask where the clean up is. The clean up is everywhere, as soon as we want it to be. We find a group of people gathered in an alley and we make it nearly spotless. Some people are picking larger rocks from piles of rubble unrelated to last night’s uprising. When the bigger pieces are out of the way another group comes in with brooms, then another with shovels and bags. As soon as I scoop a load, a trash bag appears; if I have trouble dumping my shovel, a hand emerges to widen the opening.
Later, on the news, I hear a reporter talk about how the clean up efforts seemed a little unorganized, but that’s a misleading characterization. This wasn’t organized. There wasn’t time. This was the spontaneous response of a city that finally seemed to realize the politicians can’t help right now, and the police can’t help right now, and the realtors and business owners who abandoned Baltimore’s West Side (and large pockets of the East Side) certainly won’t help right now. But we can help. We can help right now. We can use our hands.
I’m so confused by all the claims that rioting doesn’t do anything. We, as individuals, as a city, and as a nation, paid more attention to West Baltimore this week than in the past 50 years. We came out because of those riots. The people I met on the street on Tuesday talked about those doing the damage with sympathy, not anger. How did we forget about them for so long? How did we let it get this bad? How has our city, that we have repeatedly referred to all week as “great,” produced a population with no way other than violence to articulate their hopelessness? Anyone who believes this week’s events destroyed our city has failed to see what’s actually been killing it for decades.
Maybe an answer can be found in the disgusting images circulating around social media calling attention to Freddie Gray’s “criminal” record, highlighting a lifetime of arrest for non-violent drug offences as some kind of proof that he doesn’t deserve justice or he is an unworthy catalyst for change. The war on drugs has made us all soldiers on one side or the other, and to one side Freddie Gray was always the enemy. Of course he ran from the cops. I am a white man with a Masters degree, and I would’ve run too. I probably wouldn’t have had my spine severed by the police I ran from, but I don’t trust them anymore than Freddie Gray did. And that sad commentary is the direct result of the drug war.
We look at addiction as weakness rather than disease, and even though many of us have relied on a drug dealer in some form or another, we tell ourselves that we aren’t the problem, the seller of drugs is the problem. Rather than foster empathy for our neighbors, we chose to vilify them. For too long we have allowed the war on drugs to divide us, to keep us inside and filled with judgment rather than understanding, and it’s time for that to end. Now is the time for us to come out of our basements, garages, and comfortable enclaves and finally take care of each other.
This is not our war, and we are not each other’s enemies. We are each other’s best hope.