Reality Check: Baltimore Is Burning James Campion May 6, 2015 Columns Beat-up little seagull On a marble stair Tryin’ to find the ocean Lookin’ everywhere Hard times in the city In a hard town by the sea Ain’t nowhere to run to There ain’t nothin’ here for free “Baltimore” – Randy Newman At some point cops will stop killing black guys and black neighborhoods will stop ending up in flames. Not sure when that will be; maybe when my daughter (now seven) will be around to see it. Hard to tell. Hope so. Who knows? I know I’ve written more than a little on this subject now for a couple of grim years. Most of it centers on my harshly cynical view of humanity; all that stuff about hatred and violence and the silly notion that society can quell this bubbling genetic combustion or you know…what will become of us? All that stuff that seems to be obvious and hardly worth noting, but somehow escapes the noisy vox populi and the overly hyped redundant punditry. We choose to ignore our baser instincts and go with the more “better angels” thing. I get that. I do. Like that movie with the kid and the tiger on the boat; which story would you choose to believe if you had the choice? Then there is this useless search for answers. Is there a serviceable answer that would suffice; with any of this? But I think on this occasion I bring some personal experience, because even the African American community is finding it difficult to spin the mass riot in Baltimore, Maryland, this week into something of a fair response to the mysterious death of another black kid by white cops. You see, about 11 years ago I walked to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in downtown Baltimore one afternoon with my parents and my wife. This was the first and only time I felt real, gripping fear. It was also the most disturbing level of abject poverty and destitution I have ever witnessed, and I have been to New Orleans and Israel. Now mind you I’ve escaped some harrowing shit before. A few lowlights would be threatened at knife point at a Rolling Stones concert behind some alleyway in Hartford, Connecticut, weird vibrations at a slum bizarre in Barcelona, Spain, a quizzically half-day gypsy cab ride around the more alarmingly remote corners of Freeport, Bahamas, extremely dangerous teenaged vehicular machinations in the shotgun seat of a rusted-out 1965 Mustang in Freehold, NJ, some “bat-wielding” incident of my own making in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, an agonizingly long and perilous walk around the Old City of Jerusalem with helicopters hovering less than 200 feet above my head (not to mention having wandered wittingly into a Bedouin hutch), whatever it is I barely survived on the Jersey Shore 20 years ago this summer with some hedonistic rock band bent on destroying my compromised constitution, Catholic grammar school nuns, Disney World. I even managed to survive picking fights with Italian girlfriends when they were hungry. Still, choosing to usher my family through the burned-out, boarded-up streets in downtown Baltimore with the most desperate and angry looking people I have had the misfortune (or maybe fortune, because I think once in all of our American lives, we should see this kind of arresting social and economic horror) to witness. It is the kind of “backed into a corner” vista that breeds a level of frustration that torches a CVS over something the cops may or may not have done. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that this is less a race thing than a poverty thing, which is far more prevalent in this year of our Lord 2015 than it has been in some time visa vie the soon-to-be mantra of the 2016 presidential race on both sides of the ideological aisle; income inequality. Add to that social inequality, educational inequality, health care inequality, you name it. Now, the history of civilization is bloated with incidents of the have-nots rising up and causing mayhem for the have’s and these inner-city outbursts lately that begin with a call for justice and end up in total violent chaos is a comment on the idea of “nothing left to lose,” a mentality of the cornered animal that is not beneath us. And for further proof that Baltimore may be the template for more to come—because I think this one trumps Ferguson by a long shot—is the glaringly putrid statistics that cry out to be studied. Baltimore’s decline, which has been steadily sinking since the 1980s, interrupted by the construction of Inner Harbor, which is only a few blocks from the pathetically Third-World conditions I witnessed in 2004, has perhaps reached its saturation point. The city’s unemployment rate is nearly double the national average and among the city’s African Americans it hovers around 30 percent. The high school graduation rate among inner city blacks is among the lowest in the country. Thus the crime rate is one of the highest of any city; its legend exploited in pop culture the way The French Connection, Taxi Driver and Death Wish cast a pall on the devolution of New York City in the 1970s, with the acclaimed The Wire series about destitute crime-ridden neighborhoods patrolled by corrupt and violent cops. Art reflected reality; since 2011 the city has doled out some six million dollars in court settlements to victims of police abuse. So the question should not be, what the hell just happened in Baltimore? It really should be, how did this not happen sooner and why doesn’t it happen weekly? Baltimore has not benefitted from anything; social programs, budget cuts, a stringent police presence, outreach programs, the corporate explosion of the 1980s, the booming 1990s economic surge, the housing bubble of the 2000s or the slowly emerging economic recovery since 2009. It is our reminder that things are never “all rosy” around here. It is our reminder that places like Baltimore and Detroit and dozens of cities and towns across the U.S. in the richest most economically solvent nation in the world have been left to rot. Last week our African American president rightfully pointed out that the U.S. economy is the strongest among any in the Western Hemisphere. It has come back faster than Europe by a long shot. Things are way better now than they were when the entire financial system was on the brink of total annihilation in the fall of ’08, which ushered him in into the White House in the first place. But none of this has come close to putting a dent into what is the “Baltimore Problem,” and I am in no position to suggest how it can be “solved.” But one thing I have learned from this week is that while this eruption may in several ways have been the result of race, police, urban, sociological or even political issues, it is first and foremost economic. Do yourself no favors and “like” this idiot at www.facebook.com/jc.author James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey,” “Fear No Art,” “Trailing Jesus,” “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y.” Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYour email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.