When the editors of City Paper told me that my column should be about what’s happening in Baltimore, about Freddie Gray, about the protests, I wondered how they could imagine I could write about anything else. I’ve been writing about what I’ve been seeing over at my personal blog because I’m a writer, and the only way I know to make sense of what I see, feel, think is to write.
And I’m not the only one, but I’m increasingly feeling a need to shut the fuck up. There’s already been so much written about what’s happening in Baltimore, and new blogs, editorials, articles, tweets, interviews are popping up faster than we can share them. There’s a compulsion to explain, to make sense of what we’re seeing and experiencing, and largely we’re doing that through a few tropes that repeat over and over again. Here are a few of them. There’s the riot-as-burning-down-your-own-neighborhood story, folks wringing their hands over the loss of the CVS, the family-owned hardware store down the block, the cellphone store and the shoe store and the corner store. How can “they” do this (it’s always the Other who does this), we cry, even if we’ve not cried before at what has been looted over decades and decades.
On the other side, there’s the rioting-is-the-language-of-the-unheard, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. This one has a range of interpretations. Some argue that though the destruction of the riot is troublesome, it’s understandable. Push a community far enough into a corner, and they’ll come out fighting—the riot is a cry against the oppressor. Others applaud the riot, and you can feel a palpable desire for this to be the first stage of an armed revolution against—capitalism? Racism? It never seems to be against patriarchy, but that’s another column. This celebration seems easiest had from a distance; armed revolution is one of those things that I suspect is a lot more fun from an armchair in Anytown, U.S.A. than it is from a stoop in West Baltimore.
And then there’s the round of well-earned chiding, the reminders not to forget the context for the uprising (see what I did there, that switch from riot to uprising? I could write another column just about that). Here comes the rush of pieces detailing the historical roots of disinvestment from West Baltimore, the ways urban renewal—or “negro removal,” as James Baldwin would have it—produced the wealth of the Inner Harbor via appropriation from the very people and neighborhoods it now blames for all the city’s ills. You steal from the poor to give to the rich, and here are the chickens, coming home to roost. This is capitalism working like it’s supposed to, and if we don’t hang on to the critical analysis in this moment, it’ll go right back to that work as soon as the shut down stops shutting things down.
There are also the conflicting takes on the militarization of Baltimore. There are those voices crying out for more National Guard sooner, more police more places. And it isn’t just the cop-loving flag wavers making this call—many have decried the lack of police protection in the very neighborhoods whose over-policing some blame for the death of Freddie Gray and the mass incarceration of black men from West Baltimore for allowing them to burn. Why are all the Humvees in the bike lane around the Inner Harbor and ringing Harbor East when people are being shot over on Monroe? Others want the military out of the city, NOW. Know what incites a riot? Riot gear. It’s called interpellation—you hail me as a rioter, and I become one. Still others are there to remind us that the National Guard will leave, but it will leave behind a police state that we’ve become disturbingly comfortable having, persistent in the idea that it’ll keep us safe, all evidence to the contrary.
We’re a few days out from Monday’s events, so we’re deep in the waters of the meta-analysis, too. So many pixels have already been spilled on questions of media representation (as if there were but one media—again, another story). Why does the news come when the CVS is blazing, but not for the slow burn of the city, set afire by the white-supremacist capitalist class? Why does the camera capture people taking stuff out of stores but not this sweet little girl with her tiny broom sweeping up North Avenue? Why does the media amplify the same old voices, refusing to hear from the people most directly affected by what’s happening? Is the media just here to stoke the fires in hopes for a better story? How else do you explain the crowd made up mostly of the media and the police at curfew at Penn and North?
So much writing, so many trying to make sense of what is happening even as the sense-making is, in many ways, what is happening, and so few frames being slap-dashed on, recycled from the last cycle of this. I’m trying to think of what I might write about in this column, but it feels like so much has been written already, so many takes have been taken, so many of us are hustling to have our words be the ones you read, the ones that do the sense-making for all of us, that perhaps what I should do is just shut up for a minute, be patient, get outside, do some listening and talking with people live and in person, and learn to tolerate the discomfort that comes with not knowing what’s happening right now and not having much to say about it just yet.