by Brandon Soderberg
My sense of what a “hero” is has changed.
The writing included here is from the past year or so—most of it has previously run in the City Paper as is or in a different form. These mostly reported moments, mostly from Baltimore, are all about people I consider to be heroes. They're all people who've endured pain and people who fight to make other people feel less pain and most likely, they're both.
I. In early 2007 my friend shot himself in the head. “At least it was quick” is the kind of horseshit real dummies like to tell you to make you feel better. But you know what? You don't know that. Maybe he didn't. He could've been there for hours, brain half out of his head, sorta kinda alive on the closet floor of his shitty apartment in Baltimore County. Who knows!
II. “I saw him once before he died, wish it was twice man” —Bun B on UGK's 'One Day'
III. After the cop conversed with his parents (I had to call and tell his mom and dad that I was worried after he didn't answer his phone or his door and his car had lots of ice on it and there was a small pile of Chinese food menus in front of his door and I could hear the DVD menu music for the movie “Thief” looping on his television and he wasn't answering; it all seemed bad) but before they kicked down the door, the cop wanted to make sure we didn't actually know where our friend was. He wanted to verify that we weren't covering for him while he was out partying or something. I told the cop I knew my friend was in there and that I knew he was dead. My friends were still holding out hope and didn't want to hear this so soon. I didn't realize that at the time. I should've. I guess I knew things about him that they didn't and if you ask them at least, didn't do enough for him to stop this from happening.
IV. When I tried to kill myself I did it by driving my car straight into an eighteen-wheeler. I thought this was a kinder way to do it—it would look like an accident and no one who loved me would know the full story. It didn't work: My car was totaled and a few wheels were knocked off that eighteen-wheeler and I wasn't dead.
V. “On October 22nd, 2003, our friend Borf hung himself from a basement pipe in the suburb of the nation's capitol. This was not a solitary act. Over 30,000 people in the U.S. alone fall victim to this conspiratorial violence. It is the third leading killer of young people ages 15-24 and outnumbers homicides three to two. This epidemic cannot be medicated into remission. It is not a problem confined to our family bloodline. Trouble at home is not the only trigger for depression. People like Mayor Anthony Williams and developer John Abdo who maintain the gentrifucking of our neighborhoods, establish 10 o'clock curfew laws targeting youth ultimately deciding D.C.'s fate without the consent of its residents as well as politicians and CEOs around the world—these are the conspirators who would rather see us fight in their wars and work in their sweatshops than see us develop and build supportive communities and relationships.” —From a statement by The Delinquents of the BORF Brigade, 2006
VI. “They drew first blood, not me.”—John Rambo
VII. “This is the most beautiful snowball I ever made and not a single person around to throw it at.”—Nancy
VIII. His funeral was open casket which was absurd. There was a bandage over his eyes because the shotgun blast presumably ripped them out of his head and it would've just looked too fake to try and stick some new fake eyes in there. It looked fake regardless: He had tons of makeup on and his forehead had an extra like, two inches on it because they had to sort of glue the top of his head back on to pass this off as a head and face.
IX. “I'm sorry. You don't know these people. This means nothing to you.”—Neil Young, in the original liner notes to "Tonight's The Night"
X. I believe in time traveling. If you return to somewhere you didn't like or where some terrible shit happened or you just weren't feeling on a like, cosmic level, and you endure it later on, or go there with someone you like or love or who cares about you (or better yet, all three!), it can be like time traveling: You visit and see the place as it was and as it is or as it isn't anymore, and by being there now you can shake off some of the bad stuff and the place can feel new and different. It's like you leapt back in time and fixed it. For a few months I lived at the beach in the winter and I would get drunk and walk my dog on the beach and buy pillz from this one sketchy dude and flirt with a few people over Twitter direct message and think about hanging myself in the garage and it was all so much and like nothing at all. Walking that same beach with that same dog a year or so later felt separate from all that and that was very good. Maybe I should move into Mike's apartment and live there and time travel. I don't think that would work, though. I think that place would kill me, too.
XI. “You can try to suck me dry, but there's nothing left to suck”—Hole, 'Gutless'
XII. I was never allowed to see the bedroom closet where he shot himself. I wish I had seen it. His parents gave us all a moment alone in his apartment one last time but asked that we didn't go in the bedroom, so I didn't because I didn't want to upset them. Out of this final trip I got his desk to, you know, remember him by. I lugged it across three different states and five different apartments and then last year, nine years later, I decided to just leave it outside on the street, for free to whoever wants it, fuck it I didn't need it. I never needed it. I needed to see that closet.
XIII. “Blood was scattered everywhere. The lieutenant was soaked in it to his knees, and he sat now in a crumpled and listless posture, one hand on the floor. A raw smell filled the room.”—Yukio Mishima, “Patriotism”
XIV. For a while after he died I'd have dreams that he was alive again. Like he died but didn't die or came back I guess? Sometimes in the dreams, he'd be all fucked up with a bloody hole in his head but he'd be acting normal and everybody else would be too and the dream would just be me in my head being like, “why is everyone pretending this isn't like this?” In others dreams he'd look perfectly fine but it was still like he had shot himself and now was back somehow. In those dreams, too, everything felt insincere and everybody was ignoring what had happened. I think these dreams were telling me, “look man, he's dead and that's that.”
XV. Sometimes it seems like it's real cool to say you don't feel anything inside, but like, I really don't feel anything inside. My emotional heroes are Michael Corleone and Gangsta Boo.
XVI. It is 1993 and New Order are trying their best to be pop stars proper. Despite being a band forged out of tragedy—the suicide of the frontman of their previous band, Joy Division—who make melancholic dance songs about death and anxiety (“Tonight I should've stayed at home, playing with my pleasure zone” goes a line from 'Perfect Kiss'), they are very popular so they do this kind of pomo hagiography thing called “The New Order Story” to feed the beast and it features a fake quiz show where host Keith Allen lobs some boilerplate questions at them, one of which is “Who's the laziest member” of New Order. They answer, “Ian Curtis” and bassist Peter Hook adds, “I haven't seen him do anything in years.”
XVII. Recently, I drove out to Baltimore County to have dinner with a good friend and you can smell the McCormick spice plant or whatever there real strong at night: a tough whiff of pepper that doesn't quit. I always associate that smell with Mike, who lived near there, so it was slightly too much. I wasn't ready for it. It was like all the memories creeping in through my nostrils and taking over my whole body and brain. I ignored it for the evening and had a nice time but it's days later I can't get that smell out of my nose.
When some community-minded Baltimore Police officers (the few good apples, as I like to call them) got together along with local pastors, M.O.M.S. (Mothers of Murdered Sons/Daughters), and some funeral directors in August of last year and drove the length of Baltimore's North Avenue for the “Stop the Killing” drive, not everybody was feeling it.
“This is pseudo,” Aaron of Sandtown-Winchester shouted at the funeral directors' shiny hearses rolling by.
A few minutes later, waiting at the bus stop, I asked him to elaborate: “It's pseudo. This is a pseudo event. This is total disrespect right here. You're gonna bring a whole thing of hearses around here? This is psychological warfare. You're psychologically trying to interrupt my life. I don't like that. This is pseudo as hell.”
Darlene Cain, whose son Dale Graham was killed by Baltimore Police in 2008, was also part of the drive, and she is a bit more diplomatic than Aaron. She held a sign that said, “We Can End Gun Violence” so she was on-message with the event, but she also sported a series of anti-police brutality buttons which rubbed some in attendance the wrong way—and that was kind of the point.
“I got a couple looks,” she said of the buttons. Mostly though, she's here for unity. She's just “learning to be humble and keep it real.”
Donna Woods stood in Cleveland's Public Square on the second day of the Republican National Convention last summer and talked about a knotty statewide conspiracy in Ohio that kept her husband's murder by a doctor under wraps. At least until very, very famous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones interrupted her and took over the square. Quickly, members of the Industrial Workers of the World—who weren't really listening to Woods either—began screaming, “Nazi scum go home” at Jones. Jones fell or got shoved, who cares. The podium was no longer Woods' even though she signed up for it so she stood back from the chaos and cried.
20 minutes later, she was under a tree for shade, still collecting herself, and gripping her massive handwritten sign telling me how Joe, her husband of almost 52 years, was slapped by a doctor in his office, how he got a concussion and contusions from the slap, and how they eventually killed him.
“My husband worked in paint all his life,” she said. “And it destroyed his lungs.”
Joe's doctor, who she claimed was upset with him for previously switching doctors and then returning, slapped her husband. When the doctor went to slap Joe a second time, she said, Joe dodged it but ended up hitting his head on a cabinet.
“We found out what it was all about later: [The doctor] was a monster, he was always cussing,” she said, noting he was 5'9” and wanted to be 6'2” and suggested the doctor she accused of murder had “a Napoleon complex.” She said the doctor Joe had been going to before and liked a great deal was 6'10”.
Then, she pulled out two framed photos of Joe. In both, Joe was smiling: In one he's got a cigarette rakishly dangling from his mouth; in the other he stands rigid in a nice blue suit.
She believed that the death was covered up, in part because of a large new $100 million dollar-plus hospital being built. She said the county sheriff and county prosecutor wouldn't look into it and intimidated her. She railed against death and this conspiracy and sent around 50 letters to the state over a two years period.
“He wasn't that way when he went in, he just couldn't breathe good,” she said. “I don't have a life anymore.”
Thelonious Monk was 28 years old when he was shot in the chest around 8:45 p.m. on August 19, 2015 and died soon after he arrived at a hospital and I never met him, but I spent parts of 2015 worrying about this dead Baltimorean named after a jazz great. Later in 2015, The Baltimore Sun's Adam Marton posted a touching note on Facebook about Thelonious:
“Thelonious Monk, 28, was one of Baltimore's 344 homicide victims in 2015. Thelonious stole my car about a decade ago and while he was never charged with the crime, case search shows he was arrested dozens of times in his short life and spent time in a juvenile detention center. He fished my keys out of the night drop at Mr. Tire one summer night. It was barely an inconvenience, such is my life. Insurance covered a loaner and Brooke and I went on vacation, as planned. When I got my car back a few weeks later, Thelonious has installed a baby seat and a subwoofer and the car was strewn with job applications. It was and remains one of the most heartbreaking scenes of my life. Our lives crossed, however oddly and briefly, and I can't help but think that Thelonious probably never had a chance. A chance to escape, a chance to succeed. The opportunities I have always enjoyed. I feel like maybe he was trying to use my car to make a break for it. I wish he had made it. Rest in peace, young man, I will never forget you.”
The details Marton mentions are heartbreaking and they complicate the image of a car thief as “bad guy.” A baby seat and job applications evidence somebody trying to fulfill responsibilities and do “right,” while that subwoofer evidences an equally important impulse—to have some fucking fun and ride out to music and to adjust your car to better capture all that bass in the music you love. That Monk stole this car by non-violent means is also worth highlighting.
I don't want to make too much of this Thelonious Monk (there are a few other Thelonious Monks in Maryland, by the way), but it's a weird thing, being named after Monk, one of the most wild and improvisational and unfettered musicians (and I think it should be noted, not a snitch as a famous incident involving the arrest of Bud Powell suggests). It makes so much sense for a troubled, trying-hard guy like this 28-year-old to be named after Thelonious Monk: Jazz, especially Monk's jazz, is so often about trying to find a way to get free in the face of stupid fucking restrictions—especially when, say, Monk covers a standard and makes something new out of something pretty played out. When he improvises, it's the sound of Monk trying his hardest to break out and be somebody and create music that can't be replicated.
After I read Marton's Facebook post, for reasons that are obvious and oblique, I put on my favorite Monk recording: 1964's “It's Monk's Time.” The first track, 'Lulu's Back In Town,' begins with a few minutes of playful, occasionally discordant piano plinking and pounding. Then a little after the three-minute mark, all that gets bumped out of the way for a jaunty shuffle provided by Charlie Rouse's tenor sax, Ben Riley's drumming, and Butch Warren's bass accompanying Monk's piano. It really soars. 'Lulu's Back In Town' could soundtrack Marton's vision of Monk making a heroic break for it with the car—chaotic impulse hammered into something briefly beautiful and worth escaping into.
It'd probably sound pretty great oozing out of a subwoofer as well.
Ryan Gaines' daughter Korryn is dead—shot, no, assassinated some say, by Baltimore County Police after a six-hour standoff in August of last year in which she gripped a shotgun and tried to prevent police from coming in her house to arrest her for an open warrant tied to a traffic violation. She was a freedom fighter and she better be remembered as such, Ryan Gaines told a crowd of 200 or so at a vigil for Gaines at City College, where she graduated in 2010. “If you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything” is something he taught her, he added.
Behind Gaines, balloons spell out “Korryn” and nearby rows of candles also spell out her name, and near that, candles construct a Basquiat-style crown shape. Off to the side, a photo of Harriet Tubman, who infamously wielded a shotgun during her Underground Railroad missions. Standing there, it occurred to me that soon Tubman will be on our $20 bill. Heroes evolve and “heroic acts” in the past were often criminal.
The 49-year-old father of six delivers a game-kicking sermon wherein all of the “Can I get an amen?”s you expect are replaced with the more colloquial “you feel me?”: Children in Flint and Baltimore and damn near everywhere drink “glasses of lead” and Korryn's head like his other kids' heads was full of lead and he doesn't think that's a coincidence or an accident; the police continue “to demonize” his daughter; milk is not even milk here in America, but pus and other shit stuck in there to contaminate and control minds; and he discusses the conveniently bungled history that preaches a white Jesus, just one of many things that white people have retrofitted.
Funny how they won't take credit for lead poisoning whole communities and the so-called “black-on-black” crime that he says they enable through allowing tragedies like lead poisoning to take hold: “[White people] take credit for everything else, why won't they take credit for teaching us to kill each other?”
The vigil is as much a corrective as a remembrance. The family feels forced to bypass the pleasantries of “proper” tribute and grief to jump right to righteous anger—the first steps toward establishing a necessary counter-narrative to police and media portrayals of Korryn.
Seven-year-old Kester Browne and his mom, 31-year-old Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne, were both shot in the head in their West Baltimore home in May 2015.
“This makes no sense,” Reverend Ronald C. Williams told the 200 or so people at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church attending their funeral. His sermon circled around how “crazy” the world is, its madness, and how without the Lord, we'd really all be “stark-raving mad,” including the reverend himself, he was not too afraid to admit. Around 30 people, the overflow, watched the service on a TV screen in the church's basement, which didn't mitigate their emotions upon viewing open caskets of a mother and her son dead, next to each other.
Rev. Williams quoted from Ecclesiastes, an extended dose of real talk from the Old Testament: “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.”
There was a citywide compulsion to turn Kester Browne into a symbol of how out of control violence in Baltimore was and how cruel and cowardly criminals are, and those things are probably true. This funeral then turns into the tipping point for May, a deadly month right after the uprising, due to an alleged police slowdown, opportunistic criminals, a much-ballyhooed myth that there are “enough narcotics on the streets of Baltimore to keep it high for a year,” and a mayor who seems disinterested in taking this violence seriously. You get the sense that the people in charge think it'll sort itself out, so second-graders are just part of the collateral. Maybe they hadn't thought that part through.
Before the service, in front of the church, life went on around grieving and occasionally wailing family and friends. It was a regular Saturday morning on South Loudon Avenue. A few men sat on their porches and talked, another man blathered on his cell phone. Residents walked, waddled, and strutted down the street, depending on their 9:30 a.m. mood. Some were curious and glanced over, others averted their eyes out of respect or possibly because it was too much to handle.
“It doesn't come into reality yet . . .” I overheard a man outside the church say, confiding in his friends, stopping and stumbling on every word. A little Incredible Hulk toy sat in the grass, probably dropped by one of the many children in attendance. Somehow that felt like too much. Let's hope the kid who dropped that toy got it back. And let's hope everyone there for the Browne funeral found something they needed to get through this.
But the Browne funeral is not the end of anything. The family is burdened with grief and bills for burying two family members. According to his obituary read at the funeral, Kester had been handpicked to go to China this summer. He was “fluent in Mandarin,” school founder Madame Kona-Facia Nepay told me. She knew Kester. She's not someone who read about him in the papers and projected. We're always finding ways to value certain bodies over other bodies—maybe just because there's only so much care we can give, so we pick and choose which dead people to project things onto. There is a sense that Kester was somehow very special, which he was—he seemed primed to become a diplomat or something—but we're all special once we get to know each other.
Baltimore International Academy Principal John Enkiri spoke at the funeral. He mentioned playfully pulling on Kester's braids and slapping him high-five in the morning—his office was near Kester's classroom. It's an image that's much more vivid because there right in front of us, was Kester's body, embalmed, his braids tight but not too tight. As the church's choir sang, Jennifer-Jeffrey Browne's brother, Kevin Wilder, a deacon at Pleasant Grove, rocked and grooved to the music, which was doing what music does—taking you out of things temporarily and putting you in another place. He was feeling it. It seemed like all he had in that moment. His leg shook the whole time.
Kevin Wilder, by the way, prevented rioters from busting windows at Fulton Baptist Church near North and Penn on that infamous Monday night in April 2015. He saw the windows about to get busted and convinced those with bricks-in-hand to move on. The Fulton Baptist Church donated money to the Browne's funeral as a result. So did Kester's school—$500, via the GoFundMe Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne's sister created.
Funerals are expensive, Wilder told me the day before the funeral. Funerals cost even more when it's “a double situation,” he added, trying to find some way to delicately acknowledge the situation. “We never think we need insurance on young people.”
Wilder said it costs around $7,000 each to do “a proper burial.” As a deacon at Pleasant Grove, he said, he's involved in four or five funerals each month, so his “mind went to planning the funeral” almost immediately. He muttered something about not wanting papier-mâché caskets.
“Baltimore Police have been a big help,” Wilder said. They “directed [the family] to different funds” specifically for victims of crime. Ideally, the fund will reimburse the family for elements of the funeral in six to eight weeks. The family will see if it all works out. For now, “you got to give these people a check.”
At one point during the service, Rev. Williams curiously quoted filmmaker Jane Campion, who had lost her first child after just 12 days. Rev. Williams was subtly political and existentially Christian. All of us will, at one point, no matter how smart we are, be confronted with something we don't understand and can't understand. This is one of those points. For this murder and all of these murders, you can't blame the police, you can't blame “those they call thugs,” you've just got to pray, he said.
At a rally for a mentally ill man who was shot by police, a baby died. Her name was Assata and she was one month old and toward the end of the gathering, blood came out of her nose and she stopped breathing.
Earlier in the protest, Assata's mom was walking around, gently asking people to sign up for a mailing list, just to keep them in contact with future actions. I signed up and by the time I was done filling out the form, I had to find her, she was kindly tending to her newborn and her six-year-old. She was also among the speakers who stood in front of the group or 20 or so: She told the crowd she named her baby Assata. As people applauded, she expressed concern for the most vulnerable, such as the homeless and mentally ill and said that she had been homeless for a time.
“We're people in the community, we're mothers, we're daughters, we're activists, we're educators and you know the fact that they shot this man and then they're not even going to identify him, you know it lets us know what the police is all about,” she told the crowd. “They're about big business, they're about money. They're not about people. They're all for profit and that's why if we really want to make change we've got to come together. We've got to put out differences aside, no matter our class, no matter our race.” She paused. “And I really came out here with my two daughters, my newborn Assata, named after Assata Shakur and we're out here because this is something we're willing to fight for, willing to fight for the homeless and not just take pictures or come out for the holidays, this is something I'm fully invested in because I am a mother and I have two daughters that's looking up to me. No matter how flawed I am, I'm still a human being and you know, we all deserve housing, we all deserve jobs, we all deserve education and the best of it no matter who we are.”
Not long after, right before everybody was about to chant the Assata Shakur Freedom Chant (“It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win...”) to end the evening, the mom took her baby Assata into a pizza place nearby to feed her and suddenly something was not right. The baby was not breathing.
Major Rich Gibson, who was nearby, patrolling, half-monitoring the small protest rushed in and gave Assata CPR. He tried to save Assata. He had blood from her nose in his mouth and all over his clothes. EMTs and a few police officers arrived soon after to help. Most of us watched the scene through the glass window of the pizza spot; we saw all the struggle and terror without sound, just panic in a vacuum and on display.
The baby was taken to the hospital. Concern and confusion hung over the crowd. Gibson shaken up, eyes red and puffy, bought everybody there pizza for some reason—a tiny kind gesture, an offering, something, anything.
A half-hour or so later, the police sent out an email that announced Assata was dead.
In East Cleveland, far from the Republican National Convention unfolding in a sanitized and militarized downtown, El Hajj Amir Khalid A. Samad holds a summer long Peace Camp for the empowered, conscious, and aware. The class consists of 20 or so between the ages of six and 16. Each class begins with the students saying “good morning” in a different language until they've run out of languages. He has kindly let me sit in. Today's lesson is on “Ujamaa,” which Samad translates to the class as, “cooperative economics.”
Violence is bad for the community and it's bad for business, which are one in the same if we're aiming for some kind of ideal that don't need nobody from the outside, which is in part what Khalid Samad is imparting to these kids. That means among other things that not reporting or dealing with those who are doing wrong in the community shouldn't be off-limits. It shouldn't be considered “snitching.” It's “stupid,” Samad says, adding some lift in his voice. “It's suicidal,” he adds—and you're a “soft sucker” if you do it.
He teaches the kids about what “snitching” is versus what it has been turned into. Snitching is when you do dirt with somebody else and then you tell on them, one student explains. Samad says he is correct.
The larger lesson it would seem, is that there is no future in this kind of fronting. He notes when he sees a young man, looking rough with that “dead look” in their eyes, he smiles. “I smile because they want you give that dead look back,” he says. “That don't mean I don't do what I gotta do,” he adds, sticking some tough in his voice, “I'm already prepared, so I can smile.”
Then the class stands up and Samad begins a clap and dance session with each kid introducing themselves and declaring that they are “empowered, conscious, and aware.”
After his lesson, Samad takes a break as the students inside are playing music. The conversation turns to Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was shot by police on Nov. 22, 2014 within seconds of them pulling up, responding to a 911 call that there was a black male with a gun in the park.
“You saw that nonsense, man,” Samad says to me and sighs out in front of the Peace in the Hood community center, the heat pounding down around 11 a.m. “Shooting like a cowboy...”
Samad, who worked in law enforcement for nearly 20 years, went on to say that if you actually go to the location of the shooting you can spot many “tactical advantages” the officers could have taken to engage Rice before firing, including a small hill on one side of the gazebo that has a long road behind it. He said they easily could have approached Rice from that way, employed the hill as protection, and asked to see his hands. But Officer Loehmann didn't do anything like that, he just fired his gun into a 12-year-old boy.
At the corner of Harford Road and Moravia Road, just three hours after beloved West Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota was shot and killed in his car, there was little evidence that anything happened. Some yellow police tape was still up, someone had swept broken glass into an orderly pile near the curb, but that's about it. I noticed a white dude who looked a bit like a cop standing nearby, avoiding eye contact. People like me wandered by and stopped in front of the Harford Road Liquors where Scoota's car ended up after the shooting and a couple of drivers slowed down to look at the place.
Over the next hour or so, a few cars rolled down Harford Road blasting Scoota's music: drug-dealing hit 'Bird Flu' and 'Norma Jean's,' a moaning ode to the Baltimore strip club of the same name. Then again, hearing 'Bird Flu' and 'Norma Jean's' hollering out from cars is common on any given night in Baltimore. Scoota was probably the city's most celebrated rapper and its most promising in terms of transitioning into national success.
But a little before 7 p.m. on June 25, 2016, according to the police, the shooter, who wore a white bandanna, stepped in front of Scoota's car and fired, hitting Scoota, who was driving at the time. Scoota, who was 23, died at the hospital not long after the shooting. He had just left the Touch the People, Pray For Peace in These Streets charity basketball game at Morgan State University, organized by activist Stokey Cannady, Shoe City, and others.
We go one way or the other way with the dead: We rip them apart or we build the dead up into something they weren't and never even said they were. In Baltimore, victims of gun violence, especially the young black men who make up the majority of the victims, are usually criminalized and blamed for their own death. For the most part, Scoota has avoided this and instead suffers another troubling indignity: He has been oversimplified and cleaned-up.
See, Lor Scoota is best known for and will now forever be known for 'Bird Flu,' his quite funny, incredibly catchy, and unrelentingly grim 2014 song about hustling. Over a springy, steely beat, Scoota sneezes (“ooh, achoo!”), and declares he's “got the bird flu” (a bird is a kilo). Then the twisting, maddening hook: “We selling scramble, coke, and smack/ Keep them junkies coming back.” Like most Scoota songs, it's darkly comedic, puckishly triumphant, and pretty sad, oozing a kind of lived-in realism. Moreover, 'Bird Flu' elides the simple platitudes of dope-dealing where details are glossed over and pain ignored. He acknowledges that stuff—like what it means to sell to an addict—and then he chuckles about it. “Let the fiend taste the coke, he said he couldn't feel his jaw,” Scoota raps at one point. “I called the plug and told him 'Thumbs up, good job.'”
The song came equipped with the Bird Flu dance—an angular, instructional shake that involves rising up and down, bending your elbows, sticking your ass out, turning your wrists in a cooking motion, all in sync with the eerie, lithe production. All of Baltimore does the Bird Flu dance.
The day after Scoota's death, over at Penn-North, activists, artists, rappers, and West Baltimore community members gathered for a Unity Rally against street violence to pay tribute to Scoota. Organized in part by Darrell Carter, who raps as 3D, and fellow rapper Tyree Colion, activists including PFK Boom, Shorty Davis, Abdul Salaam, and members of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle showed up.
The group organized a quick “photo op” (their words) in which the group briefly shut down traffic for about five minutes and posed for a picture embodying unity.
“We're gonna be the blueprint for what we want to be,” said PFK Boom before the group entered the street. And he reflected on his own past. “A lot of people are hurting. I've hurt people. Physically, mentally, spiritually,” he confessed.
Once the group entered the street and spread out, they raised their fists and shouted, “We all we got, we all we need.”
Charlie Parker was from the landlocked state of Kansas and he spent some of his worst years in sunny California (including a six-month stay in a mental institution), but Pontella Mason's 2008 mural “Bebop: Charlie Parker and Bettie Carter,” painted on one of the pylons under I-83 near the Farmers Market in Baltimore, places Parker near the beach.
He isn't on the beach mind you, he's in the water, in a suit, just his head and shoulders and some of his saxophone popping out of the water, and he's oversized—like some Ray Harryhausen creature who has come to the surface for some air. His sad or maybe just doped-up eyes stare forward—this is how Parker played the saxophone, focused to the point of being zoned-out; hardly the wailing sax man portrayed in Clint Eastwood's insincere movie “Bird.” And his face here is uncannily indifferent, a fitting look for a confident musical genius, self-absorbed prick, and somebody often full of H, which both fills you with apathy and makes you feel totally invincible.
Parker played past his audience when he performed, but his music was inviting, exploratory, and indefatigable. As Alfred Appel Jr. points out in his 2002 book “Jazz Modernism,” Parker's 'Ko-Ko' is set to a 300 beats-per-minute tempo—for some contrast, Baltimore club, often considered dance music at a breakneck pace, humps along at 130-140 BPM. Listen to Parker on 'Winter Wonderland,' in which he smashes white Christian holiday schlock into pieces with the assistance of his saxophone and Modernist mind and then rearranges the pieces—the song you've heard a hundred times is there but not like you've ever heard it before; and once you've done that, move onto 'Just Friends' from “Charlie Parker With Strings”—it is the best thing ever recorded, if you ask me.
Because of his outsider status as a black genius contrarian and because of his love of opiates, Parker made music that evidences excitement right as it hits a ceiling and jubilantly, pointlessly acts out because it's got nowhere else to go and nothing else it can do. He was always reaching his limit. Parker understood ecstasy the way an addict does—as something intensely felt but fleeting and ultimately, the start of the next clawing search for feeling good.
Which brings us back to Mason's portrait of unexcited Parker on that pylon, staring out, expressionless, saying “help me” or “I don't give a shit” or “come at me, bro” depending on the mood you're in when you look at it. Near Parker's stoneface, Mason scrawled “Bird Lives!,” reflective of a dogged fan's impulse to deny Parker's end by catering to nostalgic nonsense about legacy and influence (I prefer the tragically optimistic “Bird Is Free,” the name of a postmortem 1961 live release). No matter that Parker more often wore flannel or dress shirts and suspenders, and that his suits, when he wore them, were often rumpled and dirty, Mason's Parker rocks a purple and pink suit and the beach scene has a kind of wall-of-the-La-Tolteca-in-your-hometown-quality to it. It is naive, but that's just fine and even kind of welcome because there's still Parker's presence and all the pain it drags with it.
Or maybe Parker's supposed to be drowning in “Bebop: Charlie Parker and Bettie Carter.” His saxophone is mostly underwater, so no sound you'd probably want to hear could come out of it, and Parker—a lifelong addict, notoriously selfish guy, and something of a savant, who Miles Davis describes in his noxious autobiography as once getting his dick sucked as he ate chicken in a cab—lived most of his life as if he were moments from being pulled under for good. Even a colorful suit and some white sand and palm trees and “Bird Lives!” can't counter that.
Last year, Bird got to briefly live again—or maybe his bones were just picked once more, you decide—when Verve released “Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes,” a two-CD, 69-track compilation of mostly previously unheard Parker performances, false-starts (or as we'd call them anywhere other than jazz, “fuck ups”), and alternate takes. These compelling partial scraps recorded between 1949-1952 find Parker jumping all around with a Latin jazz orchestra, gassing up a stodgy string ensemble, twisting big band into abecedarian bop, and musically conversing with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. These are recordings that for the most part didn't work so they have a specific sort of energy—mostly moments where Parker takes his horn too far out there. It is, if you really think about it, a compilation of the times Parker fell down. After he totally beefs it on the intro to 'Bloomdido,' he says, “Excuse me, I misunderstood it myself, okay, do it again.”
Sharing the pylon with Parker and some of the beach kitsch background is the portrait of exuberant improvisational vocalist Bettie Carter. Mason paints Carter as all-mouth, intensely shut eyes, and catharsis. Carter wails while Parker stares. Together, they illustrate jazz, and through that two go-to responses to a world which offers nothing but limitations: Grow stoic or scream out.
A group of dirt bikers gathered in the parking lot of the Gulf station on Gwynns Falls Parkway near Mondawmin Mall, while Foxtrot, the Baltimore Police Department's helicopter, hovers nearby and police linger in the median—a typical fall Sunday in Baltimore in 2015.
“The bird . . . ,” [REDACTED] muttered. “Bitch ain't got enough gas to stay up there all day.”
He is in his early 30s and he's been riding since he was a teen. His four sons, all middle school aged, also ride. He was shot out of a cannon on that day. He had plans to ride. Moments earlier, the police stopped a cluster of youths on bicycles who had gathered to watch a group of dirt bikers traverse a large hill next to Gwynns Falls Elementary School.
“What's the problem with us riding our bikes? We ain't hitting no cars. For what? What's the reason?,” he said. “They passed the law that they weren't supposed to chase us. Three of my homeboys been in the hospital with comas and all that from the fuckin' police chasing them. Why y'all fuckin' with us though? Like, for what?”
Like the other dirt bikers gathered there that day, he won't give me his name because since summer of 2015, the Baltimore Police have been cracking down on dirt bikes, leaving the dirt-bike community paranoid and embattled.
He kept going: “We ain't out here shooting each other, everybody rides bikes and gets along. We ain't out here beefing.”
If it's a safety issue, well that should be on the dirt bikers anyway.
“Somebody might get hurt, but that's their fault,” [REDACTED] said, shrugging. For the dirt bikers, riding and meeting creates a sense of community and right now that close-knit, though geographically sprawling community is being fractured. Their recreational defiance makes them local heroes to teens—seemingly impervious dudes who stunt and defy the cops and affront the city's segregated set-up.
“I done fell off bikes with niggas. Niggas, they're the ones that help me out. [They] took my bike while I'm going in the ambulance,” [REDACTED] explained. “People from over east [did that]—I'm from West Baltimore. They took my bike, people that I didn't even know and got my bike back when I got out the hospital because they knew.”
He has been hurt plenty: “I done had 72 stitches. My ass—you see right here?” he asks, pointing to his thigh. “Skin they took off my ass went right here. My big toe don't move or nothing.”
At 15, he fell of his bike and when he hit the pavement, his head dragged, pulling his braids out of his head. “Scalped me,” he said. “But guess what? I still let all my kids ride dirt bikes. All my kids got dirt bikes. Every last one of them. And I still ride. Why y'all fucking with us? Why we can't ride bikes?”
Then [REDACTED] took a breath and walked over to a snowball scene and bought a snowball for a teenaged rider in a tie-dye shirt and socks with weed leaves on them.
“We ain't doing nothing out here but wasting gas,” he said. Then he twisted his hands like he was revving up his dirt bike and smiled.
Duane “Shorty” Davis has got his hands in a whole lot of shit.
Pretty much everybody who has ever been to a protest in Baltimore knows Shorty: He's the one who often delivers decorated toilets to officials to suggest the government is full of shit (“I use the toilet because the toilet is like, a common denominator,” he told me at the Creative Alliance a couple years ago. “It doesn't care if you're black, white, straight, or gay, it takes your shit every day.”) and in many ways, he's the backbone of the local protest movement—most activists learned how to protest from Shorty.
But when he isn't marching, demonstrating, training others on the ins and outs of organizing, working with the homeless, mocking and sometimes interrupting media outlets not up to his standards, or creating funny protest art, Shorty's grilling.
He began when he was eight years old, he told me one day in Upton as he was preparing hamburgers and hot dogs for last year's National Night Out. Shorty was the ninth of 10 kids, so cooking was a good skill to pick up, he added.
“But you know when I really got started,” he asked me with a smile. “You know Jesus with the fishes and loaves? That was my first day on the job, I've been cooking ever since.” He smiled big: “I showed [Jesus] how to cut shit and make it stretch, know what I'm saying? I was there. Last Supper? I was there. They ain't never say shit about the cook but they always talk about the meal.”
Before Shorty moved to Baltimore in 1991, he lived in Zion, Illinois, where cooking was one of many hustles. “When I used to sell dope I did this on the side,” he said as he dropped another bag of burgers onto the grill. He'd sell food along with shots of Hennessy and Crown Royal for two bucks back in Zion.
From 1997-2007, he ran Shorty's Pit Beef & Ribs, a well-regarded BBQ stand (slogan: Shorty's Meats Taste Good In Your Mouth) which moved around but began at Greenspring Station.
Over the past year or so, he has resurrected his stand as a massive portable grill called Shorty's Bootleg BBQ (“so good it's illegal”), which he takes to events around town and also frequently maintains in Brooklyn on Hanover Street. And every weekend downtown he feeds the homeless, something he's been doing most weekends since he arrived in Baltimore.
Just a few days before National Night Out, Shorty was in front of the Sam's Club in Randallstown selling food to passersby to raise money for the Special Olympics. He also sometimes posts up on the side of Route 40 and elsewhere without a permit—yet another subtle form of civil disobedience and why this new endeavor is dubbed “Bootleg BBQ.” At National Night Out, as kids and adults danced, browsed piles of free books (provided by Shorty), and devoured hamburgers, Shorty's attention was on then-Democratic candidate for mayor Catherine Pugh, who had just arrived.
“Cathy! Cathy!” he yelled. “Ms. Pugh!” She came over and said hi to Shorty. They know each other well. Earlier in the year, Pugh presented Shorty with the Verizon Community Innovator Award.
By now, the batch of burgers Shorty had been flipping were good to go.
“HOT! HOT! HOT!” he shouted as he rushed a tray of burgers over to the line of people waiting for them. Then, he spun around and announced, “Now, let's cut them dogs.”
A few dozen Baltimoreans hovered in line in front of T&M All In One store on Monument Street, here on the day before Thanksgiving 2016 for the 300 Gangstas Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway. Those who've been waiting the longest or are in the most need get frozen turkeys and chickens; everybody else gets something: boxes of Stove Top stuffing, other canned and boxed foods, shave kits, clothing. The line was getting loose and disorganized.
“I need a line,” PFK Boom, the co-founder of 300 Gangstas, said. “We're not gonna let you go hungry but we need a line.”
300 Gangstas is “a coalition”—kind of like a grassroots collective mixed with some of the tenets gleaned from the growth and development wing of gang culture, mixed with the community-first m.o. of the Black Panthers—intent on introducing ways for communities to police themselves. PFK describes it as “a movement of self-accountability.”
“By us having self-accountability it will bring us to have accountability to our community,” he said. “By calling for self-accountability—physically, mentally, spiritually—you get what have here today, people getting turkeys.”
PFK, along with Big Wolf, a Blood, who is no longer involved in the life, conceived of 300 Gangstas following the Baltimore Uprising. The loose gang unification that happened during the uprising and, in general, the communal spirit of Baltimore then was something to keep going: “That was something real beautiful. But I don't want an uprising to bring out that beautiful unity, I don't want that to have to happen again.”
It is a rough-around-the-edges utopian conceit, really, a forceful, scrappy, and radical way to make change and also a culture-jam. PFK wants to redefine the word “gangstas,” and stresses again that 300 Gangstas is positive and inclusive: “Gangsta is a narrative that Amurdicah feels as though we fit into. We don't want the youth to be gangstas. We don't want them to have to cross over to that life.”
Minister Carlos Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, there in support of the turkey giveaway and to help, interjected professorially: “And it's interesting that we get a lot of pushback for the terminology 'gangsta' when America glorifies her gangstas. You know, Joseph Kennedy was a bootlegger, he was a gangster. But he gangster-ed in a manner to make his family great. Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, they make movies and biographies about them. But the moment that moniker is given to us and we flip it around to do service to our people, it takes on a negative scenario. This country was founded on bloodshed and violence. The national anthem says it. Our people built this nation. Blood, sweat, and tears. I just wanted to add that in because a lot of times we get that pushback, 'Oh, 300 Gangstas out here, how can it be that they giving out food?' This is a coalition of people helping people. We live here every day.”
“We ain't all in the same, we all agree to disagree but we do this together—we're black and we need to save our people,” PFK said. “Whatever I got to do to save my people, 300 Gangstas is in.”
All afternoon, members and friends of 300 Gangstas moved in and out of T&M All In One, handing out food and other supplies: “If you need plastic bags for your stuff, they're over here, just yell all right?”; “Make sure the stray paper plates and water bottles get into the trash cans too, you feel me?”
“Oh we all out?” T, who owns T&M All In One, said shocked, whipping his head from inside the store where there aren't any turkeys left to the still-sizable crowd in front. Someone runs out and they promise the group more turkeys are on the way.
There was a burst of chaos at one point when Big Wolf let a stack of one dollar bills fly into the air. It sent everybody—giddy kids, creaky grandmothers—to their knees to scoop up the bills.
A number of guests moved through and made appearances and helped out. Along with Minister Muhammed, there was gang interventionist Ted Sutton, Shorty Davis who cooked hot dogs, and Abdul Salaam of KEYS Development.
PFK, Wolf, Salaam and others posed for defiant, triumphant pictures, fists up or balled tight and straight out and, in the case of Wolf, his finger twisted into the hand sign for “Bloods.”
Salaam, invigorated, provided a quick pep talk.
“You thought it was a mess out here,” he said, referring to how Baltimore is portrayed. “But it's not!”
As the fire department condemned and boarded up the Bell Foundry, a noted art space in Station North, and evicted all of its residents, Qué said something I'd heard him say some variation of plenty of times before: “This place saved my life—literally.”
At 15, Qué's parents moved from Northeast Baltimore to Harford County, a profoundly alienating life adjustment.
“I moved to one of the most racist communities. I hardly had friends in Harford County. The friends I did have, I would have to find different ways to talk to them and I had horrible experiences—isolation, depression. The first year I attended North Harford High School—they have this thing called Tractor Day where people show off their tractors—horrible,” he said to me a few days after the eviction. “But I can say Harford County was like the beginning stages that made me question everything. Racism still existed there especially, fuckin' Klan meetings there.”
He eventually ended up at Fallston High School, where I also went, though years before (my dead friend Mike also went there). A grim and alienating place that similarly improved my bullshit detector, too. A few kids in my class proudly went to Klan meetings. My sister knew Qué—they were in the same grade. She said he was “super smart.” He burned her a bunch of Velvet Underground CDs, she recalled.
Qué went to Towson University and studied film and English and spent much of his free time in Baltimore, especially once he graduated in 2014, and especially at the Bell Foundry. He says then he was like a “black socialite,” showing up to events, soaking it in.
In April 2016, Qué was staring down homelessness and somebody invited him to the Bell Foundry. Over the years he attended “mostly punk and metal shows” at the Bell Foundry, which meant he was one of the few black attendees among mostly white people and embraced the space hesitantly.
“Even though I do identify as punk I still could feel like an outsider because my presence and any of my friends of color who came around made white people uncomfortable,” Qué said. “Even when I moved into Bell Foundry I still kind of felt that, the white people who had studio spaces I didn't feel comfortable talking to because I felt like they felt like I didn't belong there—but things started to change when I began to assert more dominance in the space.”
Along with his friend Jengis, he recorded an album, "White Noise Boys" under the name Melanin Free. It's a record fueled by spite—like most noise records, I imagine—and captures some of the frustration he felt at the Bell and in the white arts scene of Baltimore. A standout is 'White Excellence,' which begins with a sample of Birdman and then bounds between splatters and squirts of static and an ornate house beats and features some sticky, discordant guitar solo-ing of the Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Hazel, and Prince sort.
Qué made the space more actively inclusive and really a model for a forward-thinking DIY community. In September, Qué took over booking more shows in the Bell Foundry's basement venue, which he referred to on fliers and social media as You Know T.F. Where: “I decided I was gonna start booking shows for the venue and for reasons that people know about I didn't put the title of the place online—so I nicknamed the space 'You Know T.F. Where,' for 'you know the fuck where'—and I had this policy that we do not turn away people due to lack of funds because you know, we're all broke and depressed. I was trying to create a safer space. I wasn't going to tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and harassment, otherwise that would lead to permanent expulsion from the space. A rule I have enforced three times.”
Weekday shows were intimate while weekend shows rivaled and often topped the energy at more “legit” venues. It was also a place where well, black artists could play for black attendees with less interference—there have been ongoing conversations in the city about venues having more aggressive security when black musicians perform or DJ and sometimes, the difficulty of even being booked if you're black. Qué scraped out a solution to that at the Bell.
“But all of that got taken away,” Qué said.
In a kind of triumphant sing-song squawk, “BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!,” floated through Baltimore's McKeldin Square one night in July 2016 where one hundred-plus protestors had gathered with the help of the People's Power Assembly to speak and march in solidarity with the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both killed by police. Shouting and bounding through the crowd was Melvin, 18 years old. Wearing a bright yellow polo T-shirt and a chip on his shoulder, you couldn't miss him.
Melvin spoke to the crowd, a few meaty scuffs on his cheek. He said he was beaten up by the police just a few days earlier.
“I ain't mad, I'm happy,” he said. “This is making me stronger.”
The group applauded. Melvin went on.
“They killing us, they see a thug when they look at me,” he said.
Melvin was at many of the protests in April 2015 but seemed to take on a more prominent role in the fall when trials for the six officers charged with Freddie Gray's death began. He was out the first day of the trial of Officer William Porter and spoke angrily and eloquently about how the police treat people like him. That evening, he screamed Lil Boosie lines (“Without a badge you a bitch and a half”) at cops during a march. On the day that the Porter trial was declared a mistrial, a Maryland Sheriff Deputy approached Melvin, who had been mouthing off into a bullhorn, and slammed him violently against a glass window.
On this July day, Melvin seemed reinvigorated and not worried about his violent arrest last year.
“They sent a letter to my mother apologizing,” he said. That's enough of a win for him.
The march for Sterling and Castile got going and Melvin moved to the front, fist up, flapping a sign around and marching. Parked on the side of President Street is a police van and Melvin stood by the driver side of the van and put his fist up. The cop, white, a little pudgy—in short, straight out of a central casting if you wanted to highlight a white, unsympathetic cop—silently observed, a twist on his face that is probably nervousness but read as contempt.
When the protest stopped in front of police headquarters for some more speeches, Melvin stalked the back of the crowd and talked at police. He chanted “KKK” at the them and told them, “get the fuck away from my communities.” Not long after, an older gentleman in a brown suit who would not give me his name and only said he was a “Minister of Christ” approached Melvin and another young protestor.
He suggested the two of them locate a mentor. He dialed his phone and called Ted Sutton, a Baltimore-based speaker and former gang member who has been heavily involved in gang intervention and has provided training for youth and even advised the police. The Minister of Christ affirmed Melvin of Sutton's past—back in the day, he was “Crazy Ted”—and explained that Sutton had an “authentic” way of engaging with the people. Melvin got on the phone with Ted and the conversation bounced from frustration (“They keep looking at me”) to defiance (“I'm a king”) to anger, “they look at me like I thug.”
Melvin left the chat invigorated, but after a series of unnecessary arrests toward the end of the protest, Melvin pushed to the front of the group and was once again livid.
“White Supremacy, the Klan,” he yelled. “Look me in the eyes,” he ordered the police. “I'm a die for my respect,” he said. His friends pulled him back so he wasn't snatched up by cops.
Melvin has a Tupac Shakur-like quality: His charisma makes insurgent-minded people gravitate toward him and makes people in power viscerally dislike him. Melvin raps, too, as Lor Melly. My favorite song of his is 'Ain't Never Had Shit.' His verse begins: “Tired of seeing my mother crying, tired of seeing my mother trying/ Best believe I'm a get rich, I'm a get rich or I'm a die trying/ Remember days there wasn't nothing to eat/ TV dinner yeah my daddy was cheap/ Going to school, dirty shoes on my feet, laughing at me man, those bitches ain't speak/ Shit made me stronger, shit made me wiser...”
The protest calmed down. Melvin calmed down, too.
“I got a little too passionate,” he told me. “I'm gonna go get some water.”