“I’ve never been on this side of North Avenue before.” –Penny Pingleton, from John Waters’ Hairspray
As I walked along North Avenue in Baltimore yesterday, I became painfully aware of the truth behind this statement. The reality is that Baltimore in 2015 isn’t much different than the Baltimore of the fiction 1960s. On one side of North Avenue, there is a cul-de-sac behind high, wrought iron fences, blossoming trees, lush green lawns, ample parking, and back porches with fine looking barbecue grills. Not more than thirty steps away, on the other side of North Avenue, stands a brutal building with no windows which serves as the Office of Student Records for the Baltimore City Public Schools. Surrounding this building is a housing development with about fifteen apartment buildings. In stark contrast to the homes across the street, these buildings are painted in drab brown, there are no trees, the ground is not well-manicured. In that moment, I recognized there are two Baltimores: the one that people of privilege – not unlike myself -see and experience, and the one that is experienced on a daily basis by the men, women, and children who live the reality of systemic oppression every single day.
Walking further along North Avenue, I realized it was difficult to tell what was boarded up because of looting and what is the norm. In the Sandtown neighborhood, a United Methodist clergy person explained that for years rowhouses where families live are connected to homes that are abandoned and boarded up.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “Poor people of color, like other Americans –indeed like nearly everyone around the world – want safe streets, peaceful communities, healthy families, good jobs, and meaningful opportunities to contribute to society.” This was echoed in the voice of a Lutheran pastor who said, “Just for the record, our children are not thugs or criminals…they are children who are without hope and need our help.”
At Pennsylvania Avenue AME Zion Church, bags of food were being handed out to those who sought assistance after stores were damaged or closed. Sure, it felt good to help out those in need: the elderly, families with young children, those with wheelchairs and walkers. But truth be told, many Baltimore residents needed this before Monday night and they will need this long after the media frenzy dies down. The same system of oppression that turns an eye to police violence is the same system of oppression that keeps poor black people economically marginalized and disenfranchised, while social safety nets disappear and larger budgets for prisons and militarized police forces loom on the horizon.
Baltimore is learning too well about militarized police forces. Outside City Hall there were busses and vans from the Maryland Department of Corrections ready to round up suspected criminals. The National Guard presence around City Hall and in other pockets of the city were a show of automatic weapons and institutional power against a people and a place that have known nothing but poverty and oppression. As Michelle Alexander continues, “Are we willing to demonize a population, declare a war against them, and then stand back and heap shame and contempt upon them for failing to behave like model citizens while under attack?” While Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seems to misspeak and misstep, the clergy leaders in Baltimore have opened wide the doors of their churches, have walked the streets to talk with the people of their communities, and have literally fed the people. All without a national network media presence. All without an advance team. All without closed meetings. All without the help of the military.
Very clearly, there are two Baltimores.
As a white male with privilege, I needed to see and hear it. My privilege of living in a society created for the prosperity of people who look like me; my privilege of not being called “angry” because of the color of my skin; my privilege of being asked for change and saying “sorry, I don’t have any cash on me” because I have a credit and debit card; my privilege of not having to worry about a police curfew in my own neighborhood – my privilege reminds me that I cannot ever believe I completely understand the experience of being black and poor and living in America (because if you think this is unique to Baltimore, think again). I can only listen and learn and seek greater justice, and be empowered to those tasks by a God who brings hope from despair, love from hate and ambivalence, and life from death.
Chett Pritchett is Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.