Bringing it Back to Bmore

7 May

It’s been a while since I’ve written here… in fact, I haven’t attempted to put anything to paper since I returned to the US back in August of last year. Things have been pretty standard since then… uncertainty, ups and downs but at its core a very standard experience of a young professional.

That is, until my newfound home and city slowly worming its way into my heart, Baltimore, erupted into violence just over a week ago.  Unfortunately trying to move your entire life in the middle of the week in a city where you have few true friends during a state of emergency and a curfew, well, it doesn’t leave much time to sit down and pen anything of substance. The fires have quelled, the officers have been charged and here I sit, with enough time to finally sit down and reflect in a more complete way on everything that has happened this past week.

The last few years have been a surreal experience, and dealing with political unease, violence, civil unrest and being a white minority in a majority black area are not new concepts to me. I’ve seen them play out in homes and former homes time and again for years now.

I swear I’m not cursed.

But  this story isn’t about me, or about being a minority white boy, or even about political unrest. Instead, it’s a human narrative I’ve seen play out in the media, in my conversations and in my own head over the past week, and it’s this feeling that grips me every day on my drive to and from work, and I can’t seem to shake it.

My new residence in Baltimore City has given me a new drive to work, one that takes me through the heart of West Baltimore. Only about a mile from the focal points of last Monday’s riots, I drive myself down US Route 40 everyday, watching Edmonson Ave wake  up in the morning, and then revel in the bright afternoon sun.

I see this, from the comfort of my car twice every day, and twice every day I look and streets and have to remind myself that this, just like everything on the other side of MLK Jr. Boulevard is our city. These homes, these communities, they’re only miles from my comfort and convenience, my stereotypical middle class American experience. These people walking the streets as I drive by were born under the same flag, in the same land and conceivably the same opportunity. But I look at the streets I drive down, and it becomes impossible to believe that the last part is true, that the people here had the same odds I did, could be the same person I am.

Because the fact of the matter is, they didn’t.

The people of West Baltimore are just as American as I am, but live with so many fewer things than I the ones I take for granted every day. Although many of these things are material in nature, some of them are harder to see, more intangible, but incidentally much more important. Security, safety, the ability to walk through the streets without being judged, harassed. Without being labeled because of the color of your skin before you even have a chance to open your mouth. In a very small way I know what that feels like, to feel like an outsider. But in your own country? On your own streets? To deal with that negative stereotype every day of your life in the only place in this world you’re supposed to be able to count on? I have no idea how that feels, nor will I ever.

But that acknowledgement over the past week, watching the riots erupt and the pundits take sides, forced me to remove myself and my own experience from the equation and ask myself a simple question: what makes me different from one of the kids with a brick in his hand, one of these so called “thugs?”

I kept mulling it over in my head, again and again and kept coming back to the same conclusion… experience. Experience differentiated us, and nothing else.

I look back on my own life, on my own accomplishments and am extremely proud of where I stand. I’m proud of where I have gone, what I have done and the person I have become. Through hard work and striving for self-improvement I’ve become, in my humble and horribly biased opinion, a damn good person, and will continue to strive and get better. But this person, the one typing on this keyboard, is in no way shape or form the same person that existed under this name and social security number 10 years ago. Nope, that kid was much more uncertain. He was much more afraid, more timid. He cared more about video games than the world around him, and had a much weaker control on his emotions and how to deal with the world. You put that kid under the gun, under some pressure, and he may very well make a hot-headed and brash decision.

And that’s just it. Place that 15 year old version of myself in a circumstance like you see play out in West Baltimore every day of the week, the profiling, the tense relationship with the police, under a different name growing up on Edmonson Ave… and all of a sudden I’ve got a brick in my hand. I have become a “thug.” I’m no different. at the core I’m the exact same flesh and bones, the same brain, the same heart… but I’ve gone from citizen to menace.

Although where I stand now is a result of everything I’ve worked for and continue to work for, I look back on who I was and thank my lucky stars that I grew up in the family I did, the community I did, and that the things that needed to break my way did. Play with those variables, play with that past and who knows who you’re going to have waiting on the 25 year-old end of that spectrum.

And that’s just it. It’s easy to write people off. It’s easy to identify the choices people make as the problem. Because if the choices we make are the problem, then the blame rests solely on the shoulders of the individual. Not on us, not on society. No, it rests on the shoulders of Freddie Gray, on the rioters. If only they hadn’t run, if only they hadn’t let the emotions run over and become a violent outburst. It’s them, it’s never us.

And that’s what I can’t shake… that thought in the back of my head eating away, thinking “there but for the grace of god…”

I’m not condoning what has occurred, the good innocent people who’ve suffered because of the events of the past months… or hell, the past 100 years in Baltimore City… but at the same time I also don’t think any benefit whatsoever can be derived from placing the blame solely on the shoulders of those who participated in the madness last Monday.

Somewhere in between condoning and condemnation lies the truth, lies the solution.

The police are never going to pull me over for no reason. They’re never going to stop and question me with no clear probable cause. My mother won’t ever have to worry that routine police stop goes horribly awry and I end up on the business end of a Beretta because I panicked and made a mistake, because chances are I won’t even be in the situation in the first place.

Not because I’m a law-abiding citizen… but because I’m white. And I’m never going to understand what the other side of that feels like, because I’ll never have that experience. I’ll never be a black man in America. And the only way we’re going to work to change the narrative is if everyone who shares my race and gender acknowledges the same.

And when you boil it down, when you cut away the actions of last week, the images of burning cars and looting, when you peel all of it back you’re just left with a bunch of humans, a bunch of aggregate experiences of struggles, of hopes, dreams and fears, of people reacting to a situation.

And when you look at it like that, you start asking better questions. You start looking at those instances of violence for what they are, a symptom of a much bigger problem, a problem each and every one of us is complicit in, and each and every one of us needs to work to solve.

Riots are nothing new, and what was born out of last Monday was born out of a pent-up anger and frustration that, though many of us may never fully understand, is very real to those living it.

Think back in your life.

Think of a time your emotions ran too hot and you did something stupid. You did something you regretted. Think of a time you were bull-headed, when you refused to give in regardless of whether or not you should have.

And remember that what happened last week was a massive groupthink of the same origins. We don’t have to accept the actions of last week, but we need to accept that a society that births these sort of outbursts needs some serious introspection and change. We need to accept that the question needs a more nuanced answer than scolding the rioters like you would a small child who pulled his sister’s hair.

There is pain and poorly constructed institutions in this country that will continue to birth these outbursts, these tragedies. But that discomfort, that unease we feel, that lack of security… we need to embrace it, we need understand it and where it all comes from. Maybe then, just maybe, the next time we break down a wall, it’ll be one that shouldn’t still be standing in the first place.

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