Reflections on Baltimore

October 01, 2015

From Lascelles Anderson


The events of the last several weeks in Baltimore must force us to take time out if we are going to have even the slightest understanding of what has been happening in neglected black and poor communities: to the physical surroundings that people who live there must face on a daily basis; to the existential conditions of their lives; to the stifling frustration they must carry with them on a daily basis; and yes, to the staggeringly complex nature of linking cause and effect in real time in any attempt at structuring meaningful response in reasonable time, time to give hope. We simply do not bring anything close to the required awareness to this mix in our day-to-day comings and goings. Not only that, but, precisely because of our remove, we are incapable of imagining how people who live in those conditions think of their lives when present shape is matched up with a more ideal circumstance. These are the limitations we bring to the assessment of group behavior in situations like North and Penn in Baltimore. It must be obvious that we are at a serious disadvantage in comprehending the tragic complexities of those lives on the margin. Do they hope? What frames do they have for making reasonable sense of realistic opportunities for change? How does homogeneous and overpowering poverty shape their sense of capability? How can people whose lives are shaped in those ways think their way out of such oppressive social realities? By themselves, can they mount effort appropriate and big enough to break through the interlocking scenarios of their lives, at a realistic enough level of coherence to have hope of success?

At our level of remove, we can, if we take enough time to do so, calibrate the many factors that go to create marginal communities and the lives that are shaped there. And even the most cursory glance at history will throw up decisive factors that must give flesh to the narratives that must populate the minds of residents of those communities of neglect. Racially segregated communities just did not spring from nowhere. Do I hear a "Yes?". They arose from well-known historical patterns, none of them created by the residents themselves, a good many of them officially sanctioned. All of them taking on, each one, a life of its own in an ever complexifying cascade of hopelessness and decay. These have their own internally driven logic and arc. And this toxic mix is a part of the narrative-creating reality that organizes the mind in these far-off places. But historically derived and shaped narratives are only part of the story. The savagery of the marketplace adds its own complicating factors to the complex mix. Poor education gets mixed with absence of useful role models, itself fed by an escalating circular connection with the criminal justice system fed by private sector profitability objectives and instruments to create real barriers to change, certainly from inside the belly of these conditions. And the logic of the market, at a macro level, adds its own momentum to the unfortunate circularities of disadvantage which are the defining features of social life in the Baltimores of this country.

When a group of students from the Caribbean came to this country almost sixty years ago, fellow students met all the newcomers in the nation's capital with this first advice: Never mess with the police; they shoot first, and then ask questions after. How redolent of the truth of that long-ago advice is what we see so frequently in these last several months: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sean Bell, and now Freddie Gray? That's how black and lowincome communities experience the police; unfortunately, not only those communities. The spate of police killings that we have witnessed recently that have given birth to "Black Lives Matter" constitute compelling evidence to the admonition we were met with on landing in the US. They are rolled-up, one after the other, in cascade fashion, in the images that must populate the mind of residents of neglected communities. That they are stunning in the way they are treated by the authorities, the way they come one after the other, in the now here-now there way, must take over the mind in destructive ways. They don't understand it. And social responses to homogeneous disadvantage emerge organically in unpredictably random, sometimes destructive ways. There is a spontaneity to the disorder that is often an emergent property of the coming together of despair and disregard, too often happening.

None of this condones violence, and so, we must bring a new frame to unhesitatingly call it violence. Such disruptive behavior as we have seen in Baltimore over the last several weeks has its own internal logic, unimpeachable logic. Unfortunately, what catches the eye most strikingly is that side of the response. Fortunately however, if we look deeper and without jaundiced eyes, we will see responsible responses, ever present, unhesitatingly marshaling forces for good in the face of massive tragedy.

As it is therefore, this mix of disaster and response, disaster and frustration, but disaster and hope, in the final analysis, calls for creative and massive social intervention, not only in Baltimore, Md., but in all the other Baltimores of this country where the circumstances are so frighteningly similar. I hope we grab hold of this experience for what it is demonstrating for us all, importantly, for the work that must engage us all, in the near communities of the Baltimores of this country, and in those places from which we see the Baltimores on television screens, from our far-away domicile. In our church, the task is urgent. We must respond, for only in that willing and self-conscious response, will we be doing the work of "taking responsibility for God."