One Baltimore #3, Love

5/19/19

How many people say the words “I love Baltimore” every day? The city and the county combined have a population of 1.4 million. Even if only a tenth of 1% of the population were to say the phrase on any given day, that’s 1,400 people right there, and of course countless others who don’t live here have deep ties. I’m gonna say at least a thousand people a day seems reasonable.

A thousand declarations of love, a thousand different meanings. Each person is different, and so each person has at least a slightly different image that rises to the top of their heart when they say those words.

One person loves the block they grew up on, another loves their grandma’s house that they visit every summer. One person loves the rolling map of the land in their mind, another loves the small village which they never leave. One person loves their corner of the arts scene, another loves their corner on the street. One person loves the potential for justice, another the potential for profit.

In the spring of 2015, shortly after the Uprising over the death of Freddie Gray, I got my first tattoo for love. I’d always liked the idea of getting one, but didn’t have an image in mind. People told me I’d know when it was time, and they were right. When I saw the Baltimore-heart tattoo that the Baltimore Tattoo Museum was giving out for $50 a pop, I knew.

I normally dither over important decisions, but this one was simple and clear, made with a surety that you don’t examine in the moment. I got the yellow and black hatched heart on my forearm, where I could see it every day. My partner J went with me, and got the same tatt in the same place. I’ve heard that hundreds of people have it.

(Are you one? Leave a comment or PM me if so, I’d be interested to check in. I think I know at least ten of us, mostly in the theater scene, for whatever reason.)

When we first heard about the big marches for Freddie Gray and read his story in the paper, a handful of friends and loved ones and I had joined the crowds in Sandown and marched with them. We knew there was brutality and corruption in the police force, we detested it, and it felt good to join a huge movement in progress.

The days that followed brought a lot of things. I had volunteer street medic friends who were maced by the cops for trying to help a struggling man on the ground, I had a friend in the National Guard horrified at taking up a gun to patrol the streets of his own city.

It was a strange and powerful time for a lot of people. A very revealing time, I think, for those of us who had thought we cared about the liberation of Black Baltimore before but hadn’t acted most of the time as if we particularly did. It made me ask myself what I mean when I say I love Baltimore, and whether I behave as if it’s true.

The tattoo was a brand, a way to ensure that I didn’t forget the passion that I felt in those weeks to listen better and to try to make change in myself and in my home. I love Baltimore and it’s hurting — I can’t ignore or forget that, ever. That love has to be a part of me.

In order to love a person, you need to really get to know that person. I think it works the same on the macro scale… in order to love a place, a tribe, a people, an idea, you have to seek to know it in all of its beauty and its struggles, including when it’s uncomfortable.

One thing I’ve been struggling to understand about Baltimore is its police department, so notorious for corruption, graft, brutality, and for contributing to violence on the streets rather than helping to quell it. It shocked me to learn that Baltimore City is in the extremely unusual position of not having local control of its own police force. How could it be that BPD is a state controlled agency, and what does it mean?

It was just before the outbreak of the Civil War that Baltimore City lost control of its police force. The city at the time was run by the American Party, aka the Know-Nothing party, so called because, when asked about the party’s activities, members were to say they knew nothing.

In reaction to a wave of poor Catholic migrants, the party was violently anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, killing people and openly rigging elections. The state of Maryland took over the BPD to get it out of the hands of the Know-Nothings, and they’ve had it ever since. In 1978, the mayor was given the right to hire and fire the commissioner, and also sets the budget (which comes from city coffers), but that’s it.

So the state technically controls BPD, but doesn’t fund or manage it. The city only very nominally manages it. BPD alone manages BPD, at the end of the day. The officers largely come from far outside the city, commuting in to do their daily rounds.

All internal affairs records are secret. There is no transparency. No accountability. No trust. No love. And so many terrible, terrible stories.

That’s why the monitor for the federal Department of Justice’s Consent Decree with BPD said recently “The Baltimore Police Department is a dysfunctional organization, a highly dysfunctional organization.” That’s why an ex-cop turned corruption investigator said in response, “He’s right. There’s a bad, bad culture within the police department right now, that’s for certain. They still have that culture of isolation that’s been us-against-them, them being the citizens of Baltimore.” (https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2019/01/25/ex-cop-turned-corruption-investigator-on-what-it-would-take-to-reform-baltimore-police/).

The gang activities on the force, the casual brutality, the official reports often proven to be false, the innocent people held for months and years in the enormous downtown jail for no reason, the trail of bodies… these are the wounds that BPD inflicts, the way it fuels the cycle of poverty, violence, and incarceration in our town.

When an officer tries to speak up, he gets death threats and a rat pinned to his windshield, and is forced to flee the force (https://www.citypaper.com/news/mobtownbeat/bcp-whistleblower-cop-joseph-crystal-recalls-his-battles-with-the-baltimore-police-departments-blue-wall-20150120-story.html). Or if he tries to testify against fellow officers, he’s found dead the day before, his new partner the only person nearby, and then is declared a suicide… after the force puts the neighborhood under an unconstitutional lock down for weeks while looking for the killer they swore was out there (we all should have been in the streets for Sandown then) (https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/bs-md-ci-suiter-family-speaks-out-20190501-story.html).

This culture of silence or violence is why it took a cop from outside the city to finally report the Gun Trace Task Force to the FBI (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/when_cops_become_robbers). Residents were screaming for attention to the corruption and brutality, staff at the City State’s Attorney Office were doing the same, trying in vain to get Marilyn Mosby to do anything. There was not one righteous person in power here who did something.

In the last Annapolis legislative session, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill sponsored by city legislators to give Baltimore back its own police force, like everywhere else has. But in the state Senate, Bill Ferguson and others shot it down, because we’d have less protection from lawsuits for civil rights violations (https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-local-control-police-20190405-story,amp.html).

Hey, I’ve got a wild idea. Let’s take a hold of the situation and REDUCE THE NUMBER OF CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATIONS. That’s a winning cost savings strategy, right there (it actually is).

They say we have to look at it more. So ok, the session is closed until 2020, let’s look at it. Call your state Senators and ask them what kind of look they’re taking at local control for BPD between now and January, and how they’ll make sure it passes.

From there, I think we need to take the path of Camden, New Jersey, as Delegate Bilal Ali has suggested. They had a big brutality problem, and in response they finally disbanded their police force and completely rebuilt it with a big focus on community policing. While the city still struggles, the murder rate and the violent crime rate finally went down for the first time in a long time after they did that.

This is how I’m going to devote myself this year. Local control. Disband and reform. Break the cycle of ruining lives, breaking up families, and paying out huge sums of money that should be going to our schools and watermains. I love my city and I will see it be free.

Women Against Private Police is organizing a petition drive to repeal the authorization for JHU’s private police force, download and sign it here: https://noprivatepolice.org

I missed the most recent #WestWednesday because of a work obligation, but after hearing that Tawanda Jones was taunted that night by one of the cops responsible for the death of her brother, Tyrone West (https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=2571140782898669&id=100000083181860), I’m all the more determined to make it out this Wednesday.

My dear friend Opal Phoenix, who was arrested when the cops shut down the JHU Sit-In the other week, needs help, please share and donate: https://www.gofundme.com/help-opal-stay-off-the-street-amp-deal-w-the-state

#LocalControl
#DisbandBPD
#OneBaltimore
#FreeKeithDavisJr

Cultural event of the week: The Baltimore Rock Opera Society opens its eleventh original full-length production, Welcome to Shakesville, this Friday 5/24 at the beautiful Zion Lutheran Church downtown! It’s a psychedelic 60s-style puppet-driven show about a Black woman dealing with a bunch of foolishness (topical!).

So so many incredibly talented people are involved with this production!! I really can’t recommend the experience of a BROS show enough. If you love music, great actors, spectacle, and having your face melted, you can’t get more fun for your buck.

I’ve done a few hours of volunteering here and there for sets and puppets for this show, and will be slinging drinks and taking tickets in the lobby the first couple of weeks. The run is a whole month, so there’s plenty of time, but they often sell out, so my recommendation is to buy your tix now!

https://m.facebook.com/events/428658361202386

Green event of the week: This Tuesday at 6pm at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church next to Druid Hill Park, join BlueWaterBaltimore for a Pollution Reporting 101 & Outfall Screening Blitz training, where you’ll learn how to recognize water pollution in your neighborhood and what you can do about it.

https://bluewaterbaltimore.org/events/pollution-reporting-mtlebanon/

Song of the week:  “Sound of da police” by KRS-One
Take the word ‘overseer,’ like a sample / Repeat it very quickly in a crew for example / Overseer. Overseer. Overseer, Overseer / Officer, Officer, Officer, Officer! / Yeah, officer from overseer / You need a little clarity? Check the similarity!

Photo: My tattoo.

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