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In Baltimore, the Whole Damn System Is Guilty as Hell

Baltimore has a history of suppressing and shaming black victims of police brutality.

Lawrence Burney

Lawrence Burney

Photos by Keem Griffey.

In Baltimore, it's easy to internalize the notion that no one outside of the city gives a fuck about you. You grow up feeling like where you're from is second-rate and nobody makes it unless they leave. Our culture, outside of drugs and vacant houses, is widely unknown but we make our own unique club music, we like slapping Old Bay on everything, we eat chicken boxes—you know, regular, non-The Wire shit. So to be the center of international attention feels strange, especially when that attention could have been so easily avoided if police did not allegedly facilitate the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from West Baltimore. But since that did happen and since the people of Baltimore City decided to respond to that by taking to the streets in anger at not just Gray's death but the whole rigged system, we are where we are: Images of looting replayed on cable news, solidarity protests all over the country, and blacks and whites in Baltimore doing their best to repair their communities.

How is one supposed to act when their lives are decided for them before they're born? How are we as black people supposed to react when we are murdered by police, then blamed for our own deaths? I grew up in East Baltimore and while I can't claim to have suffered the exact hardships that Freddie Gray did, you can only do so much to escape the ills of inner city life as a black person in this town. From an early stage, you quickly learn that police are enforcers rather than protectors in black neighborhoods.

My first encounter with police came around the age of ten or 11 when my friends and I were playing with firecrackers in the alley. There were old toy cars scattered around that someone threw out. We took the firecrackers, lit them, and threw them into the toy cars. Someone called the police. They zipped around the block with their sirens, jumped out, and told us all to line up and sit down on the curb with our hands behind our backs. The officer told us if we didn't say who was responsible for the noise we weren't getting up. No one ratted. Any sign of us getting restless and moving was met by the look—the Get up and see what happens look that most black people, let alone children, will rarely challenge. We got off with a warning that day: "If I hear something else, y'all getting in the back of this car."

When my older sister Amanda was 15, she was taking the bus home from school when some kids on the bus started throwing eggs at people outside. The police pulled the bus over and, just as the cops did to me and my friends, asked them to turn over who was responsible. They didn't. The officers (six white and two black) made the driver get off and proceeded to call students niggers, monkeys, and coons because they didn't want to snitch. They then told a girl in front of Amanda to get off and when she reached down to grab her belongings, one of the white male cops punched her in the face and dragged her off of the bus. My sister couldn't endure any more. She ran toward the cops in anger and was met by a punch in the chest. She swung back, knocked the officer on his ass, and all eight of them jumped on her, pressing her face against the hot hood of a police car and twisting her hands in attempts to break them. They arrested her and threw her in the back of the wagon. When they got to the station, the officers joked among themselves about what charges they would give the five students they arrested, decided on a few, and processed each one of them. When my mother picked Amanda up from the station, local reporters who were outside asked what happened. Amanda told them everything, but only the part about students chanting, "Hell no! We won't go!" on the bus made the news that evening.

That one day derailed the rest of Amanda's high school education. She was kicked out of all Baltimore City schools and had to finish at an alternative school.

Other friends of mine have been pulled over and asked, "Where are the guns and drugs?" before they were asked for their licenses. Cops have taken their money when they felt like they were carrying too much cash, or planted drugs on them. In September, my stepbrother was beaten with batons by five officers because he was having a disagreement with a club bouncer. Someone took video of the beating on their phone, and it made the local news; my stepbrother was held on assault charges while the five officers were given paid administrative duties.

This deep-rooted tension, distrust, and toxic relationship with police in Baltimore has been brewing for a long, long time. Freddie Gray's untimely death was just the straw that broke the camel's back. But the people who acted out of rage have been called thugs on national television by their black president and their black mayor who was backed by a black police commissioner and have been made out to look like the cause of everything wrong with Baltimore.

What's most deflating is that a good deal of the people shaming the "thugs" are members of the black community. At various protests, community meetings and casual conversations this week I've heard "Violence isn't the answer," "You're proving white people right," and "Don't destroy your own neighborhood" so many times from my own people that my fucking head hurts. Black people in Baltimore, and in America, don't have any neighborhoods. We've been placed in ghettos. No matter where you look, black people, by design, live in the most under-developed parts of cities, and it's not by choice.

In 1911, Baltimore became the first place in America to adopt racially restrictive zoning rules that prevented one race from living on a block that was already occupied by people of another race. Consequently, the area with the largest concentration of black people was Old West Baltimore, now referred to as Zone 17—the same area Freddie Gray was from. A neighborhood is somewhere you live by your choice. Not where you've been systematically forced to live. That's nothing more than a prison without bars.

So, what is actually being said when we publicly shun our people for acting on the frustrations bottled up from being oppressed? What is being said when a mother who beat her son on national television for defending himself is made into an overnight celebrity? If she had spanked her son on TV for anything other than him being a threat to the white supremacist structure, she would have been shamed if not hit with a charge. But because it paints what her son did as wrong, she's being championed for it, even out on the cover of pro-authority rags like the New York Post.Just like black people have been rewarded for turning on one another since they were brought to this country.

I don't advocate the harm of innocent people but I do know that destroying people's property—a.k.a. screwing with their money—is one way of forcing them to listen to you. None of the people who have tied themselves arguing for "nonviolent protest" this week gave a shit about Baltimore until someone set a cop car on fire.

This morning, Gray's death was ruled a homicide and the six officers involved in his death were handed charges ranging from second degree depraved heart murder to involuntary manslaughter to false imprisonment. I don't know what the final outcome of Gray's passing will be but I have a feeling that if justice is not brought down upon the officers involved in his death, no amount of scare tactics or projected embarrassment from within the black community will be able to limit what happened on April 27th to just one night of crying out.

Lawrence Burney is on Twitter.