A few blocks from the Mondawmin Mall, the epicenter of the April 27th Baltimore riots, my sister teaches chemistry at a vocational high school. Her school, in a poor black neighborhood, is only staffed at about 70% and on any given day attendance in her classes is also at about 70%. Some of her students are moms who often have to miss class to take care of their babies and some of her students will miss school for weeks or months at a time. The kids my sister teaches are incredibly funny and creative. A handful of them make good use of their vocational training and wind up with nice careers as EMTs, nurses assistants, or medical technicians. But mostly, she sees a story familiar in poor, urban school districts in the US: most of her students don’t see the benefit of succeeding at school and, as they expressed to her after the riots, don’t imagine a life different than the one they have. They don’t have friends who go off to four-year colleges, med school, or law school, so those don’t seem like logical goals. But they do know lots of people who go off to prison, and many have incarcerated family members.
My partner is an ophthalmologist who works every Friday in prisons around Baltimore. She sees men who have glaucoma but who do not reliably receive the medications they need to prevent them from going blind. She has patients who need cataract surgery for both eyes, but the policy is to only approve surgery for one eye per person. This leaves the men with blurry or no vision in one of their eyes and, consequently, without good peripheral vision, they can bump into other inmates and get into fights they didn’t mean to start. When she operates on the prisoners, at a local hospital a few blocks from where my sister teaches, a surgery that should take 30 minutes can take two hours because of the disorganization. And yet all of this takes place only a handful of blocks from Johns Hopkins, a world-class medical center that is part of an entirely different universe.
My sister’s school and the prisons and hospital where my partner works are part of a constellation. They are institutions that feed into each other like prep schools feed into elite colleges that feed into Wall Street. And the kids who were at the center of the riots know this even if they haven’t been given the language to call it what it is. When my sister asked her students what the phrases “white privilege” or “systemic violence” meant, they hadn’t even heard of such things, and maybe if they had they would have found another way of expressing their anger. But they know the effects of those structures intimately and viscerally on their bodies and psyches. They know that what we have in this country is a system of apartheid where one America is systematically dismissed by the institutions that the other America takes for granted. I’m not saying that America is the same as South Africa under apartheid – the differences are far too numerous and obvious to list. What I am saying is that in America, we have developed a particular brand of apartheid, one that’s so well hidden in particular geographical locations, and reserved for certain categories of human beings (yes, it’s the same categories that the US once used for building its wealth, and similar to those that South African Apartheid disenfranchised and marginalized) that the privileged can still speak about liberty and freedom for all without feeling like they are being ironic.
But rather than spending money to fix these inequalities, our country has decided to spend money on militarizing the police, incarcerating black youth, and bolstering police violence. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his brilliant Atlantic piece, Baltimore could have built a beautiful new rec center or 30 playgrounds with the money it has spent settling law suits with victims of police brutality. Rather than staffing after school programs or providing free day care for moms, our government has backed a police force that has constantly said to the people they are supposed to protect, I’m sorry, but the only language you understand is violence. I will handle this situation with brute force. This is not to say that police officers are evil – many, of course, have the best of intentions – but it does seem quite obvious that they are part of a culture of policing that condones and often supports excessive force.
At the end of the school day on Monday, April 27th many of my sister’s students found themselves at Mondawmin Mall. This was not necessarily because they had planned to go riot. On the contrary, many of them expressed fear and concern for their safety. But the mall is located right across from their bus stop, the only way they had to get from school to home. And when they got to their bus stop, what they heard were the people saying to the police, I’m sorry, but the only language you understand is violence. I will handle this situation with brute force. So a few of them stayed to speak the language that gets heard, the language that gets broadcast on every single news channel when peaceful protests go woefully unreported. Or maybe they stayed just to grab a new pair of sneakers. But many, the bulk in fact, went home. They received admonishing texts from their parents who did not want them to be the next Freddie Gray. None of this makes it okay to hurl bricks at fire fighters or burn down stores and senior centers, but things, after all, are not okay. The kids are not alright.