In Baltimore, looking beyond race to classism

Demonstrators march to City Hall to protest the death of Freddie Gray on April 25 in Baltimore. (CNS/Reuters/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)

Baltimore — A sense of calm, if not normalcy, returned to Baltimore in the days following the riots over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose spine was broken while in police custody earlier this month.

On Wednesday, journalists and newscasters descended upon the impoverished neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray lived. It was surreal scene, with smartly dressed reporters dotting an otherwise blighted landscape of boarded-up buildings and jobless Baltimoreans hanging out by the hundreds on stoops and street corners. It was the first time in years, perhaps ever, that outside media had paid any attention to this largely African-American community or its problems.

A short distance away, fully armed National Guard soldiers stood sentinel outside the city's Western District police station, where Gray -- who police say was arrested for possession of a switchblade -- was transported by paddy wagon and found unconscious. 

Following the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and many other unarmed people of color who lost their lives to American law enforcement, the Baltimore riots marked yet another incident of African-American community anger boiling over into violence.

But for two Baltimore Catholics who have worked for decades among the city's marginalized, the roots of that anger involve more than race. These community stalwarts paint a picture of hardship and exclusion that goes beyond the media narrative of young black men suffering under police brutality.

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Outright racism "is much better than it used to be here, and I expect in most other cities," said Fr. Richard Lawrence, a fifth-generation Baltimorean who's served at St. Vincent de Paul Church, the oldest Catholic parish in the city, since 1973.

"There are very few hardcore racists among the police these days," he said. "That's been unacceptable behavior for a long time now, and most of them have been weeded out. But there is still the feeling that [the police] are the Roman troops in Jerusalem, the agents of the occupying power. And if you revise your model a little to look at class as well as race, that pretty well holds true."


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"It's classism," concurred Brendan Walsh of the Viva House, home of the Baltimore Catholic Worker, located a short distance from Sandtown-Winchester. "You know the stuff about the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent? Well, when you get here, we're talking about people who are well below the poverty line.

"It's particularly vicious."

In explaining how it got to be that way, Lawrence and Walsh both spoke of decline in quality and quantity of jobs. 

"When we started the Viva House," which runs a popular soup kitchen in the neighborhood and was featured in the influential HBO series "The Wire," which dramatized many of Baltimore's persistent problems, "we saw people walking down the street going to work in the morning," Walsh said. 

A hodgepodge of factory work existed; many worked at Bethlehem Steel, employer of roughly 40,000, Walsh said. "There was a place called Coopers. Montgomery Ward had the biggest catalogue store on the east coast. There were a couple raincoat factories."

Now all of that is gone, and a disproportionate number of young black men lack for work as a result, Lawrence said.

"There are a lot of reasons for that," he said, "the most basic one being that human beings are increasingly unnecessary."

"It's not just a question of shipping jobs to China," he said. "It's a question of turning jobs that a person does into something that a machine does. ... There's just a labor slack built into our economy, and it tends to drift towards the bottom."

Former Baltimore Sun reporter Antero Pietila, author of the book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, which examines Baltimore history, said age-old effects from discriminatory municipal and lending policy might have exacerbated decline for many black Baltimoreans.

"In 1910, Baltimore became the first American city to require that all residential blocks be segregated by race," he said. "And between 1935 and 1937, nearly 300 American cities were redlined by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation," a government-sponsored corporation created as part of the New Deal. "Redlining" refers to the practice of using race and ethnicity to determine mortgage eligibility in specific neighborhoods.

Baltimore was among the redlined cities. The maps created a "two-tier mortgage system," Pietila said: "one rate for whites -- basically -- and another for minorities." 

This combined with historic population loss following World War II, the destruction of many public housing facilities, the inexhaustible creep of gentrification, and the exodus of the local Catholic church (three parishes have closed in the area around the Viva House) created a people left behind in neighborhoods like Freddie Gray's, Walsh said. 

Even a $130 million community-building initiative made in the mid-1990s with public and private funding couldn't solve the neighborhood's problems.

"You had a whole group of people with nothing to do," Walsh said. "And that's when the drugs came in."

Baltimore has always had a problem with narcotics, Walsh said, especially heroin. "But when crack cocaine came, particularly in the '90s, it got brutal around here." 

Murders abounded, and the police responded by "getting brutal" in their own way.

When former Baltimore mayor and potential presidential candidate Martin O'Malley introduced a zero-tolerance policing system to the city, said Walsh, "we would literally see cops jump out [of their patrol cars] and force residents against the wall."

"We'd see Baltimore street guys having to drop their trousers right on the street as [police] searched them," he said. "And for minuscule stuff, they'd bring the wagon and pile people in." 

A sometimes-deadly cycle between cops and corner boys developed in the streets. 

Trade in illegal narcotics flourished because, according to Lawrence, it was an "alternative" for folks left with nothing else. 

"You could make it there," he said. "You wouldn't last long, but if you did well, you would do well. There was serious money to make." But it amounted to "disorganized crime," he said, "the biggest source of violence in Baltimore City today."

"Everybody's fighting for a corner, and since we're doing a war on drugs," he said, "we're going to lock up everybody we can. And the easiest people to lock up, of course, are the street-level dealers ... and that means he's never going to get a job for the rest of his life." 

"These are the marginal characters of society," Lawrence said. "The folks who have been forced out of society, who are just plain frustrated, mad at the world." The folks "who are frustrated with the discrimination that's been inflicted on them and the people they know by the police, and others."

The game has been going on for too long, said Walsh and Lawrence, both of whom were in Baltimore the last time riots broke out, in 1968. 

"Things are going to have to change," Lawrence said. "You can't just toss somebody in the wagon and give them a 'rough ride.' " 

"When you're white and you're arrested, it just isn't the same," Walsh said. "Everybody is going to have to admit that." 

Yet Walsh said he believes there is more to the story -- that the violence and anger that Baltimore has seen is also rooted in "inequality."

A portrait of Malcom X hung above him as he spoke in the dining room of the Viva House, where he and his wife have fed countless homeless and working poor Baltimoreans over the years. It included a quote.

"I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don't think it will be based on the color of the skin."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.] 

This story appeared in the June 5-18, 2015 print issue under the headline: In Baltimore, looking beyond race to classism .

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