When Baltimore burned during the recent uprising, there were news cameras everywhere to document the mayhem and rage. As pastor of the only church whose property was torched during the chaos — housing we were building to redress systemic inequities and to revitalize blighted communities was destroyed — I was determined to look beyond our trials to highlight the broader and more deeply entrenched suffering of our city's poorest neighborhoods. The fires of Baltimore did more than make our church collateral damage in the war against oppression and invisibility; the flames cast light on the dilapidation and disinvestment that have crippled poor communities for more than three decades.
Now that the cameras are gone, it seems that critical attention to social suffering has left with them. That must not happen. We must keep the focus on the plight of the poor and beleaguered who were voiceless and faceless before the uprising. We must move beyond the optics of pain to embrace opportunities to rebuild communities that can sustain us. Our resolve must strengthen to address the social injustices that sparked the outbursts in the first place. Otherwise, we become vain actors in a drama of social outrage that lacks substance and direction.
If our city is to heal and move forward, we must acknowledge the justifiable rage that led to such cataclysmic responses. The rallies, rebellions and protests for justice grew from the severe social neglect, class division and stifling poverty that have simmered beneath the surface of Baltimore for decades. The hub of the unrest was located at North and Pennsylvania avenues, the very heart of our city. Long before the death of Freddie Gray, that heart had been weakened by structural dilapidation and indigence, it's arteries clogged by hopelessness and despair. Those of us who were born and reared in Charm City have witnessed the less charmed areas of our city starve from social indifference and disregard for the corrosion of our neighborhoods, communal facilities and public schools. It was predictable that such a highly charged atmosphere would one day blow the top off of a boiling social stew.
We made every effort to mitigate against the social tensions by hatching initiatives to acquire, raze and redevelop abandoned properties in the area. Our goal is to provide viable housing, amenities and services to restore people and rebuild properties. Even as our hopes temporarily went up in flames, I was more determined than ever to tell the world that we would rise again from the ashes with a burning conviction to rebuild our fractured communities. Now that the cameras are gone, our work is still relevant and vital. Those who were only interested in change as long as the B-roll of a news station producer captured the choreography of our social outrage are of little use now. We must decry police misconduct, immiseration, social chaos and urban neglect as loudly as the powers that be who assail the outbursts of unjustly oppressed citizens. So many blamed the uprising on outside instigators — gang plots, police brutality, political insensitivity and media sensationalism. Yet, those forces are symptoms of the systemic oppression, disparities and divisions that have plagued Baltimore for far too long.
While attending the 60th anniversary of the Greater Baltimore Committee, we saw a video of 60 years of downtown harbor development and uptown community neglect. I left that conference of business, political and civic leaders with the impression that they don't have a clue about what hurts and helps our city. One of the speakers actually said, "We must keep in mind that the riots of 1968 were city-wide and this recent riot was only 18 blocks." Was she saying that the damage was of little significance because it was limited to poor people's neighborhoods? Was she suggesting that the carnage wasn't as bad as it might have otherwise been and therefore we don't have to make profound changes?
The speaker added that we "owe the Police Department a debt of gratitude for how they restrained themselves in the midst of the chaos." Yet, the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back was the inability of some police to act responsibly with a citizen in their custody who was crying out for medical attention. While the riots occurred within 18 blocks, the disenchantment with political rhetoric, economic disparity and injustice resonated around the world. Fortunately, the newly elected chairman of the GBC, David Warnock, made the effort to link social and structural development in our urban communities. We must amplify his sentiments in our efforts going forward.
Rebuilding a few CVS Pharmacies and corner stores will not do; we must rebuild human beings and communities that will be doomed to a worse fate if we don't act responsibly now to fix what was wrong long before a young man's death sparked dark days and fiery nights in our city. As important as they are, Baltimore cannot afford to wait for a trial and a verdict. The cry that echoed from the heart of Baltimore was for fairness, hope and change. We have what it takes to give the people what they want if we are willing to do what needs to be done now that the cameras are gone.
Donte' L. Hickman is pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore City, Harford and Howard counties. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.