Even before Freddie Gray died on April 12, 2015, the Baltimore author and activist Wes Moore said that U.S. social service systems had broken down irreparably, blighting the lives of generations of its poorest citizens.
Then came COVID-19.
“The pandemic hasn’t just exposed our systemic inequities. It has exacerbated them,” Moore said in a recent phone interview, a few days after the publication of his new book, “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City.”
“While COVID-19 has impacted everyone, it has not impacted everyone equally. Communities that were already struggling have been pushed farther into a hole. It’s not just inequities in infection rates and deaths. There are also economic implications that we haven’t hit the bottom of yet.
“What we know is that it’s going to be bad, really bad, particularly for Black people and for people living in poverty.”
The 41-year-old Baltimorean — a Rhodes scholar, decorated combat veteran and former White House fellow — has spent his career exploring the causes of and potential fixes for those systematic failures.
Now Moore is CEO of the New York-based Robin Hood Foundation, one of the largest poverty-fighting organizations in the nation.
He’s also the author of several books, the best-known of which is “The Other Wes Moore,” about two youths with the same name, living within blocks of each other, who grew up to have very different fates.
Thematically, “Five Days,” which was written with the journalist and former Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green, continues the saga of those boys. Moore sees Gray as another disadvantaged Baltimore kid who was failed repeatedly by society.
“Five Days” chronicles the uprisings following Gray’s death through the shifting points of view of eight Baltimoreans:
Marc Partee, a former major in the Baltimore Police Department; the activist Tawanda Jones, who demanded justice for her brother, Tyrone West, who died in police custody; Baltimore Orioles owner John Angelos; attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy, Jr., who represented Gray’s family; Greg Butler, a former basketball star turned protester who pleaded guilty to obstructing firefighters during the uprising; state Del. Nick Mosby (D-Baltimore); Anthony Williams, operator of a popular bowling alley and skating rink; and public defender Jenny Egan.
All eight will join Moore and Green on Sunday afternoon for a panel discussion and virtual book launch sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library as part of its Writers Live! series.
On Friday, Moore carved a few minutes from his jam-packed schedule to discuss key takeaways from the book:
Q: After you wrote “Five Days,” Nick Mosby won the Democratic Party nomination to become the president of the Baltimore City Council. How would his election impact the changes you’re seeking?
A: I’m very hopeful that Nick’s leadership will ensure that we bring up important issues in the city that have to be addressed and that we’ll be able to act on them. I think it’s impossible to talk about where we are as a society without also understanding the role that government allocation of dollars has played in creating and perpetuating some of these disparate conditions. Any time we have people like Nick ascending to these positions, it’s a good thing.
But he’s not going to be able to do it alone. This is going to require a significant amount of lift and a significant amount of compromise from our entire society, and not just the people who were elected to office.
Q: That’s one of your key conclusions, I think: the different branches of society are going to have to work together to fix these problems. No one sector can do it individually, because each comes with structural flaws that hinder change.
A: Some people try to change the system from the ground up. Still others try to work within the system. Still others try to fight injustice from positions of privilege. There is power in all these approaches. But there are also limitations in all of them.
No one group has the answer. We need to be able to move together in partnership. Our success is going to be tied together, as is our failures.
Q: In the book, you urge the U.S. to follow a process pioneered in South Africa, Chile, Canada and Northern Ireland.
These nations all convened commissions dedicated to truth and reconciliation. We need to go through that process in our country so we can understand our history of violence and racism and the trauma that has caused across generations.
We cannot move blindly without understanding the role that discriminatory policies have played in our society.
How do we address the fact that we still have kids that are going to schools and living in homes where they are getting lead poisoning? How do we address the fact that we have so many people who are uninsured? How do we address the fact that we have people who are working full-time jobs and still living below the poverty line?
We have to wrestle with our own past and understand the trauma that these things have caused before we can establish a path forward.
Q: But I gather that you’re not in favor of delaying action while the nation awaits the findings of a truth and reconciliation commission.
There’s certain policy things that we have to address now. We have to make a public investment in mass transit because in the city of Baltimore, it is not possible for people to move from where they live to where they work.
We know we have to address wages. Twenty-three percent of people who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 were living in poverty before COVID-19. In many cases, they were working multiple jobs.
These are things that are unconscionable.
We don’t need another white paper to understand that we have entrenched and concentrated poverty in the city of Baltimore. These are things we have to have the courage to move on now.
If you go
About the book: “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City” by Wes Moore with Erica L. Green was released Tuesday by One World publishing. 320 pages, $24.50. oneworldlit.com.