Baltimore writers reflect on Freddie Gray's death

Derick Ebert: “I shouldn't have to take alleys and back roads if I want to be safe.”

The voices of the people who know Baltimore the best are beginning to be heard, now that the national news trucks and the pundits have left.

When the city was in a state of emergency after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody, the conversation nationwide was dominated by outsiders — some of whom visited Maryland, and some who did not. For those weeks, many of the quieter and more nuanced voices of the people who live and study and work in Baltimore found it difficult to break through the din.

"I wanted to hear from people who go into the city every day and who teach in high school or college." says Nate Brown, the Baltimorean who serves as a Web editor for American Short Fiction, a Texas-based literary magazine. "I wanted to know what the situation looks like in Baltimore today versus the way it looked 10 or 20 years ago."

He decided to reach out to nine local writers to find out how they viewed Gray's death and the subsequent protests and looting. Then he published the submissions as part of the magazine's online "Things American" essay series and organized a public reading held last week at the University of Baltimore.

For some contributors, the essay, short story or poem they composed for the online series is their only published reflection so far on the events that brought the city to a crossroads. Other correspondents also have national platforms from which to air their views.

But all nine describe very different Baltimores from the vantage point of their front steps. Here are brief introductions to five of these authors.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Derick Ebert

Derick Ebert, a sophomore at the University of Baltimore, belongs to a program that mentors young men of color on campus.

After Freddie Gray died, the program adviser suggested bringing in an African-American officer to advise students how to defuse potentially dangerous encounters with police.

"At least the officer could tell you how to navigate the situation," the adviser said, "if you ever get involved with the police."

But the 19-year-old wondered why he should he have to change his behavior if he was doing nothing wrong.

"This is 2015, and I'm a citizen of the United States," Ebert says. "I shouldn't have to take alleys and back roads if I want to be safe. I should be able to walk down the streets."

As Baltimore's newly appointed youth poet laureate, Ebert did what he does best, which is shaping his feelings into words. Ebert performed the resulting poem, "Navigation" last week during a public reading sponsored by American Short Fiction. It begins:

He said

It isn't safe to take the

main road,

you'd be

better off

going through the

alley

At least there,

you have

a right to passage I

mean

yeah

It might take a few more

blocks

or years,

to get to where

we want to go

but

we'd get there.

He ask me,

well what would you do?

There is nothing wrong

with navigating around a situation

And I say

yeah it

is the best way

to avoid it,

But I don't want to avoid this …

Kenneth Morrison

Kenneth Morrison grew up in a home in Park Heights without gas or electricity or running water. By age 13, he was homeless.

Three years later, he was adopted by Rovan Wernsdorfer, a kind man he met through his church. The teen's life changed overnight. He was safe, had enough to eat and began preparing himself for college.

But Morrison also worried about his eight brothers and sisters still living in Park Heights and visited them whenever he could.

"I got adopted by this white man and his family and moved to Bolton Hill," he says. "All the neighbors were architects and doctors and engineers. Everyone read The New York Times and professional journals.

"My biological siblings still were living in my old neighborhood, and they did not get the same support that I received. My sister was on her own and had to go out and get a job at the age of 13. She was pregnant by the time she was 15."

Morrison, now 29, has been thinking for decades about how a kid can end up with a brick in his hand at Mondawmin Mall, facing down a line of armed police officers behind shields.

His reflections took the form of a poem, "How to Make a Paper Airplane," which he performed Wednesday at the University of Baltimore. The poem begins:

How to make a paper airplane.

Step one: Find a sheet of paper.

It doesn't matter the size,

The eviction notice on your front door will do.

For him, the unrest that followed Gray's death was a hopeful sign that perhaps things would change and unite his two worlds.

"I was really excited by the community's outrage and by the uprising," he says. "Maybe some day, Park Heights will start to look like Bolton Hill."

Lia Purpura

They were saying such ugly words, the people who should know better.

Every time one of them — national correspondents, police officials, even Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — indulged in name-calling, the poet Lia Purpura became more concerned about the destructive force that they were unknowingly unleashing.

Every time someone described children as "thugs," Purpura saw the sides growing farther apart. Every time officials resorted to labels like "animals", "criminals", "trash" or "stray cats," the situation became more intractable.

All of her life, Purpura, 51, has known that words shape people and events. The wrong words can stop people from thinking just when clear sight is needed the most.

The author of seven books of essays and poems, she is writer in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but lives in the city in the Radnor-Winston neighborhood.

"To say the word 'thug' is physically pleasing," Purpura writes in her essay for the Things American online series.

"Like pulling a door tight. You can hear the seal. Say it. Thug. The shut-tight fit sits with finality in the mouth. It's a single word-answer-description-dismissal all in one. A weight hurled. It lands hard. It's anger made palpable. Kin to expletives, it's politer because righteous. Thug. What else could they be? Who else does that?"

The essay urges readers to resist the deceptive comfort of cliches. Purpura writes:

"Set up, in place of cliches, language that searches, creates friction, challenges sensibilities. Restless language. Language arrived at after listening hard.

"Refuse the ease of rant and cant — the power gained by repeating words that have come before yours, and that no longer work."

D. Watkins

When D. Watkins was 10 years old, a group of "thugs" (his word) who were looking for drugs kicked in his front door, ransacked his West Baltimore home and held his family at gunpoint for six hours.

"When they left, my mom called the cops," Watkins wrote in an April 28 op-ed piece for The New York Times. "They arrived two hours later, treating us as if we were the crooks and complaining about writing the police reports."

When he was 14, he says, he watched as Baltimore police officers made an unprovoked attack on a kid named Rick. Officers knocked the boy off his mo-ped and clubbed him when he protested, leaving Rick's face bruised for weeks.

Those are just two of the experiences that left Watkins, now 34, fatalistic about his life expectancy. "As a black man, I wonder if I'm next," he wrote in a second piece, this one published online as part of American Short Fiction's "Things American" series.

"Cops are always eyeing me, pulling me over for nothing and power tripping when we cross paths. A cocktail of fear, anger, and rage engulfs me …"

But for the first time in his life, someone is listening to what Watkins, a former drug dealer turned college professor, has to say. Print and online publications from the Times to Salon to The Guardian asked him to contribute his thoughts on life in Baltimore, post-Freddie Gray. A book of Watkins' essays comes out in August, while his memoir will be published next year.

Some people might ask, 'Why Baltimore?' he wrote for the Times. "But the real question is, 'Why did it take so long?'"

Khaliah Williams

Khaliah Williams teaches at a private school in Homeland. She wasn't aware that a flier was being distributed that urged high school students to participate in a purge of law-breaking. Then she went home at the end of the day and turned on the news.

"The images of police officers lined up in riot gear staring down our city's students is a devastating one," she wrote in an essay posted Tuesday on BuzzFeed, " 'How could they treat children that way?' I said to the empty room."

Williams, 35, attended elite schools with mostly white student bodies all her life. She quickly became aware of the racial divide that interfered with even her closest friendships.

Now she teaches in a similar institution, in a private high school. She loves her job and she loves her students. But still, she writes, the gulf persists:

"In my fiction writing class I let the students talk about the riot and was immediately aware of a divide in the room — too much focus on the damage done to commerce and not enough interest in the damage done to people. One of my students walked out; she'd heard enough.

"Later, many of the African-American students and several white students and members of the faculty gathered in a classroom to process our feelings. Many were in tears. The emotion was raw and the anger was loud. "Why don't they get it?" asked the student who had walked out."

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