It was hard to tell exactly where the music was coming from — perhaps from the large yellow van at the corner of North Avenue and Monroe Street — but the song was clear and loud: Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror," which goes: "I'm starting with the man in the mirror, I'm asking him to change his ways." A skinny man danced to the song on the roof of the van, washed in the flickering blue-white light from a police helicopter.
"If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change."
Now the dancer was in the street, in the broad intersection that, once upon a time and long ago, must have been a grand crossroads of Baltimore, where two boulevards met. Now, at sunset, the intersection was strewn with trash and you could still smell smoke from the afternoon fire a few blocks away. A thick line of helmeted police held back the crowd that gathered on North Avenue as the sun went down on one of the worst days in Baltimore's history.
"If you want to make the world a better place . . ."? Destroy your own neighborhood? Defy the pleas of Freddie Gray's family to protest his death forcefully but peacefully by burning and looting Baltimore?
The Rev. Kinji Scott, a Baptist minister and community activist, stood on the corner, the music and the helicopter almost drowning out his voice, but I heard him say "hurt and angry" several times. People are "hurt and angry."
Scott and two other clergy went to this spot after the Gray funeral Monday afternoon, and they did so, Scott said, at the behest of police Lt. Col. Melvin T. Russell, also a minister. Trouble was coming, Russell said, and he wanted Scott's help in intervening between "a lot of angry, hurt people" and the police.
"We got maced trying to hold people back, separate them from the police," Scott said. "We tried to say to people, 'If you don't want to go to jail, go home.' . . . People are hurt out here, they're angry. They're hungry."
We get it: People, especially the young black men of Baltimore, are hurt and angry about how one of their peers died from injuries while in the hands of police. That hurt, that anger were being respected, and we had a week of civil protest. But then, Saturday night, the fragile peace cracked. Monday, it broke wide open.
As sirens wailed and fires broke out across the city, I thought of how, when I first arrived in this city nearly 40 years ago, Baltimoreans — community leaders, Sun reporters, public officials — described the riots of April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King: Businesses burned and looted, rioting in the streets, state of emergency, a mayor losing control, the governor mobilizing the National Guard. And it was crushing for the city, everyone said: "We thought we'd never recover."
The riots that time accelerated the flight of Baltimoreans to the suburbs. The city's population continued to fall. Some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the King riots never recovered, or took years to get back to anything you might call stable. The riots and all those other factors we've mentioned before — the loss of blue-collar industry, the high concentrations of poverty on the west side and the east side — left Baltimore broken.
That's how it feels today: Not just cracked, but broken.
Hurt and angry? For all who have remained loyal to the biggest small town in America — through the worst heroin-and-homicide years, through the parade of the middle class to the suburbs — there are plenty hurt and angry today, too. The Freddie Gray death was a brutal tragedy, but we had a chance, here in the post-Ferguson era, to get this right: To demand justice the way Dr. King would have wanted it, to gather the big voices of Baltimore, black and white, and demand change, and not just in how the police operate.
Billy Murphy, the lawyer for the Gray family, ran for mayor in 1983 against the popular incumbent, William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer, who was first elected mayor only three years after the King riots, had been Baltimore's biggest cheerleader, trying to instill pride in the city again, trying to rebuild it, create a sense of renaissance.
But there was Billy Murphy, just a few years after Harborplace had opened, speaking a hard truth, talking about the "other Baltimore," the one you can't see from the Inner Harbor — the poor and broken Baltimore that never seemed to get the attention it needed: redevelopment, jobs, the kind of massive investment that could push people and neighborhoods toward a sustainably better life.
Though Schaefer said little about it at the time — he certainly wasn't going to agree that Baltimore was two extravagantly different cities in one — Schaefer came around to acknowledging that "other Baltimore." And others understood it, too, people like the developer James Rouse and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Even Martin O'Malley, when he ran for mayor, spoke about the two Baltimores in terms of crime, pledging to make Clifton Park as safe as Roland Park.
But, in the O'Malley years, we got zero-tolerance policing and a continuation of the war on drugs that, while reducing violent crime, also harmed the relationship between police and the people who live and die in that "other Baltimore" you can't see from Harborplace.
Hurt? There are plenty of people who are hurt today — those who have built businesses, who tried to make the city a better place, who have worked in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the city to improve life there, especially for children and the elderly. But it hasn't been enough. There's a critical mass of social problems that have built up across too many years and that were never sufficiently addressed in the aftermath of the last riots.
Those of us who have lived here a long time, lived through Baltimore's struggles, had hoped that the city was headed toward a tipping point — where, once and for all, in some sustainable way, more people would be able to enjoy this growing, thriving city.
But here we are. Tipped hard and back the other way.
Last night, at Monroe and Fulton, as the Michael Jackson imitator danced, Munir Bahar and his 300 Men March came through in their black-and-white T-shirts, trying to make a statement against the violence, as they have done every week since the summer of 2013. It's a beautiful movement: men trying to keep other men, and boys, from killing each other. It's a grassroots effort to push Baltimore to a better future.
I was happy — if you could actually be happy about anything on a heart-breaking day — to see Bahar and his men, a little bit of hope in the flickering white-blue light of the police helicopter.
But we are broken today, Baltimore.
"Y'all got a big job," I heard the comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory say some 40 years ago, charging the young people in an auditorium with a list of important things that needed to be accomplished and conditions that needed to change within a generation. We will never get to a better place without the effort of all classes of people, Gregory said.
Now in his 80s, Gregory was here for Freddie Gray's funeral, and then he saw the city break, in the broad light of day. "Y'all got a big job."