A Love Letter from Baltimore

by Akim Reinhardt

Baltimore postcardLast Wednesday, over at my website, I published an essay on the riot that took place in Baltimore, a city where I've lived since 2001. Sincere thanks to 3QD for re-posting it here.

That essay primarily focused on the riot itself, not the protests that followed or the de facto police state Baltimore has become since then. I considered the conditions in Baltimore that led to the riot and and examined rioting as a form of social violence.

In this essay, however, I would like to offer a more personalized reaction to the events of the past two weeks: fragments of thought and experience amid the choppers circling overhead, parks filled with protestors, and streets lined with soldiers.

Unleashing a Beast?: The Legitimizing of Governor Larry Hogan.

The night of the riot, a dear friend and fellow historian called me up and said: “This legitimizes Hogan.”
That's a very prescient insight.

When 9-11 happened, Bush the Younger was woefully unqualified to handle the situation. In the end, he seriously botched it in numerous ways. But it didn't matter. He was the man in charge. People turned to him, and he played it macho, maintaining his image enough to reap the political benefits. He was instantly legitimized, and despite all of his bungling over the next three years, was able to win re-election in 2004.

Eight months ago, Larry Hogan was kind of a nobody. Until 2003, he was just a businessman working in commercial real estate. Then, when Bob Erlich became the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro Agnew (yes, former disgraced Richard Nixon VP Spiro Agnew), Hogan finagled a spot as Secretary of Appointments. In other words, he was responsible for patronage appointments in the Erlich administration.

After Erlich was one-and-done, going down to former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley, Hogan remained a political operative; he founded and ran his own anti-tax organization.

Look, Hogan didn't come out of nowhere. His dad was a congressman, and he himself has been active in politics since the 1970s. His first stint as a delegate to the GOP national convention was 1976, and he first ran for office (and lost) in 1981.

But when Larry Hogan announced his candidacy for governor last year, most Marylanders responded: “Who?” And nationally, he was a complete and utter Nobody.

But Martin O'Malley's handpicked successor ran a disastrous campaign, and Hogan managed to become the second Republican governor of Maryland since Sprio Agnew.

The chances of Hogan being a one-and-done novelty like Erlich just got a helluva a lot slimmer. Shit, he's even got some real national name recognition now. That's what happens when you're the guy in a suit who sends in the troops.

It's too early in Hogan's Sprio Agnewterm for me to make any pronouncements about him. I was not impressed with his first national press conference, when he threw Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake under the bus for supposedly waiting too long to call him to do his macho man routine. It was amateur hour bullshit, the kind of thing you might expect from an incompetent corporate middle manager, not a state governor.

But because of these riots, he may be here to stay. Time to take note.

I realize that there are myriad important differences between wars and riots. However, after writing my essay and contemplating the commonalities between the two, with both being forms of social violence, I increasingly became sickened by the Left's celebration of the riot.

It became ever clearer to me that fairly mindless leftist support for social violence in the form of urban riots is not entirely different from fairly mindless right wingers' support of social violence in the form of warfare by the state.

No wonder neither ideology speaks to me. Both are so steeped in rationalized violence as to sicken me.

That being said, there's a world of a difference between an outside ideologue and a local person who's in the mix.

Which is why I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for local protestors who are damn proud of the high schoolers who ran amok at Mondawmin Mall on Monday afternoon (which was the initial phase of the riot), even if I personally am not.

It's very difficult for many outsiders to understand how parents and grandparents could be proud of teenagers for starting a riot. But several factors go into it.

One was the way many black Baltimoreans rallied in opposition to the notion that their children were “thugs.” Numerous politicians, including the governor and mayor, and many in the press used that word. And there was a local backlash.

These are their children, both metaphorically and literally, and how dare you, who do not know them and only ever look down on them, call them “thugs.” That was a very strong sentiment.

And while the rest of the nation is enamored with the woman who beat her teenage son to get him away from the riot, many of the people here in Baltimore think the teens who rioted at Mondawmin Mall actually did something positive and important.

Which brings us to the next factor. There is a widespread sense among Batlimoreans that the indictments, which D.A. Marilyn Mosby handed down on Friday against the six police officers responsible for Freddie Gray's death, would not have come to pass without the riot.

It's hard to describe what those indictments meant to many folks in this town. People cried. They cheered. I saw it, I heard it. The indictments, in the minds of many, are an unquestioned victory for justice.

And while many people are very grateful to Mosby, who was just nationally legitimized in much the same way Hogan was, these folks also have a strong sense of agency. Many people here earnestly believe that the officers would not have been indicted without the riot.

And it's their kids who started it. So when you call them “thugs,” you're not just insulting their children, you're also denying the good that supposedly came from their actions.

Finally, there's the need to be heard. In America, poor people are usually invisible to the middle and upper classes. They might pop up in the occasional and uncomfortable interaction. A panhandler asks you for money. A homeless person is sleeping on a public bench. You took a wrong turn and passed through a neighborhood.

But the middle and upper classes almost never actually hear from poor people. The poor have almost zero access to mass media. They host no shows, run no commercials, and only get interviewed for a few seconds if the local evening news is covering a nearby shooting or fire.

You never hear from the poor, and they know that. Because, oh boy, they're always hearing from you. From the bureaucrats involved in their lives, to the pretty faces on TV, to yup, you guessed it, the police who roam their neighborhoods: the poor are always hearing from the middle and upper classes. And those better-to-do folks tell them what they think, tell them how to act and think and feel, tell them what's wrong with them, and tell them how to fix it.

Christ, David Brooks' recent article was little more than a litany of insults aimed at America's poor. Like every well meaning person of means, he thinks he's doing them a favor by filling some version of the Savior or Prophet roles. But it's really just another example of shitting on the poor while they can't respond, because they don't get to write columns for the New York Times.

All this adds up to poor people wanting to be heard. Needing to be heard. That was a major theme at various protests.

And one of the things the riot did was to make middle class and wealthy Americans listen to poor black people in Baltimore.

Their words got filtered through crap like CNN, which led them to chant things like “Fuck CNN!” But despite that, poor people got heard far more than they normally do, which is never.

Thus, many of them look at those kids who started the riot, and they have a sense of gratitude and pride for helping them get heard.

So how come I'm repulsed by outside observers who celebrate the riots, yet sympathetic to local people who do so for some (but not all of) the same reasons?

Because fuck you, asshole. People got hurt. Businesses were destroyed. And I don't mean just that infamous CVS. I mean dozens of mom and pop shops. People struggling to make a living and a little dream for themselves watched it go up in smoke.

You wanna celebrate that? Just some unfortunate collateral damage on the road to revolution? Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit.

But a local person living in this maelstrom with their ass on the line? Yeah, they can be proud. They earned it. You didn't. Now fuck off.

That's how I feel. I'm not saying it's right, but it's how I feel, and I'm not apologizing for it.

Despite the sincere sympathies I just proclaimed, I'm not happy about the riot.

I think Mosby would have indicted the officers regardless. If you believe that, and I do, then you look around and see short term damage from the riot that is probably about to be compounded by it's long term aftershocks.

In other words, this is gonna fuck shit up for a while.

To clarify, I'm not talking about the protests. Those I support very much. But the riot itself was, I think, unnecessary for our much needed social progress, and may prove difficult for this city to overcome right away.

This isn't some gaudy, overpriced hot spot trading on its erstwhile street cred like Boston, Manhattan, or, increasingly, Washington, D.C. This is Baltimore, that singularly broken miracle of geography: the red headed stepchild of the Northeast corridor, the faded rose of the South, and the eastern most fringe of the Midwestern rust belt.

Man, if that weren't so long, it might be a good license plate slogan.

The long term damage may be wide ranging, beginning with the tourist economy. Other than the drug trade, I find the tourist economy to be the least endearing part of the Baltimore economy. Tourism is only fun if you're a tourist, and even that's pretty dubious. Of course it's profitable for many businesses, but too many of those businesses are national and international corporations siphoning money off to their shareholders, instead of small businesses keeping it local.

On the labor side, it's a pretty mixed bag. Some people certainly do well with it, and kudos to them. But too much of the tourism sector's job creation adds up to crappy service jobs. You know, like go wash dishes at the P.F. Chang near the Inner Harbor. I'm not being the least bit sarcastic when I say you can find dignity in work like that, but you sure as shit can't find much money.

For many locals unattached to the tourism industry, the Inner Harbor is mostly something to ignore, or something to point unwanted guests towards. Or maybe that's just the attitude of me and my jaundiced friends.

But putting my own cynicism aside, tourism is indeed an important part of the economy, and this here city needs as much economic activity as it can get.

The problem of course is that nothing scares faster than a white suburbanite. So that tourist economy is probably gonna be fucked for a year or two.

The local housing market might take a hit as well. Prices had generally been going up over the last few years, but one wonders how this will affect things. Undoubtedly, some people will now refuse to move here under any circumstances. I mean, those generally aren't the people you want anyway, better off without ‘em, I say. But just like the economic activity from tourism, we need as much tax base as we can get.

But that downturn will probably play out very locally and unevenly. Some neighborhoods might tank, others might level off, while those areas the middle class deems to be “safe” may actually see housing prices go up as supply and demand dance their heartless dance.

The riot and military occupation will probably also hurt outside investment. How many businesses that might have considered moving here will now nix that idea? It's impossible to say. Only time will tell, but I can't imagine this won't have any negative consequences. My totally unscientific, horse race handicapper's estimate was that each night of rioting would fuck the local economy for a year. Fortunately, the riot was just one night. We'll see.

Overall, I suspect the revival of Baltimore's economy will continue, but the lines of disparity may worsen. That revival, as in many post-industrial American cities, is based in large part on an urban playground model in which young professionals move into hip neighborhoods, then move out to the suburbs when they have kids, but continue visiting for more mature forms of entertainment.

In other words, a less successful version of the shit shows up in Boston, Manhattan, and D.C.

So hip neighborhoods will probably remain hip. Placid, middle class neighborhoods are probably likewise unaffected. But I worry that poor neighborhoods will just get poorer.

The best media coverage by far, and I mean by light years, was local. In particular, alternative weekly newspaper Baltimore City Paper and local daily newspaper The Baltimore Sun (which recently bought City Paper), just churned it out. Top notch stuff.

Obviously, like anyone living here, I have insights and opinions. But if I didn't, and I had to rely only on crap like cable news . . . pretty fuckin' stark.

Here's a recent upload from City Paper. They ignored the “media corral,” that spot where well behaved media were supposed to herd together under police orders. Instead, they went out into the streets and shot important pictures: curfew arrests of protestors, street medics, and observers from the National Lawyer's Guild.

The highest bail any of the six indicted BPD cops got was $350,000. Meanwhile, a sixteen year old kid who bashed a police car, then turned himself in, got a $500,000 bail. That shit does not go unnoticed.

I suppose the judge imagined he was sending a message about how rioting won't be tolerated. Instead the message received was: a car is worth about twice as much as Freddy Gray's life.

16 year old destroys a carWalking home last night before curfew, I came across a scene not usually seen in my neighborhood, or in this city generally for the most part: A young, dirty, white couple with bad dread locks, sitting in the doorway of a closed store on a busy street, him strumming a guitar and singing, her humming and bobbing her head, both of them hoping you'd stick some money in their hat.

They also had the requisite dog.

We've got plenty of homeless whites in Baltimore, some mentally ill, mostly drug addicts out hustling for the next score. But this particular brand, a callow bastardization of the hippie movement that seems permanently attached to leftist protests and rallies (I don't imagine they show up at Tea Party rallies, if that's even still a thing), can't help but bring out my inner Archie Bunker.

Go do something productive! Or not. But if you wanna skate through life, stop begging. We all know you're not actually poor. Self-indulgent brats.

Mostly, I just feel bad for the dog.

After I posted my essay about the riot last week, fielded some initial responses, made some final copyedits, and pushed back in my chair, I felt emotionally exhausted. I teared up a little bit. I guess I do love this fucked up little city that has been my home these last fourteen years. And I really hope it gets better. Or at least doesn’t get any worse.

Finally, I’m blaming God. Usually when something bad happens, there are all sorts of people who are quick to say “It's all part of God's plan.” Yet, I just haven't heard anyone blaming the Baltimore riot and subsequent military occupation on God. Those people seem to have gone AWOL. So let me pick up the slack for them.

This is all God's fault.

Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com