Protesters hold up signs in front of a line of police in Baltimore.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BALTIMORE, Maryland – On a single intersection along West Baltimore’s North Fulton Avenue, there are five liquor stores bustling with business midday on a Wednesday. So, too, is the funeral home rounding out this blighted street corner, where Corey Rocker is venting his frustrations.
“In all my 37 years, I’ve seen the police beat... so many people,” Rocker says. A father of six, he says his youngest child, two years old, is already afraid of law enforcement.
“My only worry, at this point, is getting my kids out of here,” he says.
No journalists are in sight by the Joseph H. Brown, Jr., Funeral Home, where residents of this part of town – largely a black community for over a century – are recapping an eventful week and predicting what’s to come.
Instead, most cameras are concentrated on a larger intersection up the street, where the fires began on Monday with the burning of a CVS Pharmacy, and where the National Guard is now stationed in force.
“That’s where the action’s at,” says Keyon Williamson, a lifelong resident of a neighborhood he considers largely peaceful. “But what happens when the cameras leave? “
"Maybe we’ll go back to being a hood,” he continues, “doing our thing, like nothing’s changed.”
That may be this community’s greatest fear. Coverage of this week’s Baltimore riots focused on the flames, on the pace of action by the mayor and the careful word choice used by the US’s first black president. But each resident here, along Pennsylvania Avenue, has his story to tell, reflective of systemic injustice experienced by America’s black communities.
The pharmacy that was looted and burned was an asset to this neighborhood, lost for now. But the damage untold runs down West North Avenue, where row house after row house sits gutted and boarded, dark in the evenings and useless in the day.
No sit-down restaurants operate in this part of town. But on Baker Street, one vendor, Avenue Bakery, displays the neighborhood’s cultural and commercial heritage with a brochure detailing its “historic trail.”
“We’re a proud community,” one customer says. “This isn’t about the CVS. It’s about no one having jobs.”
Indeed, of nearly two dozen interviews with local residents, not a single person was surprised by the riots that have unfolded in recent days after the conspicuous death of Freddie Gray, following the killing of Walter Scott, following Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and the ones out of sight.
Along Retreat Street, another resident, Jamal Patrick, is standing his ground. “Any one person could have provoked this,” he says, criticizing US President Barack Obama and others for billing the protesters as “thugs.”
“Obama is not with the oppressed,” he says. “He’s not walking in our shoes or in our streets.”
Along the same street, one young man rides through on a bicycle, which he says he had stolen and intends to sell.
In remarks from the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday, Obama praised peaceful protesters but condemned Monday’s widespread looting as criminal and punishable activity.
For all the criticism of US media coverage – and few residents here say they can afford cable news – attention is finally being paid to the matter of criminal justice reform and community policing practices on a national scale.
At her first major policy speech since announcing her run for the presidency, Hillary Clinton says that the “heartbreaking” events in Baltimore require a sweeping national strategy to combat discrimination. And Rand Paul, a libertarian running for the Republican nomination for president, says that the family structure must be reinforced in African-American communities – and that his party must proactively help.
“I’m optimistic about my community,” says Williamson, pointing out two new leasing offices and a daycare center. “But my country? I can’t say.”