Baltimore Is Not Ferguson. Here's What It Really Is

Baltimore Is Not Ferguson. Here's What It Really Is

2:19pm Apr 29, 2015
A man makes a heart shape with his hands during a peaceful protest near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire on Monday in Baltimore.
A man makes a heart shape with his hands during a peaceful protest near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire on Monday in Baltimore.
Andrew Burton / Getty Images
  • A man makes a heart shape with his hands during a peaceful protest near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire on Monday in Baltimore.

    A man makes a heart shape with his hands during a peaceful protest near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire on Monday in Baltimore.

    Andrew Burton / Getty Images

  • Neighborhood children ride bicycles in the street on Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore.

    Neighborhood children ride bicycles in the street on Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore.

    Mark Makela / Getty Images

This week's Baltimore riot could not have happened to a nicer city.

Baltimore residents welcome strangers and even call them "hon." They sit on benches painted with the slogan "The Greatest City in America."

Baltimore is also where people looted stores and burned cars Monday night. They did it when a man died a week after being arrested.

I was about to call Freddie Gray's death the latest in a string of high-profile deaths of African-American men involving police. But that's not quite right. And that's the point. Each incident of the past year was a particular story in a particular place, which became clear as soon as we arrived in the very particular place that is Baltimore.

Nothing about this story was quite the way it seemed from a distance. For one thing, the uprising did not bring a black populace into confrontation with an overwhelmingly white police force, as happened in Ferguson, Mo., last year.

Baltimore, a majority black city, has a black mayor and a black police commissioner whose force is about half black.

This reality was plain to Taiwan Parker, who lives in the neighborhood where Gray was arrested. He told us that police-community relations have long been sour. And yet, he said, "It ain't no race thing — it's not a race thing at all."

His friend Michael Johnson agreed. In fact, much of West Baltimore seemed to agree. We interviewed 16 residents — men and women, white and black, young and old. Hardly anybody spoke of Freddie Gray's death as a racial incident.

Parker views the trouble with police as an issue of class.

In this neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested, rundown, brick row-houses line the streets. A lot of drugs are sold — a lot. "I'm a three-time felon," one man volunteered within minutes of meeting us.

Parker says he has a regular city job, but he feels some cops view everyone as a criminal.

"Some of them, they label us," he said. "They see us down here, they label us as drug dealers, we live in poverty. That's not all true."

On the morning after Monday's violence, residents of this area were busy on almost every street — bagging up debris from a looted liquor store or pushing brooms along the sidewalk.

They did this even though they weren't sure the violence was over. A helicopter hung overhead, motionless, as if suspended from a string. Waiting for something to happen.

Volunteers delivered sack lunches to children. The kids had lost their free lunches when the schools closed due to violence.

There was also food for grownups. In a more prosperous neighborhood, Bob McCulley offered a plate of jalapeno corn muffins and more.

That's Baltimore: the place you get offered a wide selection of snacks in a riot zone.

McCulley is a retired cop. We met him in front of a strip mall. The shops included his wife's looted hardware store.

He said he and his wife arrived at the damaged store on Monday night to find neighbors waiting for them to help clean up the mess.

They were friendly neighbors — who worked alongside friendly looters at the shop next door.

"The neighbors boarded up the front of the hardware store as the people were still looting the Rite Aid," McCulley said. "And they're pulling up in cars and they're taking stuff from the front of Rite Aid and they're taking stuff from the back of Rite Aid."

Many people in this city had been hoping for a less-violent outcome.

One of them was Lillian Hoover, a teacher we met outside the hardware store. She remembered a protest last Saturday, before violence erupted.

"If you look at the pictures," she said, "you can see it's a mixed crowd of people, different ages, there's people with strollers. You know, it's really a diverse crowd. And I was so hopeful. You know, I was thinking: 'This is Baltimore. Baltimore is going to show the country how to do this.' "

Then Monday's violence came, and "The Greatest City in America" didn't seem as great.

At a park some blocks away, we met Farrah Spruill. She was sitting on bleachers with her 6-year-old son. I asked what she thought about raising a boy in Baltimore right now.

"That's a loaded question," she said. "I'm scared for my child every day."

But she was doing what she could. She'd come to the park for a community meeting. More than 100 people gathered at one end of the basketball courts.

Activists urged parents to bring their kids to this park while the schools were closed: They could play basketball, get some adult supervision and stay out of trouble.

"We know the real Baltimore," one called out to the crowd.

And he asked for help regaining what their city had lost.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This week's Baltimore riot could not have happened to a nicer city. Baltimore residents welcome strangers and even call them hon. They sit on benches painted with the slogan, the greatest city in America. Baltimore is also where people looted stores and burned cars. They did it when a man died a week after being arrested. I was about to call it the latest in a string of high-profile deaths of African-American men involving police, but that's not quite right. Each was a particular incident in a particular place, as we learned while visiting the very particular place that is Baltimore.

What's going on around here?

TAIWAN PARKER: Just all type of madness. Yeah, we just recovering, getting our block back together from the wreckage last night.

INSKEEP: Taiwan Parker was carrying a trash bag when we met. He was cleaning debris near the Wonderland liquor store. It's on Pennsylvania Avenue. The store smelled like schnapps and whiskey from bottles looters had smashed.

People were throwing garbage around?

MICHAEL JOHNSON: Yes sir, like...

PARKER: Glass bottles everywhere.

JOHNSON: It look just like Mardi Gras around here. You feel? Like everything, glass everywhere.

PARKER: Exactly. That's exactly what it look like.

JOHNSON: Trash everywhere, bags everywhere.

INSKEEP: Many people were cleaning the street, even though they weren't sure the violence was over. A helicopter hung overhead, motionless, as if suspended from a string.

Somebody up there watching.

It stayed there as we talked of what went wrong in this neighborhood. Parker said police-community relations are sour. They went bad long before Freddie Gray was arrested, injured and finally died in events police had yet to explain. It happened in this mostly black city, where the mayor, police commissioner and half the officers on the force are black. This led Taiwan Parker and his friend Michael Johnson to a surprising conclusion.

Does it matter if the police are black or white?

JOHNSON: No, it's not no race thing.

PARKER: No, it don't.

JOHNSON: That's what a lot of people try and make it, like...

PARKER: It's not a race thing at all.

JOHNSON: Not that. It's just dumb the way they want to carry it, but...

PARKER: It's just certain polices.

JOHNSON: The way they carrying it, they making it like it's a race thing, for real.

PARKER: It's not a race thing. It don't have anything to do with race.

JOHNSON: That's what they want it to be. Like, it's not going to be safe for nobody.

INSKEEP: It's worth dwelling on this point. We interviewed 16 people in West Baltimore, men and women, black and white, old and young. Hardly anybody thought of Freddie Gray's death as a racial incident. It's a different story than, say, Ferguson, Mo., where the black community confronted mostly white police.

Taiwan Parker views the trouble with police here as an issue of class. In this neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested, rundown brick row houses line the streets. A lot of drugs are sold. Parker says he has a regular job with the city, but he feels some cops view everyone here as a criminal.

PARKER: Like certain ones that just see us every day that don't like the fact that we working. Like some of them, they label us. This Pennsylvania Avenue out here, they see us down here, they label us as drug dealers. We live in poverty. Like, that's not all true.

INSKEEP: The class divide fractured that friendliness for which Baltimore is known. And the riot after Gray's death left people seeking to restore civic pride. We saw cleanup crews with brooms on almost every street. Volunteers delivered sack lunches to children. The kids had lost their free lunches when the schools closed due to violence. There was also food for grownups. In a more prosperous neighborhood, Bob McCulley offered a plate of jalapeno corn muffins and more.

BOB MCCULLEY: Do you want something to eat before you go in?

INSKEEP: Goodness, I'd be delighted. Sure. What do you got there?

MCCULLEY: All right, then. Have a coffee and a...

INSKEEP: Oh, no, no, no - those little muffins. Thank you very much.

MCCULLEY: Oh, yeah.

That's Baltimore, the place you get offered a wide selection of snacks in a riot zone. McCulley is a retired cop. We met him in front of a strip mall. The shops there included his wife's looted hardware store.

MCCULLEY: I got a call about 6 o'clock that the alarms were going off. I got her. I jumped into the car and got her, and we came down. And at that point in time, there were residents here waiting for us from the community to help us clean the mess up.

INSKEEP: Friendly neighbors and friendly looters. They all worked politely in shops side by side.

MCCULLEY: The neighbors boarded up the front of the hardware store as the people were still looting the Rite Aid. And they're pulling up in cars and they're taking stuff from the front of Rite Aid and are taking stuff from the back of Rite Aid.

INSKEEP: As we watched, a customer named Malik Thomas brought a drill. He volunteered to screw in boards over the broken windows of the hardware store. He's a construction contractor.

Is this going to mean a lot of business for you since you're a contractor?

MALIK THOMAS: (Laughter) Unfortunately, unfortunately.

INSKEEP: Despite his financial interest, he says he urged people to stop the destruction Monday night.

THOMAS: I went up to North Avenue with the clergy and - I think they were the Muslims, I think, in the mosque. And I tried to go up and march with them, and they tried to - I mean, it worked for a minute, but I mean, soon as we walked through a neighborhood to try to calm things, you look back, and it's hectic again. I mean, it was - nothing worked.

INSKEEP: Residents feel that sincere protesters mixed with people who just as sincerely wanted to steal. It was a crushing disappointment to Lillian Hoover who we met outside the hardware store. Days ago, she was imagining a different outcome.

LILLIAN HOOVER: The way that our protest came together on Saturday, if you look at the pictures, you can see, you know, it's a mixed crowd of people, different ages. There's people with strollers. You know, it's really a diverse crowd. And I was so hopeful. You know, I was thinking, you know, like, this is Baltimore. Baltimore is going to show the country how to do this.

INSKEEP: Then Monday's violence came, and the greatest city in America didn't seem as great. At a park some blocks away, we met Farrah Spruill. She was sitting on bleachers with her 6-year-old son.

What do you think of about raising a boy in Baltimore right now?

FARRAH SPRUILL: Wow, that's a loaded question. I'm scared for my child every day. And being a single mom, the wound goes a little bit deeper. The thing is is that, you know, he's 6 now, but eventually, I'm not going to be able to watch him every moment.

INSKEEP: But she was doing what she could. She'd come to this park for a community meeting. More than 100 people gathered at one end of the basketball courts. Activists asked for help regaining what the city had lost.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We know the real Baltimore. We know what we did. We know how hard we worked. That don't represent me because somebody tore down a store.

INSKEEP: This informal meeting came to a conclusion. Residents should bring their kids to these basketball courts so long as the schools were closed. That would keep them out of trouble. We watched a dozen kids or more on the basketball courts. They tried for three-pointers again and again. They were younger kids and hardly ever scored. But every shot they took nudged Baltimore back toward the city it aspires to be. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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