Between two worlds, a search for the right word

Baltimore police and protesters in a calm moment Tuesday at West North and Pennsylvania avenues. (DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

BALTIMORE - I am in one of the two Baltimores, but it could be any street in any neighborhood in one of the two Philadelphias or Hartfords or Bronxes, places I know well:

A whole block of gutted rowhouses surrounded by small patches of shiny, new construction surrounded by even more empty lots.

A garbage can overflowing with trash just steps from streets so clean they nearly shine.

Young men standing on a corner smirking as a woman in scrubs takes reporters to task for rushing to the city only at its worst.

The same poverty.

The same violence.

The same job loss.

The same tensions between police and residents that, this time, exploded here because 25-year-old Freddie Gray died on April 19 after suffering a spinal injury allegedly while in police custody.

"This isn't just about Baltimore," said Leon Jones, a retired U.S. Army serviceman born and raised in the city, who stood yesterday outside a CVS that had been torched hours after Gray was buried Monday in a peaceful plot near a wooded area in Woodlawn Cemetery.

"This isn't even just about Baltimore right now," he said, as dozens of residents and volunteers helped to clean the charred debris from the store. "These things have been going on for years, here and all over this country, all over this world. Trust me, I have seen it, people who have nothing, who are treated like nothing, who one day wake up and get tired, really tired, of being invisible, and say no more."

President Obama said as much: "This is a slow-rolling crisis," he said yesterday. "This has been going on for a long time. This is not new and we shouldn't pretend it's new."

The violence that erupted in Baltimore has been called all kinds of things: a disgrace, an uprising. And although I cannot wrap my head around damaging what little a community like the one in west Baltimore has, for any cause, I have another word for what's happening here:

An awakening - to be precise, an awakening sparked by a seemingly endless number of cases of alleged police brutality. Even before residents took to the streets yesterday to begin the cleanup and peaceful protests, a new hashtag appeared, another call for justice: Terrence Kellum, a 20-year-old black man, reportedly was unarmed when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent fatally shot him at home in Detroit just hours after Gray was buried.

Of course, the question now is if this awakening here and across the country will last long enough for real change. If we - every last one of us - are willing to help correct decades of economic and racial inequity. If we realize that until we do, nothing will change, that any progress will be temporary, and that it will last only until reporters close their notebooks and turn off their cameras and move on to the next story.

If we close the gap between the two Baltimores, between two worlds.

Outside the CVS, Leon Jones said: "I want to say yes. I want to say this time things will change, but I've smelled that smoke before, back in '68 when Martin Luther King died. I've been surrounded by reporters who had never stepped foot in these neighborhoods before and . . . I have a feeling that I will be here again."

He has decades of despair on his side. At the Cloverdale Basketball Courts in the Penn North neighborhood in west Baltimore, 29-year-old Emmanuel Smith sat on the metal bleachers watching hundreds of residents clasp hands. He talked about how little there was for him and his friends growing up. And how now, a generation later, there is still so little for his 8-year-old son.

"Unless you count plans and empty promises," he said. That's why, one day in January, Smith just gutted his basement, threw down sports turf, hung some heavy bags and opened up his own rec center to any kid who wanted to come.

"These kids, they're desperate for something," he said. "People may say, 'Oh, those people are no good . . . or whatever.' But what you see here is desperation for . . . something, for an opportunity, you know."

On the way to Baltimore yesterday, I noticed a poll that asked whether people were worried that the violent civil unrest in Baltimore could happen in Philadelphia.

Of course it could happen in Philadelphia. It could happen in any city under the same conditions, anywhere where there are two worlds - two Baltimores, two Bronxes, two Philadelphias.



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