I’m a life-long suburbanite. I’ve lived for 25 years just outside the city. My family chose to live in the suburbs – and I’ll probably choose to live in the suburbs again – because its nice to be out of the city, but nice to be close to the city. You get to have a backyard, but get to go to museums. You get to have quiet nights, but get to go to Baltimore Orioles games every summer without driving too far.
Because I lived in the suburbs, I was blessed to have a good relationship with the criminal justice system. In fact, my interactions with the Falls Church Police Department have been mostly great. One time an old lady drove her car onto my neighbor’s yard and a police officer came by and knew Spanish, so he could talk to her in her native language. He said he was learning Arabic so he could have a better relationship with the Muslim neighborhoods in Greater Falls Church. Our high school resource officer once saw me walk into and accidentally break a side-view mirror on a car and called me over and then talked to me about not being a doofus, said he’d fix the situation and let me go on to class. I felt safe in my town because I knew nothing bad happened in my town and because I could call a police officer to come be brave and help if something did. No one I knew had their father sent to prison. No swat team ever raided my school or my apartment building. No drug user or dealer was locked in a cage for years on end because of their non-violent crimes.
Because I lived in the suburbs, hewing to our supreme responsibility to non-violence was easy. I never experienced violence in my house, I never experienced violence in my neighborhood, I never experienced violence in my school, and I knew hardly anyone who was sent off by our government to commit violence in the name of the state. So, when tense situations arose in my life with others, it was easy to suppress anger long enough to remember the common humanity of my opponents, to blame structures instead of individuals, and to see that steady non-violence is always a better strategy than violence.
But back inside those cities — those cities that are the whole reason we live where we live; those cities that give us the baseball teams and art museums and stable jobs; those beating hearts of our metropolis bodies — there’s a different story.
There are neighborhoods that have been economically devastated over the past decades. They witnessed their centers cored out as American manufacturing jobs were transferred by unpatriotic mega-corporations to far-off lands because those firms’ wealthy managers didn’t want to deal with hard-earned American unions, safety and labor standards, and fair wages. When dramatic technological changes revolutionized the workplace, suburbanites like me had access to well-funded schools and college educations — the keys to the information economy — while many in inner-city neighborhoods didn’t have the same access. They couldn’t drive away to find jobs: the number of urban black fathers with an automobile dropped to less than 1 in 5. When recessions receded for the rest of us, it didn’t for many urban black men: whereas the unemployment rate for white Americans was 5.4 percent last year, it was double that for black Americans. And none of this counts those who did find a job that pays below a living wage, like the millions of urban black folks (among others) suffering under the poverty wage regime of the fast food economy.
Sufficiently devastated, our fellow Americans living in these impoverished neighborhoods soon became easy political punching bags to sell the ultra-expensive, taxpayer-funded, Big Government “War on Drugs.” Despite white and black folks using and selling drugs at similar rates, drug crime became associated in the public consciousness with urban black men, due to a concerted effort by the 1980’s White House to sensationalize crack cocaine and turn drug use into an urban law enforcement issue, as opposed to what it really was: a public health issue. This creation of the mythical “criminalblackman” was beyond successful: when a 1995 study asked participants to envision a drug user and describe what he or she looked like, 95% of respondents pictured a black man, despite black men making up only 15% of current drug users and dealers.
Having successfully created a national subconscious associating black men with drug crime, it’s no surprise that the Drug War began to target urban black neighborhoods. Today, black men are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug use as white men and 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white men. As a result, despite the fact that less than 15% of the population is black, about half of all who enter prison for a drug conviction are. And once they’re imprisoned, they’re serving longer sentences, resulting in about three quarters of all persons currently imprisoned being a minority. And again, remember, this is all despite the fact that white folks and black folks use and sell drugs at similar rates.
In short, the real state of emergency in Baltimore is this four-decade Long Emergency: an economy that has devastated our inner-city neighbors, a criminal justice system that sends one-third of our black male neighbors to prison at some point in their lifetime, and a political system that makes some of our neighbors’ kids in Baltimore think smashing and throwing is their best way to raise their voice.
As a suburbanite, this is a story I haven’t lived. I don’t know what it’s really like inside there. So, out of humility, I don’t think we suburbanites should be wagging our finger, telling people living that other story what to do.
But what we can and should do is talk amongst ourselves about what those from our own neighborhood should be doing about this Long Emergency. We suburbanites should ask ourselves: what responsibilities do we have to the cities that provide for us our suburbs? Should we drive in during the day, take from them our baseball games and art museums and paychecks, and then drive out at night, thinking nothing of what’s happening in there? Should we ignore the needs of our city’s struggling neighborhoods unless they risk spilling out into our safe havens? Should we deem their streets too “sketchy” to drive through and learn from? Should we let the sensationalist glowing screens tell us about their kids instead of actually meeting them?
Responsibility is the ability to respond. And we in the suburbs have an ability to help respond to the foundational crisis of our cities. If we are going to take from the metropolises we inhabit, we have a responsibility to give to them, too. There are tremendous leaders from these neighborhoods and in these neighborhoods not only helping address the short emergency of this week but helping address the Long Emergency of this era. Instead of wagging our fingers at the protesters, why not lend our whole hands (and, with that, our whole hearts) to such leaders?
In that spirit, I just donated $20 to The Inner Harbor Project which, in their own words, is “a model for social change that identifies teenagers who are leaders among their peers, equips them with research and professional skills, and organizes them to come up with solutions to issues that divide our society on the basis of race, class and culture.” I’ve heard great things about their work: I hope you can donate, too.
It’s the least we can do: support Baltimore inside and outside of the walls of Camden Yards.