Colson: A personal primer on ‘Bodymore, Murderland’
Anyone who’s spent time in Baltimore, Maryland, knows that Freddie Gray’s death and the urban unrest it spawned were not that surprising.
Odds are that you haven’t been to Baltimore, which has never been high on the list of tourist destinations for most of the U.S. traveling public, other than those living in the mid-Atlantic coastal region.
But clearly, as was proved in recent weeks, all is not rosy in what once was the sixth-largest city in the nation and the chief bulwark of Maryland’s overall economy.
Unemployment is monstrously high in the black regions of the city, where housing is dilapidated at best, and opportunities are something that are available to other people but not to those living in West Baltimore, the scene of the riots.
Over the course of the century just past, Baltimore lost its primacy in such vital industries as steel production and shipping, although shipping seems to be undergoing a resurgence at the expense of Baltimore’s main rival port, Norfolk, Virginia. But Baltimore’s economy has been in shambles for decades.
A key problem has been corruption at city hall, starting in the mid-1960s as successive mayoral administrations have become more and more dependent on federal and state largess and have erected a host of regulations and restrictions, deemed “anti-business” by commentators on the Worldwide Web, that are blamed for driving out many large employers seeking friendlier places to do business.
Dubbed “Bodymore, Murderland” by its own residents at one point, the city’s murder rate and general crime rate were well above national averages.
In Baltimore and all of Maryland, there is deeply rooted racism and all its attendant ills. Black residents are herded into certain neighborhoods, blacks were long denied work in many sectors of the economy, and blacks always have been savagely harassed and intimidated by their police force, by black officers as well as white.
Some observers say Baltimore is the nation’s best (or worst) laboratory for studying racially-driven urban blight and all of its ramifications.
I should note that I’ve been to Baltimore, numerous times, while living in Maryland in the 1960s and early 1970s, which is where I first encountered racism at its worst. Moving to Greenbelt, Maryland, in the fall of 1966, I was shocked to learn that our town had, the previous summer, hosted the last of its annual parades by the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1972 I lived for a year just outside Baltimore, in a little unincorporated region called Pasadena, perched along a backwater tidal inlet just off the Chesapeake Bay, and did factory work in the city.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in the city, other than during working hours, because for years I had heard that young, long-haired hippies such as myself could expect rough treatment from the local cops if we ever crossed paths.
But I recall one party at a row house in one of the city’s ghettos, which is where my hippie and blue-collar friends mostly lived. Some enterprising soul appeared with a couple of cases of canned whipped cream, which we gleefully sprayed all over the neighborhood’s light poles, fire hydrants and cars after indulging in more mind-altering substances than probably were good for us.
My memories of the night are obscure, but I recall at one point hearing sirens a few blocks away and listening to my buddies making relieved statements to the effect of, “Whew, the cops are hassling the black gangs over in the next neighborhood, they won’t be here any time soon.”
We got off scot free that night, but I still wonder what the scene was like for the “gangs” a few streets over.
I recently asked my brother, who is five years my junior and who spent a lot more time than I did roaming the back streets of Baltimore, about his experiences with Baltimore cops.
He said the word back then was that you could expect to get your head caved in if you made the cops mad, and that it was very easy to make them mad. The rule of thumb, he said, was that if you went up to “Bal-mur” (as it was pronounced) to party, you’d better get out of town by dusk or face some serious potential repercussions.
All of this is just to point out that I can understand, to some extent, the bad vibes faced by Freddie Gray, who died in early April of a broken neck while in the hands of the Baltimore police.
I also am not surprised by the uproar among the city’s police at the news that six of their own face charges ranging from homicide to infringement on Gray’s civil rights over their conduct that night.
Too many are cops raised on racism and bullying tactics against any and all easy targets, which mostly means the people of color who live in the slums, and they don’t like being messed with.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.