Littwin: Seeing and unseeing Freddie Gray’s Sandtown
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The question of what happened to Freddie Gray will, with luck, be answered in court eventually. And although it’s a critically important question, it’s not the only one.
As a New York Times headline put it the other day, Sandtown — the impoverished section of Baltimore where Gray was born prematurely, where he suffered from lead poisoning as a child, where he grew up in and out of trouble and where he was arrested one April night and put into the van that sent him to his death — is home to “lots of Freddies.”
It’s home to so many Freddies, in fact, that the story has now become part of the presidential campaign narrative. After Ferguson, after Cleveland, after Staten Island, after North Charleston, when you put the next chapter of what seems like an endless story 40 miles from the nation’s capital, you know what happens next.
The media descend on Baltimore to find the other Freddies. The candidates give speeches — Baltimore was the topic of Hillary Clinton’s first major campaign speech — to explain what can be done to reduce the Freddies. Martin O’Malley, who is planning to run against Clinton in the Democratic primary, was mayor of Baltimore and will undoubtedly be held responsible for at least some of the Freddies.
Baltimore is a wonderfully idiosyncratic city full of charming neighborhoods (I lived there for 12 years), but one that also happens to be among the most segregated in the country. It’s a city where poverty and violence rub hard against a gentrified success story. It’s one where inequality is in plain view, at least for those who take the time to look. It’s a city where David Simon’s “The Wire” told the story of the city’s drug wars. In other words, it’s the perfect setting for political debate.
Clinton made Baltimore the centerpiece of her speech, speaking of poisoned police-community relations and of the “era of mass incarceration” that has taken so many black men from their communities — 1.5 million gone, the New York Times reports, from incarceration or early death. (Yes, Bill Clinton played a key role in the whole incarceration problem, which Hillary didn’t quite bother to mention.) As Hillary Clinton knows, the Sandtown neighborhood qualifies, with 3 percent of its population — the highest percentage in Baltimore — in state prison.
The Republican response is varied — that’s what happens when you have a field the size of the Kentucky Derby’s — but it’s mostly a matter of blaming LBJ and the Great Society and dependency and spouting variations on Paul Ryan’s hammock theory. Mitt Romney, who’s not running, still got into the fray by blaming Clinton for “politicizing” a tragedy and for saying that we have no “mass incarceration” in America. I guess it depends on what his definition of “mass” is. Presumably it’s less than 47 percent.
Whichever side of the argument you’re on, the story is still one of race and of class and of how, particularly in places such as Baltimore, they intersect. Income inequality will be a major issue in the presidential campaign. But imagine if the campaign were really about investment in cities versus cuts in social programs, a campaign about “mass incarceration” versus “broken windows,” a campaign centered on the best way to provide opportunity (read: good jobs; read: better education) for those who have been denied it for too long.
What we know is that the immediate cause of the Baltimore demonstrations — some of which turned violent — was inequality of treatment of a young black man, starting with Gray’s unexplained death in police custody, which began with Gray’s apparent crime of making “eye contact” with the cops and then running. When they caught him, the cops found he had a knife, but not an illegal knife. And so no one could say why he was arrested or why he died or if his spinal cord was severed when he was bound and cuffed and taken on a so-called rough ride.
What we also know is that none of that is acceptable. But how to fix it? We haven’t fixed it for all these years, and at some point we decided — what? That it wasn’t worth the effort?
And so we come to Baltimore. The city is hardly a secret, but visitors don’t show up often in parts of town such as Sandtown in West Baltimore. It is not the shiny Inner Harbor or any of the funky neighborhoods that otherwise define Baltimore. When the reporters came, what they found was shocking — more shocking, in its own way, than Gray’s death. First, there were the numbers. Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods — part of its charm — and in 15 of those neighborhoods, according to a Washington Post article, life expectancy is lower than in North Korea. Eight neighborhoods are lower than Syria.
I lived in a beautiful, eclectic neighborhood in the city, which I could afford only because white flight had, over 40 years, shrunk Baltimore’s population by a third. In my neighborhood, the average life expectancy is now 82 years — higher than France and a little lower than Sweden but not the highest in Baltimore. Sandtown comes in at just under 69, and it’s not even the lowest in the city.
More numbers: About half of Sandtown residents of employable age are without a job, a third of families live below the poverty line and more than a third of buildings are vacant, as opposed to 5 percent throughout Baltimore.
And more: In two Baltimore neighborhoods, Sarah Kliff writes in Vox, two infants out of 100 die before their first birthday, which is more than in the West Bank.
How did we miss any of this? Or did we see it and just pretend not to notice?
But now it’s all there for everyone to see. And once we’ve seen, do we have any choice but to ask what can be done about it?
That, as much as anything, is the real question of Freddie Gray.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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