By Siddeeqah Sharif Fichman
When protests began in our city several weeks ago over the death of Freddie Gray – a young man from my neighborhood who swept my street weekly, I hoped that all would go smoothly. “Baltimore’s population is not one that you would want to anger,” I recall telling several friends from abroad. Then after several weeks of peaceful protests went largely ignored by the media, police and politicians alike, my neighborhood erupted. But, I was not surprised. I’m actually quite surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner.
Baltimore is one of the most racially and economically segregated cities that I’ve ever spent time in; and I’m pretty well traveled having lived in 5 different countries. The rich never have to encounter the poor. Whites and blacks have very few opportunities to engage one another. Blacks may frequent predominantly white areas like Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill for night life – but blacks and whites never have to actually interact there. And, the areas mentioned previously are almost purely salt with a few shakes of pepper sprinkled in for good measure, but they are not by any stretch of the imagination mixed. I personally never attended school with any white children until I went to high school. There are absolutely no wealthy, upscale, predominantly black areas in the city that could rival those areas that I mentioned previously comparable to U Street in DC or 125 St. in Harlem. Baltimore has an apartheid feel. The kind of feeling that Steven Biko described by saying “ Smart or dumb, if you are black in South Africa you are born into this (speaking of the situation of blacks in Soweto), and smart or dumb you will die in it.” I relocated back to Baltimore after living ten years in the Netherlands and 1 year in Israel. In all of my travels I have never encountered a city quite like Baltimore. I was born in the house that I live in now, which is located in a part of the city called Sandtown, the area that exploded during the riots.
My father was born in this house as well, and now my youngest daughter was born here as well. My father grew up in a very different Sandtown than I did. He grew up in an affluent-ish black middle class area with families that consisted of a working mother and father. Grandparents lived with their children and grandchildren. People dressed incredibly well. Stores were owned by mostly Jewish people who sold their businesses to blacks after the riots of 1968. Residents scrubbed their marble steps every Saturday as I did growing up. My father was one of the very few educated, industrious men who stayed in the area after drugs hit Baltimore hard in the 90’s. He was dedicated to the community, providing employment and a sense of family for the youth in the area. He frequently took neighborhood boys, who had largely never left the city, on camping trips with our family. He’s still known and loved in my neighborhood.
The Sandtown I grew up in however, was full of old people and single parent homes. Many children lived with either just their mother or their grandparents. No one knew this part of the city until “The Wire” started showing on HBO, but no one in Baltimore actually wanted to know it. Mom and Pop grocers were owned by blacks and Koreans owned the carry outs. Children still played outside and scrubbed their steps on Saturday. Still, in my Sandtown police acted with impunity, knocking men and women’s head into walls, smashing their faces into the ground, cursing and humiliating them. Helicopters circled overhead with search lights illuminating my third floor bedroom at night. Drug usage and trade took over the area. Violence followed. My youth was punctuated by the deaths of friends, acquaintances, and family members resulting from the violence of drug culture. That experience still very much shapes who I have chosen to be as an adult.
My children’s Sandtown is the one that the world saw erupt on television two weeks ago. It is the Sandtown that was born out of decades of drugs, violence, poverty and neglect. The youth here are the children of my generation and younger. They are raising themselves. Their parents are often on drugs, in jail, or so stressed out from trying to make the American dream work for them that they lash out on the ones that they are working so hard for. Our youth are resourceful, tenacious, brave, and brilliant but they are also ruthless, misguided, angry and devoid of hope.
The world saw the aftermath of the riots and indicted our youth for “destroying their own neighborhood”. They saw block after block of boarded up houses, trash strewn all over the street, and made the assumption that the residents of Baltimore were destroying the city. Sandtown has definitely been destroyed, along with many other poor black areas of Baltimore City. But Sandtown was not destroyed by the residents two weeks ago in “riots” where people stole toilet paper and baby formula. Sandtown was destroyed slowly over decades by neglectful opportunist politicians who ignored the needs of our existing residents while creating campaigns to bring new residents to Baltimore, and slum lords who have amassed a great deal of wealth and property by allowing half of the city to remain vacant and fall into ruin because they purchased properties solely for tax breaks without any intention of developing viable housing. Nearly every block in Sandtown has at least one or two boarded up houses, and it’s not uncommon to see entire blocks boarded up with one or two occupied houses sandwiched between the vacants.
Sandtown has been destroyed, make no mistake, but not by those few hours of rioting. Sandtown looks the same now as it did the day before the riots. If I hadn’t personally known which three or four stores had been broken into, I would have assumed that those looted stores were just another vacant store front adding to the ugliness of our neighborhood.
The ugliness here is not lost on its residents, especially the youth. Why else would we be so angry? We have watched our city dump hundreds of millions of dollars into Canton, Hampden, Pigtown, Highlandtown, and Federal Hill all formerly poor and working class white areas, transforming them into gleaming models of the new migration of whites back into cities all across America. We have seen their formerly vacant houses all shined up and outfitted with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and exposed brick walls while our vacants grow trees inside them and crumble to dust. Business developers are given a welcome mat to invest in white areas creating walkable communities with outdoor eating areas, bike lanes, retail shopping, cafes and night-life while our areas are given a shabby looking CVS and Burger Kings neither of which are ever fully staffed.
It is very easy to see the disparities here in Baltimore, both racial and economic. 90% of the children who attend the elementary school zoned for my area receive breakfast and lunch subsidies because they cannot afford to eat otherwise. There is absolutely nothing to look forward to in our area. There is nothing beautiful to look at here; and there is no one here who has “made it” to give lessons on how it’s done. Our youth feel a hopelessness and a justifiable sense of anger that bubbled over into a riot because no one was listening. Our youth are asking: why should everyone else eat while I go hungry? Why should anyone feel safe when I feel unsafe (here) every day?
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” ~Frederick Douglass
Siddeeqah Sharif Fichman is a recent returnee to Baltimore after living 10 years in Europe and the Middle East. She currently lives in West Baltimore. Siddeeqah is a Coordinator for the Holistic Life Foundation where she runs a Mindfulness Program teaching yoga and meditation as a positive intervention at a public high school in an underserved area of Baltimore City.