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Responding as Faculty to Baltimore unrest and injustice

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"Our City" -- A Letter to My Undergraduate Students

Prof. Elizabeth Kennedy, Law and Social Responsibility, composed morning of April 28, 2015

(I've been receiving requests from my students to share this with a greater audience.  Note that the following email does not represent all, or even a good deal of all the thoughts I have about what is happening in my city right now, nor what I think is necessary for real, systemic change.  It was written for my undergraduate students because although classes ended at Loyola yesterday, I wanted to continue the conversation we'd had about justice all semester.)

Good morning, all.  

I'm writing because I have been thinking about you all, and many of our class discussions this semester, as they relate to our City right now.  I imagine many of your parents and friends have been reaching out to you to check in, and are asking you about what they were seeing in the streets of Baltimore, as covered wall-to-wall by the national news networks.  I live, as my colleague Brian Norman put it, "radically adjacent" to the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived, and in which much of the damage occurred last night.  Though physically proximate, there is an incomprehensible chasm between the life I lead, and the relationship I have with Baltimore City, from those in Sandtown, Penn-North, and all of West (and many other parts of) Baltimore.  

Like many of you I am sure, I received many notes from family and friends yesterday to "stay safe."  However, what that means for me and what that means for my neighbors just blocks away are so different.  Violence in these neighborhoods is a constant.  Harassment by the police is constant.  Being treated not worthy of protection by police is constant.  A lack of jobs and adequate housing is constant.  Fear is constant.  Uncertainty is constant.  Crumbling schools are constant.  

I cannot begin to truly understand what life is like for my "radically adjacent" neighbors.  But I can try.  I must try.  In the Jesuit traditions of presence, reflection and discernment, it is only by spending time outside the safety of my own neighborhood -- whether that is a residential neighborhood, an educational neighborhood, a professional neighborhood -- that I can begin to understand.  It is why I teach courses designed to push us all outside of our comfort zones. It is why I send my kids to our local public school.  It is why I spent yesterday afternoon talking with residents and store owners up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, until they began shuttering their doors, bracing for more uncertainty.  

I am heading over to Pennsylvania Avenue with the kids shortly to help clean up.  I am happy to talk with any of you about what is going on, and answer any questions as best I can.  I'd also direct you to the following Baltimore Sun editorial in order to gain a better context about why so many folks in Baltimore City would feel as angry as they do right now: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/editorial/bs-ed-freddie-gray-20150425-story.html

Some of you are natives of Baltimore, some of you call it home now, and some, I hope, will continue to call it home after you graduate.  If you have learned anything about Baltimore City by now, it is that it is a city of contrasts, of wealthy and attractive playgrounds like Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, as well as some of the largest concentrations of poverty in this country.  You all asked many good questions all semester about justice, especially as it relates to the role that our legal system plays in ensuring that those subjected to injustice can be made whole.   Last night was a powerful reminder that when the legal system itself, and those charged with enforcing laws, are themselves sources of injustice, the pain and suffering usually kept well hidden behind walls of a highly segregated city, is made visible to all.  I hope you will continue to ask good questions, instead of jumping to judgment.  We as a city, and as a Loyola community, must continue to ask these questions, recognize that which we do not understand, and take critical steps toward understanding and action.

All the best,

Prof. Kennedy

Added later that afternoon on April 28 during Facebook discussion:

For those following along, I had many conversations with students last night, many of whom expressed reactions to yesterdays clean-ups along the line of, "That's the Baltimore I know and love," or about Monday night, "That's not the Baltimore I know and love." I asked them to consider what those statements, though entirely well-meaning, said about the experience/lives of marginalized folks, who also "know and love Baltimore." To say that the anger and frustration of young people in neighborhoods like Sandtown, where life expectancy is the lowest -- on par with India and much lower than the U.S. -- is "not Baltimore" is to once again deny, turn away from, and discount their lives. Just because it is not the Baltimore that you know, doesn't make it any less Baltimore. How we choose to express what we all should be feeling in Baltimore right now - anger, sadness, frustration, does not define or diminish the motivations for those expressions. Yes, yesterdays cleanups were an awesome example of how great people can be when we come together, cross neighborhood boundaries, and help one another out. To love Baltimore, as I do and as so many of my students do, is to get to know ALL of Baltimore. http://health.baltimorecity.gov/.../Life-expectancy-2013.pdf

 

 An additional post, composed on April 30

"Monday night was Baltimore too"

In the seven years I’ve called Baltimore home, I have never seen a more widespread outpouring of love and support than I’ve witnessed this week.  Thousands of people came out of their homes on Tuesday morning to clean, to green, to feed.  They crossed boundaries and danced together, sang together, prayed together, protested together. Rather than wait for some official call to action, as my friend Mary so accurately described in her piece in in the CS Monitor, “Baltimore just did it.”  Many who live in and love our city declared,“THIS is the Baltimore I know,” or “This is the REAL Baltimore,” in contrast to Monday night, which was not the Baltimore they knew, and either explicitly or implicitly, not the “real” Baltimore.

Coming together to clean up, or play music, or peacefully march IS Baltimore.  And it is beautiful.  It is another reason I love this city.  But Monday night was Baltimore too.  


Creative people collaborating to express their frustration, sadness and hope through public art and musical performances?  That’s Baltimore.  Young people expressing justifiable rage and anger against persistent police brutality, poverty, community disinvestment and political disfranchisement?  That is Baltimore too.


Neighbors sitting on stoops, faith communities uniting to meet citywide needs, young people organizing a movement for change that is, as my friend Laura hopefully describes, “smart, unapologetic and strategic”? That is Baltimore.  But the criminalization of black children, and the systematic use of brute police force on Monday night to set them up instead of embrace and engage? That was Baltimore too.


To declare that the anger, frustration and rage of young people in neighborhoods like Sandtown is “not Baltimore,” is to once again deny, turn away from, and discount the lives and lived experiences of so many who also call Baltimore home.


Baltimore is my city, a city I love, which has embraced me as a relative newcomer.  My husband and I are raising three kids here and sleep easy knowing they will be safe, engaged, inspired, educated, and loved.  But just down the street, another parent fears her own child may “be the next Freddie Gray.”  Baltimore is that mother’s city, too.  


Maybe living in Baltimore has never meant wanting to throw a rock at a police officer, or smash a store window.  Maybe you’ve never felt crushed by living in a neighborhood where more fathers, sons and brothers than any other in a wealthy state are sent to prison.  Maybe you could never imagine destroying your own block, because yours is a neighborhood of choice, not one you feel you must burn down in order to escape.  But that doesn't make it not Baltimore.  And if that is not your experience in Baltimore, as it is certainly not mine, our response cannot solely be to create more of what YOU love about Baltimore (but please, keep doing that too). If you did not recognize the anger and rage expressed in the streets of our city Monday night, ask yourself why?  And then, how – how to better know this city we love, all the parts of it.  We cannot simply cut and paste the parts of Baltimore we like and call the edited version, "real."


Right now many are wishing for peace in Baltimore.  But for Baltimore to become a city that is Tuesday morning for all, not Monday night for many, we need justice, we need justice.