Of all the images I have seen of Baltimore’s unrest, the one that strikes me most is of Geraldo Rivera, walking away from a protester saying, “Just talk to me.” Rivera was reporting there for Fox News, though he tries avoiding the young man, walking in a circle as if playing duck, duck goose. As the protester realized, Rivera had made up his mind about these demonstrators long before he arrived. Later, to Sen. Majority Leader Catherine Pugh, he called them “vandals.”
Shutting down a conversation before it even begins – that is some of the most harmful behavior I have seen since demonstrations protesting Freddie Gray’s death changed to riots. I live in Atlanta, after having grown up in Frederick, Md., and interned in Baltimore for two years while attending University of Maryland, College Park. So before Rivera arrived in the city, I saw how some friends and acquaintances who lived nearby were acting just as willfully ignorant. “Remind me never to buy property in Baltimore,” an ex said, before I un-friended him on Facebook.
It seems far less stressful and complicated to talk at people – like my ex trying to get a laugh – or ignore them as I was doing, than to talk with them. So to see community leaders actively call out major news outlets and their one-dimensional narratives – in Erin Burnett’s case, her insistence on calling protesters “thugs” – has been inspiring and felt important. After all, last week was the first time Baltimore had been covered by national media since The Wire, a show about the city’s plight, wrapped in 2007.
When I was originally asked to write about Baltimore, I had a rough sketch of a story in mind. I wanted to talk about seeing the protests from Atlanta, then compare what I saw to one of my defining UMD experiences: a riot on Route 1 following a Maryland-Duke basketball game. The more I watched these protesters speak up, though, the more silly it seemed for me, of all people, to weigh in when I never lived in Baltimore, much less noticed the blue-light cameras in some neighborhoods – what used to be one of the city’s most visible crime-fighting tools.
So I decided instead to talk to friends and family with more meaningful relationships to the city – like my friend Katherine, who lived and/or worked there for six straight years before moving to Brooklyn. She was the person who told me about the cameras. “It never gave me the feeling of being safe waiting for the city buses. It was just more like, this is a punishment because you’re not rich and white,” she said.
My friend Aamir has lived in Station North for the past year and a half. He spent Monday night watching the news, seeing images of burning buildings but also interviews with kids, peeved that Baltimore built another dog park instead of a rec center. The next day he helped with a clean-up that didn’t appear on TV, though D’Angelo from The Wire showed up. “I always feel like a jerk in those situations because I have to really force myself to go these things – and people just do it,” he says.
A friend’s friend, Sean, spent a few days roaming the city and posting to social media about what was happening. When he was in the Army a few years back, he worked as a military police, trained to do what the officers in Baltimore, wearing riot gear, were doing. “Learning how to operate in situations where there is civil unrest was part of my job,” he says. But he also recognized that by simply being among the thousands out and about, police could still see him as another potential cause for trouble.
On Thursday, NPR publishes a four-minute story called “Baltimore Unrest Reveals Tensions Between African-Americans and Asians.” Unwittingly my cousin William had provided a response of sorts. On Tuesday night, his Korean godparents asked if he can help out with their store on Edmondson Avenue, because other stores were either closed or burned. They spent their nights there, to ward off other potential looters.
“It’s a systemic socioeconomic issue rather than racial like in Ferguson, although all of those things are intertwined,” William writes by email. “Baltimore is a village with a plethora of villages in it. Each village, each hood stay within their boundaries, which is why if you drive in Baltimore, it’s different every five blocks or even block by block.”
I understand that from a journalist’s perspective, what my friends told me would provide the basis for, but wouldn’t comprise an entire story. I would need to do a lot of fact-checking. Still, I was struck by how much more illuminating and complex their accounts and opinions were than the sheltered Wolf Blitzer’s – like when Katherine said this: “People who have been protesting, missing class and missing work to participate in these actions love their city too.” Just talk to people, even long after the noise dies down. This is the most useful thing I’ve done all week. I’ve learned more of Baltimore from their stories than from CNN.
Christina Lee is an Atlanta-based writer. Her reviews, essays and profiles have appeared in RollingStone.com, Billboard, MTV Networks and Gawker Media.