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Let Sandtown Speak for Itself

Outsiders celebrating Baltimore's riots or tut-tutting its mores are ignoring longstanding local efforts at comprehensive change.
May Day baltimore

It has been an exhausting week in Baltimore. Between protests, a riot, and the decision to charge and arrest all six officers responsible for Freddie Gray’s arrest, the mood has swung between anger, despair, hope, and everything in between. The media outpour of attention began as a trickle, but surged into a flood as thousands of protestors marched downtown from the police station where Freddie Gray was taken (before he was driven to the hospital) last Saturday. That police station is three blocks from our house; Gray was arrested just down the street from the church where we’ve worshipped for the past several years here in Sandtown-Winchester.

With the nation’s eyes on Baltimore (and Baltimore’s eyes on Sandtown), what has struck me, as someone who has lived here for five years, is the speed with which people from the outside are willing to impose their own preconceived notions on my neighbors and our neighborhood. There have been arguments about the rhetoric of “outsiders” from the start, but whether it was protest leaders accused of hogging the camera or violent protesters accused of causing trouble, those of us here recognize that the cameras will follow the loudest voices. Though more accurate narratives took a few days to emerge (and rightfully so), we’ve been blessed to have fair, thoughtful stories and interviews featuring people young and old from my neighborhood who have been working for change. What has been harder is seeing local forces disrupt our daily life and national media discussing what’s the events of our neighborhood with only the faintest idea of what people who live here think.

I don’t watch TV news of any sort, so I’m sure there were worse examples there I missed. However, my eye was caught by David Brooks’ recent column discussing the need for a change in culture and social values in inner-city communities without any hint of the fact that people here in Sandtown have been doing that work for decades. One of my church elders started a program specifically to focus on mentoring black men to be better fathers, primarily those returning home from prison. It’s an uphill struggle, certainly, but this reflects what black leaders have been saying in their own communities for years: we have to take responsibility, encourage stable families, and (since many of these proclamations come through the local church) we have to call for spiritual renewal. If any of this is news to you, you probably haven’t been listening to black Christians.

Similarly, there is a world of difference between Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing the disrespect that the law has shown to young men in West Baltimore, and those defending the rioters as vanguards of some righteous revolution. (Don‘t forget that during the riot, cars drove in to loot—hardly a signifier of local demands for change.) The riot was provoked by police showing up with helmets and shields and shutting down the bus stop where hundreds of teenagers catch the bus every day, but some of the first words out of most mouths were calling parents to “get control of their kids.” People here understand the anger and they want to protest the violence, but they want to do so in a way that builds on previous work and is able to be sustained over the long term.

People in the neighborhood have had transportation, food access, and medical care completely disrupted for the past week. They understand the anger—many of them have experienced police brutality themselves—but they were working to advocate for change long before the media circus started and they will continue long after it’s over. Two resident groups put out a joint statement asking people not to organize events in the neighborhood without talking to people from here first, because there has been so much disruption and we are trying to help our neighbors get their prescriptions while pressing City Hall for long-term solutions. As someone who moved in from the outside to be a part of this perdurable change, I can say from experience that working with the community, as opposed to doing things for them, is a much longer, messier, and more difficult process. However, we are glad to focus on investing in developing local leaders and partnering with them for lasting change.

It is easy to look at a neighborhood like Sandtown and overlay other biases on it: the conditions here were undeniably shaped by racism and redlining, but there has been a lot of money spent (mostly by Democrats) with little fruit. (It should be noted that some of the high-profile efforts were in some ways misdirected because people from the neighborhood didn’t get the new houses that were built here.) There are men in the community who kill, steal, and destroy—and we want the police to rein them in—but there are more who simply want to work but can’t find a decent job. There are people who use welfare as an excuse, but far more for whom it supplements the work they do.

I have lost track of the number of sermons and conversations I’ve heard in which challenges to systemic injustice guided by wise policy changes, and personal responsibility shepherded by spiritual and cultural renewal, are combined into a comprehensive solution, not seen as being at odds in a culture-war skirmish. If you can’t comprehend that the two might work together, consider listening to the people here working for both.

Matthew Loftus lives in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore and works as a family physician. He is a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy and is releasing a novel about doctors behaving badly chapter-by-chapter at Trousseau Syndrome.