WEST BALTIMORE — There are no helicopters in the sky, no plumes of dark smoke billowing in the distance, and no phalanx of riot gear-clad police officers lining the streets. This city remains what it has been—battered, broken, and paralyzed in too many places.
I was here just over a year ago, among the masses of mostly young black faces as the city boiled over after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, watching as a liquor store was repeatedly looted and a local pharmacy burned. I was in St. Louis, my hometown, and in North Charleston, South Carolina, and other places where the righteously indignant shut down shopping malls, major thoroughfares, bridges, and transit stations.
As people marched, prayed, and pumped their fists in the wake of high-profile killings of black people, I imagined that change was coming, that pushing those stories into the national discourse would somehow result in tangible policy solutions, a wave of reforms.
But here in Baltimore, as the city heads into a primary election to select a new mayor, as murders shot up 59 percent in 2015, from 217 the previous year to 344 as cops all but walked off the job in response to protests demanding that they do it better, one has to wonder: Does Black Lives Matter matter?
Unlike in the second wave of the civil rights movement, which began in the 1950s, there is no significant body of legislation so far, no systematic criminal justice system reforms worthy of the name at the state or local level. And there have been no federal prosecutions of police officers who were either not charged or who were given light sentences at the local level in incidences involving an unarmed black victim.
What there has been is media coverage. There have been meetings at the Justice Department and the White House. Local Black Lives Matter chapters have sprung up around the country. Hollywood royalty and celebrity athletes have added their names to the role of supporters. The Democratic National Committee passed a resolution supporting the movement and “affirming” that “black lives matter.”
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders awkwardly navigated the issues in their efforts to court black voters, with both at times appearing resentful when asked by young activists to explain their public records.
While both have since sharpened their messaging, Sanders once said he didn’t need to be lectured about black and Latino issues and Clinton urged activists to come up with a more positive vision.
In this third wave of the civil rights movement, there are those who—like Dr. King did—believe that public activism should run in tandem with engaging policymakers like Clinton and Sanders. And still others who think the two should be divorced and cannot live with integrity under the same roof. Both are invested in the hope that a substantial shift can be made in how non-white communities are policed. The demand for meaningful economic policies that drive income equality and access to wealth is universal among social justice allies—even if they differ on the path to get there.
But, if you are looking for hope, you won’t find it in the hard-faced, hollowed out buildings, situated along North Avenue, where the ghosts of yesteryear freely roam. You won’t find it in the faces of the dispossessed gathered on the corners, stoops, and storefronts to sing desperate songs of poverty and lack. There are no children here—not along Division Street, Pennsylvania or North Freemont Avenues—in a place where being “grown” isn’t always counted in years, but in the thickness of the trauma you have endured.
The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Gray was killed by Baltimore city police officers, is a place defoliated of its wealth and any ability to produce it by segregation, housing discrimination, and mass incarceration—by immoral federal and state policies designed to press down, trap in, and lock out. Its proverbial bootstraps were stolen and twisted around its neck until an entire community nearly lost consciousness and died.
Reno has lived off North Fulton, near Pressman Street, for as far back as he can remember. “It always been like this,” he shrugs. “Always going to be.”
He is 23 now, a high school dropout with a baby on the way and little faith that public demonstrations have or will make any real difference.
“Every day is every day,” he says, swigging a fruit punch. “It’s a whole lot of young Freddies out here.”
That six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray’s death have been indicted and face criminal trial does not change things for Reno. “They gave that man’s family six million dollars,” he says, referring to the $6.4 million the city paid out before the family even sued them. “They know what they did to him. They killed him just like they can kill me and get away with it.”
Asked about the protests and if he thought the uprisings would result in any meaningful change over time, Reno rolled his chocolate brown eyes.
“We got a new CVS and the family got a lot of money, but niggas still dying.”
The numbers bear that out. To be black and poor means, all too often, that your death will go unprosecuted and unpunished. Justice, if the available data means something, is often tied to the race and economic status of the victim—especially if the shooter is a police officer. And, if that victim has a criminal record of any kind, the chances of a successful prosecution fall exponentially.
“More than half of all African-American millennials indicate they, or someone they knew, had been victimized by violence or harassment from law enforcement,” according to a study conducted by the University of Chicago. “Researchers, who have surveyed millennials several times during the past decade, point out that the disparities existed well before the Black Lives Matter movement began.”
“They got these cameras now, though,” Reno tells me. “But that don’t mean nothing.”
A coalition that includes several of the movement’s most recognizable faces wants it to mean something. Co-led by Deray Mckesson, who is now running for Baltimore mayor, Campaign Zero announced a national platform in August 2015. The group was specific in outlining the dilemmas and in detailing comprehensive solutions “informed by data, research and human rights principles.”
Its adoption, however, in whole or part, appears unlikely at both the federal and the local level. There is a difference between demonstrating and lawmaking, as the group well knows. The difficulty is converting street action into legislative action. Then too, the anticipated explosion in 2016 primary election turnout hasn’t happened so far.
It means focusing not just on a presidential race, but also on congressional districts, state legislatures, and city councils, governors and county executives and, yes, mayors. Dismantling a racist system will take all of that and more.
Has Black Lives Matter moved the needle? Absolutely. That we are having this conversation at all is a testament to their fearless devotion, as well as the ability to organize and move. And, for the record, the movement is a direct challenge to those who protest that “all lives matter” and who don’t think there are special issues to be addressed.
Dr. King answered that 52 years ago, saying, “our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.”
Some 48 years after his assassination, we still live in an age when young men like Reno are feared on sight. Institutionalized biases will sooner land him in a jail cell rather than a classroom. For him, Black Lives Matter embodies the hope that he cannot embrace for himself.
“You can’t burn down what’s already been burnt down, can you?”