As I have been telling friends and relatives from around the country who phoned or messaged this week to make sure we were all right amid the protests in Baltimore: I’m watching it all on TV, just like you are. My only live-action participation has been a little peace march we put together for the kids in our neighborhood the day schools were closed. There were four moms, a few high school students and six or seven little ones. We paraded down to the corner of Cold Spring Lane and Schenley Road, then over to Keswick with brown-paper signs, banging on pots, chanting slogans, and singing — and cheering when we got solidarity honks and peace signs from passing motorists.
As a white Baltimore transplant who lives in a beautiful neighborhood so far untouched by the unrest, I am fortunate and I am safe. So many are not. I find this humbling, and it makes me slow to pronounce judgment.
Most of what I do know about being black in this city comes from teaching the memoir workshop at the University of Baltimore. One of my students was D. Watkins, who graduated with an MFA in creative nonfiction last year and now has two books on the way to press. This week he published an op-ed in The New York Times explaining clearly and simply what some TV riot-watchers don’t understand: that police brutality has been a routine part of his life since he was in pre-school, with cops harassing him and his friends on the basketball courts, on their bikes, and in their homes.
The piece was blunt, to the point, and guaranteed to offend, calling the police terrorists and predicting that, if justice is not done, Baltimore will keep burning as it did Mondaynight. Reading it, I felt as proud as if I were his mama, and sent the link to friends around the country all night long.
Because I was his memoir teacher, I know many of Dwight’s stories. (He goes by D., everyone else calls him D., but I call him Dwight because that’s the name that was on my attendance roster, and he never corrected me and now it’s too late.) One story he didn’t tell in the Times piece is what happened the day his older brother, who pretty much raised him, was shot and killed on the street outside their apartment. Not believing the messenger who’d brought the bad news, Dwight ran downstairs and made his way through the crowd that had gathered. And as he wrote in an unforgettable essay, he saw what were unmistakably Dev’s sneakers, Charles Barkleys, and he knew it was true. Crazy with shock and grief, he threw himself on his brother’s lifeless body. At which point the police showed up and roughly dragged him into custody, holding the dazed eighteen-year-old, who had that very day received an acceptance to Georgetown University, for hours of pointless interrogation and confinement.
Can you even imagine that being your experience in the hours immediately following the death of the person you love most in the world? Do you see why Dwight is so angry?
Dwight’s stories have become a part of me. So have Melissa’s and Charlene’s and Anthony’s and Judith’s and Abby’s and Greg’s and a transgender kid who asked us to call him Allen Ginsburg. At the University of Baltimore we have people of all races and economic backgrounds, ranging in age from their teens to their eighties. I have taught people who are deaf, who were single teenage parents, who were military in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with professional cheerleaders, cops, EMTs and musicians. I have had students who were bullied in high school, were raped, watched their houses burn down, were abused by their parents or other adults. A typical class produced two very different stories about high school: one student was shot by a close friend as part of a gang initiation; one was still feeling bad about the lake house he and his buds wrecked over spring break some years back. The important thing is how closely all these different people listen to each other, how the individual story becomes the collective story: our story now.
Storytelling is as important a part of the response to oppression as protest. It’s the part that defines the perception of the situation, helping people understand, even people who seem to have closed their minds and hearts. Every one of those kids who was throwing rocks at the Mondawmin Mall intifada the other day has stories to tell, has reasons why they are so alienated. If they could tell them, if they could be heard, they would be much less likely to resort to violence.
Last night on CNN, one of the “law enforcement experts” went after Dwight harshly about his op-ed piece, particularly for his prediction that if the police are not brought to account in the Freddie Gray case, Baltimore will “burn to the ground.” Why would he make such reckless pronouncements? Was that a threat? Dwight reacted defensively – he wasn’t advocating this, but worrying about it, perhaps with a touch of poetic license – and the two began to argue, speaking over each other until the host cut away to a different scene.
Of course this set off my mother-hen instincts, but it also reminded me of something. Back when I wrote First Comes Love, a memoir of my first marriage, featuring IV drugs, AIDS and assisted suicide, some of the first radio interviewers were asking “questions” that sounded more like accusations, for example, digging for details about my role in Tony’s death. One of their techniques was to misinterpret what I had written, then engage me in arguing about the distortions, distracting from the story I was trying to tell — very much what happened to Dwight. Like him, I got defensive and upset fast. So the publisher sent me to media training where I learned to do the thing you see politicians do all the time: no matter what they ask, you say “That’s a good question, Mike,” and then you go right back to telling the story you want to tell.
You push the negativity aside and you tell your story. We want to hear.