In a string of extrajudicial killings and injustices in America, Baltimore is the latest city to gain widespread media attention for uprisings surrounding police brutality, racial discrimination, and systemic oppression. The world watched as the portions of the city burned after a period of peaceful protesting erupted into calamity. The media presence, which had been notably absent during the peaceful protests and the years of struggle experienced by Baltimore’s poor and marginalized residents, has documented the upheaval and characterized the uprising as savage riots and labeled the rebels as miscreants and thugs.
Once again, public debates flared and people weighed in. Chastisements disguised as suggestions have urged the people of Baltimore to remain civil and not resort to violence. People have spoken up to condemn or condone the violence when it's not our place to do either. It's our place to acknowledge the pain of these people. More importantly, we must acknowledge the roots and causes of the pain, and do whatever we can to heal these communities and eradicate the prevailing injustices. Cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson do not exist in a vacuum. They are only a symptom of an ongoing issue of abandoned communities in dire need of attention. Cities around the nation, poor and neglected, parallel the conditions of Baltimore which brewed for generations before these explosive results.
I see some of my Memphis peers posting things like "I don't understand Baltimore. How could this happen?" as if the same turmoil is not in your own backyard... As if Memphis is not a breeding ground for some serious unrest... As if your parents and grandparents didn't sit idly in their comfortable homes during the sanitation strike only to turn around and ask "How could this happen here?" when King was killed and riots erupted.
When I see the development of Broad Avenue with people enjoying their fancy newborn arts district and restaurant row, I think of the Binghampton community's suffering. It's only paces away and within earshot of gentrified new businesses that don't support or service the communities around them.
I think about the countless mega churches in Memphis which sit in the midst of broken communities while their congregations go to these churches in their luxury sedans and back to the safety of their own gated communities.
I think about the rows of boarded up houses in Orange Mound, my childhood neighborhood, abandoned and left to decay. The people who once lived there are partly to blame. My family is not exempt. I must admit that. That community has been failed by uninterested whites and blacks in search of the great white American dream out east. And literally across the train tracks lies one of the richest communities in Memphis, Chickasaw Gardens, where the good fancy white folks have their own security to patrol the neighborhood. It's too close to the others out there, so they must keep their peace of mind as well manicured as their lawns.
I think of the cycle of poverty that disproportionately lands brown people in the halls and cells of 201 Poplar...the masses of brown people huddled in the crowded spaces in the lower level of 201, invoking Middle Passage images.
I think about the home of the mayor, sitting among the skeletons of historic black South Parkway and the state of the community that is literally around the corner from him. Or the beautiful museum in downtown Memphis built to honor the civil rights struggle and MLK. You only have to go a few blocks to see the desperation conditions in which the very poor people he fought for are living. Have you walked down Vance? Are you afraid to? But you can walk down Main Street less than a mile away to enjoy art galleries and cute overpriced boutiques.
I think of Hickory Hill. Hickory damn Hill. The formerly prestigious neighborhood that was gutted and left to die. Meanwhile, a huge waste of money in the form of a "Statue of Liberation" rests in the yard of a church in the heart of that community. But who is it liberating?
So, when I see my Memphis peers, blithely unaware and drenched in privilege, wondering how this could happen in Baltimore, I want you to look at your own town. We have to ask ourselves, "how, or when, will this happen in Memphis?"
"But the city is run by blacks," you will say. As is the case in Baltimore, a diversified upper echelon does not mean that those offices do not continue to serve white supremacist systems and power structures. Black leadership does not always mean special attention to black communities.
The curious thing about Memphis is the way in which the neighborhoods are constructed. All of the very poor black communities are literally a street away from the very rich white communities. What do they think will happen to historic midtown if North Memphis people get upset? That's what so strange about Memphis. One doesn't have to go far to see the pain and suffering of others. So it's not lack of unawareness. It's indifference.
It's a ticking time bomb. I knew that years ago when I stood at the corner of Pendleton and Deadrick as a kid and watched my father and his colleagues paint a mural in memory of Jesse Bogard, a 68 year old man who was killed by a barrage of bullets on his own porch by two police officers. I knew that there was a problem when the same corner was nicknamed Slaughter Corner due to the many traffic accidents which were the results of the city's negligence and unwillingness to install a real traffic light.
Yes. I'm guilty because I left. I left because I had to. I selfishly left, because I wanted to escape bigotry. Memphis isn't safe for an insecure brown queer boy wrapped in religion. I could have stayed and tried to transform it, but I wasn't that strong at the time.
When I return to visit, I can feel the racial tension. I feel invisible. White people don't look at me. And when I am engaged, it's all so patronizing. It's as if they finally found a brown man who reflects some of what they see in themselves and they feel safe. They can finally open up to someone about how they voted for Obama. Thank God. That's not to say that I don't have white Memphians who truly love me. But I often wonder, although I'm welcome in their homes, if some of them would look at my cousin who isn't cloaked in respectability and call him a thug. They would. So, the struggle continues.
It's happening all around you. People feel abandoned. People feel desperate. People feel invisible. And your lack of awareness is not proof that it doesn't exist. It just means that you're ignoring it. You're ignoring people's suffering until it implodes. And you will sit in your Overton Square restaurant, if it's not burning, and ask "How could this happen in Memphis?" It will happen because we let it happen. Choose 901. But choose all of it. Start doing the work to heal broken people now or we can spend time patching up broken windows later.