Wanderlust: One Day In Baltimore

On the day of my arrival in Baltimore, a friend tipped me off to an altercation that happened between police and a young Black man at the same junction where Freddie Gray was arrested by officers, before dying in their custody. Fox News reported that the man was shot in the back while running away from police (they later retracted the report). So, I made my way over there quickly, camera in hand, to scope out the scene.

The taxi ride from downtown to North Avenue and Pennsylvania was a depressing one. Huge high-rises became abandoned, boarded up row houses. Thriving chain-food restaurants and businesses were replaced by liquor stores on every corner. And the busy, diverse swirl of locals became large groups of Black people, crowded onto the sidewalks, protesting on one corner of the intersection, with news trucks on another, and the media — comprised of mostly middle-aged, well-dressed White men — off to another side. By the time I arrived, the police were addressing the media from an enclosed space guarded by officers in riot gear, batons and guns at the hip. They released the details about the altercation: Supposedly, after being approached for no apparent reason, the man took off running and a gun fell out of his pocket and went off.

“I don’t believe none of that shit,” a tall Black man with braids said to me. “They shoot us down in the streets like dogs and always tryna cover it up.” He then pointed to a case of water sitting in the middle of the sidewalk.

“It’s hot out here sista,” he said, offering me a bottle. I gulped the water down and thanked him before moving through the crowd trying to find a witness to the actual altercation. Everyone who was still gathered seemed confused and most of the original witnesses had already dispersed. I stood there a bit longer, then decided I should head back before it got too dark out.

As I walked around looking for the subway station, it became more clear to me that this was more than simply just scene: it was a neighborhood. A neighborhood full of people struggling to keep a semblance of normalcy, to carry on with their lives in spite of all of the confusion and chaos. School was letting out and children were parading the streets — the teenagers strolling in small groups, the children walking hand-in-hand with parents or adult chaperones. An ice cream truck was parked on the side of the road in front of a completely burned out establishment with broken windows and boarded doors. I watched a mother order from the truck and hand her excited daughter a sprinkle-covered ice cream cone. The little girl’s eyes lit up in excitement as she took the first taste of the sweet treat. I smiled. The little girl returned my smile with a wave, her face practically glued to the ice cream.

When I finally made it to the train, I realized I had absolutely no idea where I was going.

“Which train do I take to go downtown,” I asked a little Black boy who looked around 12 years old. He pointed to the line with a “track 2″ sign hanging above it.

The train arrived within moments and we boarded together. He sat across from me with a bag of goodies that I could tell were recent purchases. The first thing he pulled out of the bag was a combination lock. He toyed with it momentarily, muttering the numbers under his breath and concentrating intently as he tried to unlock it. I immediately thought about my middle school and high school years, where I did the same exact thing and smiled a bit. When he accomplished his task, he put the lock away then pulled out a pair of plastic handcuffs. My heart sank. I wanted to stand up, snatch them away and toss them into the nearest garbage. With so many young Black men ushered into the prison system via the education system, it felt like his future was being foreshadowed with those two items. And it pained me so deeply.

“Why do you have a pair of handcuffs?” I questioned him. He shrugged his shoulders and continued to fiddle with the toy, pushing the tiny key into the lock and releasing the cuffs, then pressing them back into the secure position.

In that moment, the prison-to-school pipeline became more than just a theory supported by numbers and statistics.  The thousands of little boys and girls of color who are shuffled through that system has a face. That boy and his two possessions made it all feel far too real for me. The burdensome reality of the challenges he will face as he grows from a boy to a man. And the fear that he, and so many innocent children just like him, may not survive the system unscathed. I felt not only saddened, but powerless and angry. I felt like I needed to do something, to say something. But I couldn’t find the words. As the train rolled into the next stop, he shoved the cuffs back into his plastic bag and exited.

Whenever my mind returns to the memory, I feel guilty. I did not say anything to him. I didn’t warn him. I can’t do anything for him or to protect him. I can only hope that he will not become a statistic, that he will beat the odds. I also feel guilty that I might have hurt his innocence with my questioning and harsh stare at the cuffs he clutched. In lighter-skinned hands, would I have viewed them as anything other than a harmless toy?

The train lurched forward and the boy disappeared as we sped away. The magnified feelings, however, stayed with me. The emotions that I usually roll up tightly and shove deep inside like an over-stuffed suitcase are bursting out of me; the seams of my consciousness that help me hold it all together are coming undone. I need to do something — writing about it is simply not enough.