Baltimore: The Dehumanizing Gaze and Thug Life

Demonstrators protest in the streets as they march for Freddie Gray to Baltimore's City Hall, Saturday, April 25, 2015. Gray
Demonstrators protest in the streets as they march for Freddie Gray to Baltimore's City Hall, Saturday, April 25, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Billy Holiday, daughter of Baltimore, raised not far from where Freddie Gray was killed, sings the hook while Tupac Shakur, who studied at Baltimore's School for the Arts, rhymes during the verse. A remix of "Strange Fruit." Forgotten truth given new life by Pac's haunting baritone from the grave. Billy sings the blues over fas- paced Baltimore club music beats.

Not just Billy and Pac, but this is the city that produced Thurgood Marshall. The Supreme Court Justice watches while investigations unfold.

I, too, am from Baltimore. Born and raised and loved and educated there. I shopped and hung out at the now infamous "purged" Mondawmin Mall. I walked and played and drove on all of the streets that are being mentioned on the news, just like my brother and sisters and mother and father did. This is my city. I loved it, and love it.

I, like many others sat crying at the images and words coming through my television, computer and phone. I sat on my couch with Billy, Pac and Thurgood. I sat with the ghosts of my father, my uncle and the previous generations of Baltimoreans who endured hatred and discrimination and worked to remedy that. And I asked them: How shall we respond?

Lady Day

Lady (still) sings the blues -- a phrase that takes on new meaning in the shadow of blue police uniforms. But the blues have now been traded for the all-black riot gear.

The blues she sang of were of a surviving sadness in the face of grief. In "Strange Fruit," she hung notes on words about Black bodies swinging from southern trees. Today, she would sing of broken Black bodies lying on concrete streets. Fallen fruit that it takes four and a half hours to pick up. Bitter crop.

One of the more terrifying aspects of the history of lynching in our country, beyond the actual act of lynching and killing individuals, was how crowds would gather to look at the hanging body of a Black man or woman in a kind of community outing. A disturbing book collection entitled Without Sanctuary describes how crowds would gather and take pictures that often were turned into postcards from these "events." The photographs and postcards capture the terrifying gaze of those who stood by looking at the souls who were legally and socially classified as less than human. The fetishization of Black suffering is something that has continued from the time of lynching (really before that) right up until today, but it is the dehumanization behind that obsession that is most alarming today.

Thug Life

Statements by political and police leadership in Baltimore, and before that New York and Ferguson, employed the word "thug" to describe and differentiate those who have destroyed property and injured others from "peaceful demonstrators." These, thugs, end up being nameless individuals who are lumped together in a dangerous, lawless, violent, poor, careless, unintelligent and mostly Black social construct that is, most importantly, less-than-human. They are seen and called something other than men and women because it is easier to hate and deal with them when they are not just like the rest of us.

By referring to people as "thugs" and by referring to what they are doing as "thuggery," we subtly perpetuate the same dehumanizing gaze that allows for fellow humans to watch another lynched or killed. We, in a small way, hold the same dehumanizing gaze that leads to the mistreatment and killing of individuals.

To see someone as a thug or a rioter or a criminal or a suspicious pre-criminal is to miss the reality that they are a son, a daughter, a student, a mother, a father, a grandmother, a Freddie Gray, a Rekia Boyd, a Michael Brown, an Eric Garner or a Venus Green -- and not just a dangerous socially constructed "thug."

Social media and our conversations betray us. With posts like, "Why don't the police just arrest these rioting thugs?" or, "When will the national guard come and take control of this situation and stop these people from destroying our city?" show how individuals on my timeline felt. Those of us who perceive thugs and not humans see a dangerous sea of Black lapping at our tranquil shores of deniability.

This comes from the privilege of not having to suffer the decades of mistreatment many neighborhoods have had to endure. They see a dangerous Black sea flooding too close to the safe gentrified streets near the Inner Harbor and the stadiums, rather than seeing individuals who are so deeply frustrated that they are acting out. It should go without saying, but of course destroying property and businesses is wrong. I have a friend who lost everything in a fire set on Monday night. A life-altering tragedy, no doubt. But, equally tragic is destroying humanity and withdrawing dignity -- something that many of us have done while watching the last several days in Baltimore unfold.

Have you ever been stopped unjustly by the police? Have you ever felt the rage that one feels after being pulled over for no reason other than looking suspicious because of the color of your skin? Have you ever been forced to the ground while they check your ID, just to see if you have a criminal record and are wanted on some other charge? This has happened to me in every single city that I have lived in. In Baltimore while I was growing up, in Philly while I was in college and in Boston while I was in grad school.

After the cops finally let me go each time, I felt like I wanted to punch something. I consider myself to be a mellow person in general, but I have known the depths of hurt and rage at unjust treatment from the police that can lead to wanting to just throw things, break things and act out. I can't justify it, but I can certainly understand it.

When I worked as a hospital chaplain in West Philadelphia, one of the more painful tasks we were asked to do was to break the news to families in the waiting room of the emergency department and trauma bay, that their loved one had passed away -- often from gun violence. Psychologists will tell you that we all grieve differently. This is true. Yet, often after hearing this heartbreaking news, there would be a screaming pain that is difficult to imagine.

I will never forget seeing people tear their clothes with a grief that I can only describe as Biblical. I have very clear images of people (of all races mind you) standing up, punching walls and ripping down fixtures. I can still see grief-stricken loved ones running out of the emergency department and grabbing anything they could put their hands on and throwing it. It was as if the psychological and emotional pain from within couldn't help but burst out. Our hospital security team and our campus police always understood this. That doesn't mean that one is allowed to destroy property or hurt others, but there was a compassion and an understanding.

It is convenient to separate peaceful demonstrators from rioters, but the pain felt by both comes from the same source. Some just have a hard time expressing it in healthy or safe ways. King's quote about riots being the voice of the unheard is true. That doesn't justify or endorse what's happening, but it should help people to understand it.

Instead of compassion and a humanizing concern, I've seen much more vitriol and a demand to "deal with the situation" and to "deal with these thugs."

I find myself thinking about brother Tupac Shakur who spent a good bit of his youth in Baltimore. Had the recent events in Charm City occurred in the mid-1980s, it is likely that Pac would have been out there at Mondawmin and on Monument Street with other young people.

Towards the end of his life, Pac began to embrace the term "thug" in a reclamation of sorts similar to the way that other groups have re-appropriated derogatory terms. Pac had the letters T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E tattooed across his stomach. He would later say that this acronym stood for "The Hate U (You) Give Little Infants F---- Everybody."

This is so painfully true. Hurt people hurt people. The hurt and anger that people in my home town are feeling comes from generations of hearing and seeing and experiencing disrespect from the police, but also from a dearth of jobs and opportunities in a city that has long been economically struggling.

Add to that frustration with schools, devastated blocks of blown out homes, drug problems and perhaps, most painfully, the hateful looks that we got when walking around the Harbor and malls from our non-Black neighbors, and it becomes a little bit easier to understand where the pain and desperation come from.

As kids, we were looked at like we were thugs. We were called thugs. Ah, yes, I could escape that in part momentarily while at the private school that I attended on scholarship, but as soon as my tie came off and I found myself at my dad's house on McCulloh Street, I was a Black thug too.

Today's Baltimore youth are getting the same hate that was given to my generation and my father's generation. And now, Pac would say, it is fucking everybody.

No Justice, No Peace, No Love.

So, how should we respond to the uprising or riots (whatever you wish to call it)? One of the most baffling and pitiful aspects of our humanity is that we so easily resort to violence to solve our problems. We respond to force with force and seldom consider other options. This may bring the appearance of restoring order, but restoring order is not solving the problem. Gaining control is not healing.

Hate has been given, and now it is coming back to bite us all. Maybe we should try responding with love. Maybe some of our political leaders could try experimenting with a radically compassionate grace. Maybe we could work towards healing rather than control. And this is something that all of us can do, not just the mayor and governor (who both referred to people as thugs, recently). We can respond with love in the way we speak about Baltimore or wherever the next Baltimore and the next Ferguson ends up being. We can try to not care more about store windows being broken than backs being broken. We can try not to care more about a smashed police car than a smashed voice box. We can try to not call Black "rioters" thugs, while simultaneously referring to their white counterparts rioting at a New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival, or after a sporting event in Kentucky, as "frustrated young people".

We can try to see them as human. And humans aren't dealt with, they are engaged. We deal with and solve problems. We listen to and work with people.

We can choose to not stand by and watch Black bodies be killed and mocked while we send postcards via social media pointing at "thugs." Instead, we can have the courage to name the injustice that started all of this in the first place. Being angry on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at what "rioters" are doing and yet being silent at the violence that started it is hypocritically shortsighted.

Just down the road from Baltimore on the way to Washington, D.C. is an airport named after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He watches, now in white robes, not the Black ones of the bench, waiting for his city to make this right via the justice system. And simply charging and convicting the officer or officers responsible is not making it right. Making it right is working to change the system that produces situations like this.

I'm praying for my city and singing "Keep Ya' Head Up" along with Pac. Maybe, instead of hating those who are rioting, we can pray. We can send good vibes. I was inspired to hear about some of my students who were planning on driving down from Philadelphia with sandwiches to help feed the students who won't get their free lunch in school since schools were closed in Baltimore in the aftermath of the events of Monday night. That's loving. That's humanizing.

We can instead of looking with a dehumanizing gaze, look with compassion and hope for what they -- we -- might one day be.