Facing Facts in Baltimore

I am a Baltimore Orioles baseball fan, and have been for about 40 years. I've never mentioned them in a blog or in my books until last week when I wrote about finding metal detectors at Camden Yards as evidence about how the spread of fear now contaminates our "national pastime." Little did I know then that I'd be writing again about Baltimore so soon -- and this time not just about metal detectors.

This is part of a series on fear, and what follows concerns a different kind of fear -- although it somehow seems linked to those metal detectors. It is about exposure and denial -- and how material experience shapes fear. We don't simply bring our fears -- our preconceptions -- with us to a game. We sometimes have to face external facts that can or cannot be dismissed. Most fans already passively accept the necessity for metal detectors, for example. They do not generate fear but feelings of inconvenience to be tolerated.

However, fans arriving at Camden Yards for Sunday's game against Boston had two new opportunities to experience divergent facts. They could enter from the parking lots below the stadium near I-95 and their facts are of baseball as normal -- quiet crowds on a sunny day waiting in line to get in. But if they entered from the other side, there was no sense of baseball as usual. The crowds had to walk past boarded up shops and other evidence of violent protests from the previous night.

The riots on Saturday night had been close to the stadium, and serious enough that the mayor and police chief wouldn't let the fans leave until the game went into extra innings. It just wasn't safe. There had been rumors before Saturday's game that many Baltimore players wouldn't play, but would join the protesters instead. And there was enough fear left over to make for empty seats at Sunday's sold out game.

Friends of mine had been unable to get to the stadium Saturday night, and had to watch from home. I had no such trouble on Sunday and was one of those happy fans for which the riots were known but not felt. I could deny personal relevance. My experience was genuine and real. But so was the experience of fans buying something to eat next to a boarded up McDonalds. Two realities, but one violent and passionate protest. The elite White House Correspondents dinner was held at the same time, less than 50 miles away from a local stadium that evidenced calm on one side (that closest to Washington) and outrage on the other.

Fear, too, has separate realities. People living in central Baltimore are often harassed by police, even arrested for loitering on the front steps of their own homes. The police too are frightened, but they are armed with guns and badges that legitimize their actions. The president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police likened protestors to a "lynch mob" that demands immediate punishment for the people involved in Freddie Gray's tragic death. The term was his, but to me it reflected an unconscious awareness of how black Baltimoreans feel about local police on a daily basis. It's the locals that police arrest first and question later.

The elephant in the room, the reality of race, will be taken up in my next blog. But for now, where is reality? Clearly, more than one exists. It's long past time to recognize that reality itself is not monolithic, and that those peaceful fans were not simply wearing blinders. It's just that their genuine experience misses another and a far more disturbingly palpable one.