At 2:45 p.m., as my journalism students were finishing senior reflections for their final exam, an announcement came over the intercom. My students and I quickly moved into the hallway to listen because my classroom does not have a working loudspeaker. It, like many other things in Baltimore City, is broken.
The announcement was short and straightforward. After-school activities were not canceled, but students and teachers were nonetheless urged to head directly home after dismissal. When the bell rang, I gathered my belongings and walked home to the sound of sirens and helicopters.
It was 3 p.m. on Monday, April 27.
I thought about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, famous quote about riots: “Riots are the language of the unheard.”
But that was not all that he said. Dr. King added:
And what is it that America failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.
The year was 1967.
Fast forward to 2015 and the quote still rings true. Black and brown voices are still unheard. The economic plight of the poor continues to worsen. Promises of freedom and justice still have not been met. And America continues to ignore the awkward truth, the truth that white society is more concerned with broken windows than broken necks, the truth that white society is willing to show outrage for looting and rioting, but not for hundreds of years of systematic institutionalized racism.
But this is not about Martin Luther King or riots.
Then I thought about Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful quote from The Atlantic that ran on April 27. Coates details a series of damning facts about the frequency of police brutality in which more than 100 people in Baltimore City have won court judgments or settlements related to police brutality or civil rights violations. In his commentary he addresses the misconceptions surrounding nonviolence:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.”
White society likes to use the “Why destroy your own community?” as its crutch. It is an “I told you so!” or a “See!” meant to keep the voiceless voiceless and keep thinly-veiled racism alive and well.
Why destroy your own community? I do not have an answer. Maybe because your mayor calls you a thug. Maybe because your president calls you a thug. Maybe because you are held responsible for a school system and a housing system that have failed you and systematically oppressed you since you were born. Maybe because for the first time since “the riots” in 1968, people are paying attention to West Baltimore. Maybe because sometimes nonviolence is preached and twisted and bastardized by those in power to keep the powerless powerless and the powerful powerful.
But this is not about Coates or non-violence.
At the end of the day, when the dust settles in Baltimore and the news cameras move to the next city in which a white police officer assassinates an innocent black man, the people that will suffer are my students. America’s lasting image of Baltimore’s youth will be one of rock-throwing, fire-setting looters. They will be called thugs. They will be embarrassed and ashamed to admit that they are products of Baltimore City Public Schools.
And that is a shame, because my students are amazing.
My students are Glory, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who moved to the United States in middle school speaking no English. Glory immediately found success in the classroom and on the soccer field, and he thrived as a member of the Digital Harbor Foundation Technology Center. Next fall, he will be attending the University of Maryland, where he will study business.
My students are MaKayla, who is as abstract as they come. During her junior year of high school, she used writing as a coping mechanism for her physically crippling fear of the unknown. MaKayla passed the AP English Language and Composition exam despite storming out of my class in tears multiple times throughout the year. In the fall she will be attending Cazenovia College, where she will be studying English. To this day, she is one of the best writers I have ever met.
My students are Darius, who will one day become the Governor of Maryland. Darius fell into a state of depression during his junior year of high school after the death of three of his relatives. Still, his attendance and academic performance never faltered. Darius passed the AP English Language and Composition exam, was elected student government president and National Honor Society president, and was recently admitted to the University of Maryland, where he will study political science.
My students are amazing. Baltimore City is amazing. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise.