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Monday, May 4, 2015

Listen to Baltimore

Ashley and I had dinner with a bunch of our friends last night, and as we settled into chatting, we rather naturally turned to this last week's events in our city. We are all Baltimore residents, and as our conversation progressed, I noticed a theme emerging: Baltimore is being used.

Most of us are fairly active social media types and we have been inundated this week, by predominantly liberal and conservative analysis of the violence and looting that happened last weekend. Honestly that wasn't especially surprising. Did you realize we live in a politically polarized environment? What I did find noteworthy is an apparent deafness to the voices of Baltimore residents in general and Black Baltimore in particular.

I don't mean to say that these groups have been ignored. The "Young Black men of Baltimore" have been almost endlessly obsessed over this week. I am saying that these voices have not been listened to. At least not outside of the city. Even when and where these stories have been told, they have not been allowed to speak for themselves. Instead their stories have been co-opted to fit the political or social narratives which most closely align with the interests of others.

And as a privileged resident of the city - maybe for the first time - I caught a brief whiff of what it is like to have your suffering used to further someone else's agenda. We do this all the time though right? A transgender kid commits suicide and the religious right folds her death into their narrative of sin at work our nation and the natural consequences which grow from a false hope of sexual depravity; the liberal left points its finger at the intolerance, systemic ignorance, and reified religious abuse which deprived her of hope and drove her to take her own life. And a torn, broken family weeps over the death of a child.

An American is killed in the middle east, and the hawks scream that the tragedy could have been avoided if only we had been willing to kill more Muslims, while the doves coo out a tale of developing nations driven to violence by the economic and military hegemony of a paternalistic, self interested, imperial west. And a torn and broken family weeps over the death of a child/husband/wife/father/mother.

Baltimore Tuesday morning
So this really shouldn't surprise me. Our national media and political machine have a long history of adapting the experiences of individuals as fodder for their particular agendas. Did you realize the national media sources have their own agendas? So what stood out to me this time is that at least here in Baltimore, there actually has been a significant effort to listen.

On Monday night last week, the nation was screaming that there is a race/class/violence/reverse-race problem in America and Baltimore was everyone's proof. Some of them are probably right. But in Baltimore, we cried and prayed and watched our city burn and crack as her long  ignored wounds - the wounds into which we have been pouring salt - split open. On Monday night thousands around Baltimore cried out to God, and on Tuesday morning, we reached out to one another. While the nation focused on the violence and inhumanity which was/wasn't a result of systemic, long term injustice, Baltimore picked up brooms, organized food drives, opened spaces for out-of-school children, and began the hard work of listening to our neighbor.

Stories are to be listened to
So do I think that the events in Baltimore are part of some larger socio-political narrative at work in modern America? Of course I do. All stories are chapters in the great story which is being lived and being told after all. But maybe I am wrong about what that story is. Maybe, that story isn't a story we can know the details of ahead of time. Maybe, if we want to pursue peace and walk in justice, we need to begin by listening to the voices of the hurt, the bleeding, and - yes - the angry. Maybe the story isn't there for us to tell, maybe it is there for us to hear.

My two favorite Facebook reactions this week came from two incredibly different sources. One friend quoted H.L. Mencken: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." Another friend Steven Leyva, a poet and teacher, and Baltimorean called out "Now more than ever Baltimore needs it's poets speaking up, seeking justice, giving out Balm of Gilead one line at a time." Baltimore will tell her story, it's messy and painful. It's full of rage and injustice, hurt and rebuke. It is complex and human, and deeply beautiful. Please listen.

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