Friday July 07, 2017

The shadow of charm city: Inside America's great racial divide

Artist Ernest Shaw's portrait of three civil rights icons: Nina Simone, James Baldwin and Malcolm X in east Baltimore

Artist Ernest Shaw's portrait of three civil rights icons: Nina Simone, James Baldwin and Malcolm X in east Baltimore (Mary O'Connell/CBC)

Listen to Full Episode 54:00

In a bid to instill civic pride forty years ago, Baltimore was officially named "Charm City". Today, some call Baltimore a war zone - over 300 homicides per year amid 16,000 vacant homes. And the death of an African-American man in police custody in 2015 sparked the worst urban riots since the 1960's. IDEAS producer Mary O'Connell takes us inside America's great racial divide. **This episode was recently awarded a Gold Medal at this year's New York Festivals. It originally aired October 24, 2016.  

 

Shadow of Charm City - Protest

Activists protest in front of City Hall after marching from the Sandtown neighborhood to demand better police accountability and racial equality following the death of Freddie Gray on April 30, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray was arrested by police in one of Baltimore's poorest neighbourhoods. During that arrest, the 25-year-old semi-literate drug dealer was badly injured. A week later he died. An autopsy report concluded he'd been murdered. His voice-box was smashed, his spine almost severed. And Baltimore became the next flash-point for police brutality in America. Civil unrest, not seen since the 1960's exploded. Seventy buildings were looted or set ablaze. Hundreds were arrested.Activists called it "The Black Spring", referring to it as an uprising rather than a riot. In the aftermath, the political and media classes asked, why did this happen?  

Shadow of Charm City - Protest

Protesters hang out in Sandtown neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested on May 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A 2016 Department of Justice report investigating the Baltimore Police Department, revealed what some call, a "conspiracy against black citizens". The federal report concluded the force routinely violated the constitutional rights of African-Americans, arresting people for simply standing in front of their houses or on a street-corner. Ex-police sergeant Michael Wood calls this, "modern-day slave-catching". Since the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray, the city's homicide rate set a record. Baltimore is a little larger than Hamilton, Ontario but last year registered 344 murders -- Hamilton had six. 

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute says Baltimore has become one of America's most segregated cities and it's inequality that is driving police brutality. He says, "there is more inequality between blacks and whites in America today than there was in the 1960's". Black annual income is about 60% of what whites make, and the personal wealth of blacks is 5% compared to that of white America.   

Shadow of Charm City - National Guard

National Guard armored vehicles drive near the Gilmor Houses housing project a day after Baltimore authorities released a report on the death of Freddie Gray on May 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Throughout Baltimore sit poor neighbourhoods with crumbling housing inventory. Looking more like post WW2 Dresden, Baltimore has 16,000 empty or abandoned row houses. Beyond urban decay and economic inequality, Liberals argue that if the people in power look more like those they govern this will curb or end police brutality. But Baltimore, which is 63% black, has an African-American mayor, police chief, police commissioner and largely black city council. Attorney Billy Murphy Jr., a legend in Baltimore, believes black leadership has been, a "colossal failure". Rampant careerism he says, has neutralized the struggle for change. However, Billy Murphy thinks the violence that exploded in Baltimore, following the killing of Freddie Gray, has created fear amongst whites and that fear is the spark for meaningful change.  


Guests in the program:

  • J. Wyndal Gordon, Baltimore attorney
     
  • Michael Wood, former Baltimore Police Sgt, public lecturer on police reform, Ph.D candidate
     
  • Wardell Barksdale Jr., retired teacher, counsellor
     
  • Billy Murphy Jr., Baltimore attorney, public lecturer
     
  • Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund
     
  • Dawn Ollivierre, substance abuse counsellor, Baltimore
     
  • Vanessa Williams, program director of The Club (after school program) and The Ark (preschool for homeless children) Baltimore


Related stories:


Reading list:

  • Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegal & Grau, 2015, New York
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, The New Press, New York, 2010
  • The Substance of Hope:Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress by William Jelani Cobb, Walker Books, New York, 2010
  • The Fire This Time:  A New Generation Speaks about Race by Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 2016
  • Stirrings in the Jug:  Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era by Adolph Reed Jr., University of Minnesota Press, 1999  


Shadow of Charm City - Freddie Gray mural

A mural of Freddie Gray near the location where he was arrested in Baltimore, Maryland. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Shadow of Charm City - kid art

After the Freddie Gray riots, children at The Club, an after school centre "drew" their fears. (Mary O'Connell/CBC)