I've been obsessively following the news and social media over the past few days in Baltimore. Over and again, the question of "safety" keeps coming up from residents and outsiders. As a Baltimore city resident and a parent, I can't help by wonder: what does it mean to be safe?
I live in Federal Hill, a neighborhood adjacent to the site of this week's protests in the Inner Harbor. It was one of the first to be redeveloped and is central to the city's re-branding as historic and hip. This neighborhood is more than 80 percent white and has a median income of $93,000 (compared with Baltimore's median income of $38,000). The community associations are active, and there are several beautifully kept parks, grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, shops, and a well-maintained library within walking distance from my home. We have access to the highway, regular public transit, and adequate public schools. This neighborhood has one-third the crime rate of the rest of the city.
As protests erupted across Baltimore's downtown and northern sections of the city, both peaceful and violent, the alarm bells sounded across the city's neighborhoods listservs and community groups. On Federal Hill, there were businesses that suffered broken windows and theft, but there were no incidents of violent encounters or residential disturbances. Volunteers came out across the city in waves to help with cleaning up streets and businesses.
Despite feeling a marginal impact from the protests, I've been reading and hearing people in my neighborhood (and others like mine) asserting that "we need to take back our city" or work "to make Baltimore safe again." It's clear who "we" are in these statements.
But what are we actually talking about?
Property. The fear over properties being harmed has been a large source of the public outrage. No doubt that the damage done to small shops across the city (the majority of which are located in the same neighborhoods where the individuals who were looting reside) is devastating. But the rage over images (played over and over) of young black men and women breaking into stores and filling bags with consumable goods has far out-voiced the rage over daily and historical inequalities that led to abject poverty and systematic disenfranchisement in this city. It is telling that we see damage to chain stores as the real victims of violence. This is how capitalism stays safe.
Race. The property damage and vandalism that we witnessed started in the wake of large, peaceful protests over the brutal death of a young black man in police custody -- a death for which the police have yet to take responsibility. If we have learned anything in recent years, they probably will not be held fully accountable. As residents of a majority-white neighborhood, the police are not a regular presence in our lives, except when called on to keep certain people out. Instead of calls for justice for Freddie Gray and the other black men and women who are wrongly detained, arrested, incarcerated and killed on a daily basis, we see proclamations of love for Baltimore and signs supporting the police and military that have descended on the city. This is how the racially privileged stay safe.
Resources. As a parent and city resident, I belong to several online parenting groups and neighborhood message boards. Across these sites, people continue to post about how they fear for their children's safety and the safety of moving through the city. The vast majority of these individuals live in areas with decent schools and charters (or the option to pay for private schooling), and have access to reliable and regular healthcare, childcare, transportation, food and housing. I want all of this for my child and every child -- what I know is that my daughter will grow up with these things. It won't be because of luck or hard work, but because she will be advantaged by her parent's and grandparent's social, economic and cultural capital. This is what it means to be safe.
On a local radio station, a caller argued that "some communities in Baltimore need protection and some need policing." When we talk about safety, we need to look beyond our neighborhoods and ask how we decide who stays safe and who does not.
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