THE BLOG

Why Baltimore Is Burning

04/28/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015
Andrew Burton via Getty Images

I am from the ghetto. The first 13 years of my life I grew up in the worst slums of Jersey City, New Jersey, my hometown. If you came of age in one of America's poor inner cities like I did, then you know that we are good, decent people: in spite of no money, no resources, little to no services, run down schools, landpersons who only came around to collect rent, and madness and mayhem everywhere, amongst each other -- from abusive police officers, and from corrupt politicians and crooked preachers -- we still made a way out of no way. We worked hard, we partied hard, we laughed hard, we barbecued hard, we drank hard, we smoked hard, and we praised God, hard.

And we were segregated, hard, by a local power structure that did not want the ghetto to be seen nor heard from, and certainly not to bring its struggles out in plain sight for the world to see.

Indeed, my entire world was the block I lived on and maybe five or six blocks north south east west. A long-distance trip was going to Downtown Jersey City on the first of each month so our mothers -- our Black and Latina mothers -- could cash their welfare checks, buy groceries with their food stamps and, if we were lucky, we got to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken or some other fast-food restaurant on that special day.

When I was about 15, I was badly beaten by a White police officer after me and a Puerto Rican kid had a typical boy fight on the bus. No guns, no knives -- just our fists. The Puerto Rican kid, who had White skin to my Black skin, was escorted off the bus gingerly. I was thrown off the bus. Outraged, I said some things to the cop as I sat handcuffed in the back seat of a police car. He proceeded to smash me in the face with the full weight of his fist. Bloodied, terrified, broken in that moment, I would never again view most police officers as we had been taught as children: "Officer Friendly" --

Being poor meant I only was able to go to college because of a full financial-aid package to Rutgers University. I did not get on a plane until I was 24-years-old because of that poverty, and also because I did not know that that was something I could do. These many years later, I have visited every single state in America, every city big and small, and every ghetto community you can name. They all look the same.

Abandoned, burnt-out buildings. Countless churches, funeral parlors, barber shops, beauty salons, check-cashing places, furniture-rental stores, fried-chicken spots, and Chinese restaurants. Schools that look and feel more like prison holding cells for our youth than centers of learning. Playgrounds littered with broken glass, used condoms, and drug paraphernalia. Liquor stores here, there, everywhere. Corner stores that sell nothing but candy, cupcakes, potato chips, soda, every kind of beer you can name, loose cigarettes, rolling paper for marijuana, lottery tickets, and gum -- lots and lots of gum.

Then there are also the local organizations that claim to serve the people, Black and Latino people. Some mean well, and are doing their best with meager resources. Others only come around when it is time to raise money, to generate some votes for one political candidate or another, or if the police have tragically killed someone.

Like Rekiya Boyd in Chicago. Like Miriam Carey in Washington, D.C. Like Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland. Like Yvette Smith in Texas. Like Aiyana Stanley Jones in Detroit. Like Eric Garner in New York City. Like Oscar Grant in Oakland. Like Walter Scott in South Carolina. Like Freddie Gray in Baltimore....

Yes, we have the first Black president in the White House but it feels like open season on Black folks in America once more. One hundred years ago this year, the Hollywood image machine was given a huge boost by a racist and evil film called "Birth of a Nation," a movie so calculating in the way it depicted Black people it set the tone, quite literally, for how we were portrayed and treated in every form of media for decades to come. One hundred years ago, it was common to see photos of African Americans, males especially, lynched, hung from trees, as the local good White folks visibly enjoyed their entertainment of playing hangman.

One hundred years later, "Birth of a Nation" has been replaced by a 24-hour-news media cycle still obsessed with race, racism, racial strife, racial violence, but no solutions and no action steps whatsoever, just pure sensationalism and entertainment. One hundred years later, the lynching photos have been replaced by cellphones capturing video of Walter Scott running away from a police officer, like a slow-footed character in a video game, only to be shot in the back -- pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! pop!

Except all of this is mad real. Black people in America -- the self-proclaimed greatest democracy on earth -- are being shot here, there, everywhere, by the police, in broad daylight, with witnesses, sometimes on video. And with very few exceptions, nothing is happening to the cops who pulled the triggers. No indictments. No convictions. No prison time.

And every single time one of these scenarios occurs, we are handed the same movie script: Person of color is shot and killed by local police. Local police immediately try to explain what happened, while placing most of the blame, without full investigation, on the person shot. Police officer or officers who fired shots are placed on paid "administrative leave." Media finds any and everything they can to denigrate the character of the dead person, to somehow justify why she or he is dead. Marches, protests, rallies, speeches. Local police show up in military-styled "riot gear." Tensions escalate. Folks are arrested, people are agitated or provoked; all hell breaks loose. The attention has shifted from the police killing an innocent person to the violence of "thugs," "gangstas," "looters." The community is told to be nonviolent and peaceful, but no one ever tells the police they should also be nonviolent and peaceful. Whites in power and "respectable Black voices" call for calm, but these are the same folks who never talk about the horrific conditions in America's ghettoes that make any 'hood a time bomb just waiting for a match to ignite the fury born of oppression, marginalization, containment, and invisibility. These are the same people who've been spent little to no time with the poor.

If you aren't from the ghetto, if you have not spent significant time in the ghetto, then you would not understand the ghetto....

No matter. Big-time civil rights organizations, big-time civil rights spokespersons, and big-time church leaders are brought in to re-direct, control, and contain the energy from the people at the bottom. Started from the bottom now we here.... But they really cannot, because the people have seen this movie a million times before. They know it is madness to be told to let justice take its course. They know it is madness to wait out a legal system that rarely if ever indicts and convicts these police officers who've shot and killed members of their community. They know it is madness to be told to stay cool, to be cool, when they have no healthy outlets for their trauma, their pain, their rage. They know it is madness to hear pundits and talking heads of every stripe on television and radio and via blogs analyze who they are, without actually knowing who they are. They know it is madness when middle-class or professional Black folks speak the language of the power structure and condemn the people in the streets instead of the system that created the conditions for why the people are in the streets. They know it is madness that so-called progressive, liberal, human-rights, or social-justice people of any race or culture have remained mightily silent as these police shootings have been going down coast to coast. And they know it is madness that most of these big-time leaders and big-time media only come around when there is a social explosion.

So they do explode, inside of themselves, and inside their communities. They would love to reach areas outside their 'hoods, but the local power structure blocks that from happening. So they destroy their own communities. I understand why. I am they and they are me. Any people with nothing to lose will destroy anything in their way. Like anything. Any people who feel as if their lives are not valued, like they are second-class citizens at best, will not be stopped until they've made their point. They, we, do not care if our communities have not rebounded from the last major American rebellions of the 1960s. We care that we have to live in squalor and misery and can be shot at any given moment by each other, or by the police, and no one seems to care. A rebellion, a riot, are pleas for help, for a plan, for a vision, for solutions, for action steps, for justice, for God, someone, anyone, to see our humanity, to do something.

Condemning them is condemning ourselves. Labeling the Baltimore situation a "riot" because it is mostly people of color is racist, given we do not call White folks behaving violently after major sporting events "rioters" or "thugs" or "gangstas," and Lord knows some White folks have destroyed much property in America, too. It ain't a democracy if White people can wild out and it is all good; but let people of color wild out and it becomes a state of emergency with the National Guard dropping in, armed and ready.

Black lives matter, all lives matter, equally. I believe that, I believe deeply in peace and love and nonviolence. I believe in my heart that we've got to be human and compassionate and civil toward one another, as sisters and brothers, as one human race, as one human family. I believe that our communities and police forces everywhere have to sit down and talk and listen as equals, not as enemies, to figure out a way toward life and love, not toward death and hate; a way toward a shared community where we all feel safe and welcomed and human.

Yes, I love people, all people. But I also believe in justice, for all people. And I know that what has been happening in America these past few years not remotely close to any form of justice, or equality. Imagine, if you will, White folks being shot and murdered by the police like this, what the reactions would be?

Imagine if George Zimmerman had gone vigilante on a White youth with a hoodie in that gated Florida complex. Imagine White parents having to teach their children how to conduct themselves if ever confronted by the police. Imagine that Aiyana Stanley Jones was a little 7-year-old White girl instead of a little 7-year-old Black girl, shot by the police as she slept on a sofa with her grandmother, in a botched raid? It would be a national outrage.

Baltimore is burning because America is burning with racism, with hate, with violence. Baltimore is burning because far too many of us are on the sidelines doing nothing to affect change, or have become numb as the abnormal has become normal. Baltimore is burning because very few of us are committed to real leadership, to a real agenda with consistent and real political, economic, and cultural strategies for those American communities most under siege, most vulnerable. Policing them to death is not the solution. Putting them in prison is not the solution. And, clearly, ignoring them is not the solution.

Kevin Powell is a cofounder of BK Nation, a new national organization and blog website. He is also an activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 11 books. His 12th book, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey into Manhood, will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in November 2015. You can email him, kevin@kevinpowell.net, or follow him on twitter, @kevin_powell