Thursday, April 30, 2015

The One Where I Vent My Frustration With People's Perception of the Baltimore Protests - Warning, it's long...like this title.

For the past week I have watched quietly as Baltimore has gone through some very difficult times. This has been hard for me to do as I live only 45 minutes from Charm City and, at one point in my 20s, thought I might move there. I did not, but it was a close call. Los Angeles with it's beaches, mountains, and jobs in the Entertainment industry won that particular battle. But I still love Baltimore with it's crab cakes, amazing ball park, fantastic aquarium, and amazing diversity. What I don't love about the city is it's extreme dichotomy. 

You see, there are actually two Baltimores with mere blocks standing between them. There is the Baltimore filled with good food, quaint buildings, museums and stores. Then there's the Baltimore that we're seeing today - boarded up buildings, few stores, food deserts, and lots, and lots of frustration. That these two Baltimores have existed standing next to each other for so long is truly difficult to understand. Perhaps it's just me, but I do not understand how the Baltimore that was so inviting to me in my 20s can sit with it's eyes closed and not work tirelessly to help the Baltimore just around the corner. But, I did not move there so I don't know what is really happening in the city - only what I have seen from afar - so I have not felt as though I could speak out just yet. Until today.

I'm Jewish. I don't hide this fact, but it's not always easy to tell if someone is or isn't just by looking at them unless they tell you. Part of being Jewish is the mitzvah (good deed) of Tikkun Olam, or Repairing the World. Today I read an article in a Jewish online magazine called Kveller. For the most part it's a pretty good magazine. It's a bit more conservative than I am, I tend to lean to the far middle left, but it has some pretty good articles. Then there was the one about what to tell your children about the "Baltimore Freddie Gray Riots." I read it and was appalled. It was basically an article about how not to be afraid of people of color because look - some of them brought brooms the day after! Nothing about why the people of Baltimore are angry nor about our responsibilities to our neighbors. I finally got to the point where I could not be silent any longer. 

Below is my response to the article. I don't often comment for a variety of reasons, but this time I felt I had to. It doesn't help that I have been aching to say something since the protests started and I learned why they erupted. In case you are wondering - I fully support the protests, and while I prefer peaceful protests to violent riots, I understand why there are some who needed to vent their anger in a more aggressive way. If you wish to read the article first, you can find it here: http://bit.ly/1HWjcoy.
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Rivki, this is a beautifully written post, but it only tells half the story. I've lived near Baltimore for most of my life and I have seen it's two sides. The side where children feel safe every day and have enough food to eat, where homes are warm and filled. I have also seen the side where every third house stands empty, non-boarded windows, yawning caverns of darkness, standing open to the elements. I was once a teacher in my state and I would hear "At least we don't teach in Baltimore. We at least have most of what we need here."

Then there are the rules every person of color must tell their child - don't talk back to the police, never look them in the eye, and don't wonder if you are going to be pulled over - you are. 

Yes, as Jews we are different. Yes, I remember having pennies thrown at me in the hallways to see if I would "Jew" them (pick them up) and at least one carving on my locker I wish I could forget, but unless I wear a Mogan David, or a Chi, or something else around my neck that screams "I'M JEWISH!" then the only thing outing me is myself. People of color don't have the option to hide what makes them different - they just are - and because of that they are targets every single day.

You also aren't suggesting that we talk about the peaceful protests, the requests for civil rights to be upheld, the requests for investigations into suspect arrests, the men and women of G-d who linked arms and walked through the streets of Baltimore to meet with the police and came to an agreement with them then walked them back into the parts of the city that were burning and stood in front of the police to protect them - in front of the police who were the target of so much anger, potentially rightly so.

Nor are you giving advice of what we, as Jews, should do. Remember how much emphasis we, as Jews, place on Tikkun Olam - repairing the world. Look at those streets in Baltimore. Not one of them looked much better than they do now just five days ago. And they've looked like that for decades. Just telling your children "Oh, but not every person of color is like that. Look - some of them brought brooms!" doesn't fix the underlying issues of education, employment, shelter and food.

None of us is perfect. If this were us, if we were being arrested for no reason and thrown in jail without cause...if one of our own died because of it - would we sit still and take it or would we protest? Would we riot? Anyone who has studied what happened in Warsaw from April 19, 1943 through May 16, 1943 should know that answer. The answer is yes, we would and we have. I would prefer that protests be peaceful, but I would also prefer that the people of this side of Baltimore have what they need to feel safe and secure in their homes. So would my son.

Unlike you, we have been discussing Freddie Gray and what is happening in Baltimore with our son. It is very possible that our son is older than your children - he is 8 and in 2nd grade which does make a difference. If this was two years ago I would be avoiding this conversation with him. Actually I did avoid the conversation last year when protests broke out in Albuquerque, NM for very similar reasons and again eight months ago when there were protests in Ferguson. But now, this week, we are not avoiding it. He's asked a lot of amazing questions about Freddie Gray, what happened to him, why Baltimore looks so poor, what does it mean to be poor, etc. He has also asked "What can I do to help?" This question, more than any other he has asked this week, made me incredibly proud. He then took it one step further and told me he wanted to write a letter to the President with some ideas of what we can do to help the people of Baltimore. That letter went into the mailbox today.

This comment has become far longer than I originally intended. I obviously feel very strongly that something needs to be done in cities where people are too quickly judged by circumstance or appearance and therefore do not feel safe. But before I sign off, there is one more quote we should heed. Martin Niemöller, a German Protestant pastor during the 1940s, is famous for standing up to Nazi rule when not many people did. While I am in no way comparing anything that is happening in our nation's police departments to the Nazi's, Niemöller's famous quotation is a reminder that we all must look out for our neighbors regardless of circumstance.

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

Yes, we should teach our children not to judge others, but we cannot stop there. We also need to teach them to stand up for those who may need the help of our voices to be heard.

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