Barry Saunders

Baltimore burns, and some of us aren’t surprised

You say tomato, I say tomahto.

You say potato, I say potahto.

You say riot, I say “C’mon, man. Are you really surprised?”

No one with a heart was hoping for a conflagration such as the one that flared in the Sandtown-Winchester section of Baltimore this week, but could anyone with a brain have been surprised by it?

The only surprise should’ve been that it took so long to happen.

How – many of you tut-tutted while watching television or reading the newspaper – can “those people” do that to their own communities, to their own city, to their own country?

You’re joking, right?

Man, most of the people out there participating in the uprising probably feel no more sense of ownership of the community in which they live, or of America, than I feel ownership of that pretty red Ferrari that almost hit me several years ago when I didn’t look before trying to cross a street in Miami.

That car kept going as though I weren’t even there, leaving me watching its dust in rage. That’s what America is doing to yet another generation of black men. It’s unwilling to spend money to educate them, but it’ll shell out millions to incarcerate them. A country with a crumbling infrastructure refuses to pass a jobs bill that would put millions of Americans to work, primarily because one party fears it’ll redound to the glory of you-know-who. U.S. Census statistics cited on the Baltimore neighborhood in which Freddie Gray died while in police custody show that only 42 percent of adult residents there have jobs.

You don’t reckon the other 58 percent are just lazy, do you?

Of course you do.

Oh well. If you can’t score points one way, why not just call them criminals and thugs, eh, Mr. President? That’s what President Obama did, called them criminals and thugs.

When the president and the police don’t know these young men personally – or know them only as one-dimensional stereotypes by the music they listen to or the way they wear their pants – it’s easy to blithely dismiss them. That’s why Durham police, Wil Glenn said, are trying to make it a point to not only get to know residents, but to let residents know them.

‘Knocking on doors’

Glenn, the recently appointed public affairs manager for the Durham cop shop, told me Wednesday, “We’re doing more knock-and-talks, getting officers out of the cars and knocking on doors” in neighborhoods where the trust level may be low.

“We’re letting them know we want them to work with us. Combating crime is a two-way street. We need our citizens to help us, to call our Crime Stoppers at 919-683-1200 and let us know what’s going on. We want to highlight transparency as a priority, especially when important issues arise,” he said. “We have nothing to hide. ... We’re benevolent figures in the community.”

Yeah, but you do understand that not everyone views y’all as benevolent figures, right?

“I understand that,” Glenn said. “I understand the environment that is currently going on in our nation where police officers are concerned. That doesn’t stop us from trying to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. We want to enforce the laws, and we want to enforce them fairly.”

Hell, that’s all anyone can ask.

We know that not every Baltimore rock-chunker and bottle-tosser was motivated by righteous anger resulting from decades of societal neglect and law enforcement abuse; some probably saw the eruption as nothing more than a chance to score some free loot and raise hell. No one, unfortunately, seems willing to make a distinction between “rioters” and “protesters.”

Far more of the latter were probably compelled to participate out of a sense of impotent rage: Hey nothing else has gotten your attention, let’s try this. Reporters noted that some of the rock-hurlers had tears in their eyes as they shouted at the cops “You killed my father” or “You killed my brother.”

A young Baltimorean, being questioned by Thomas Roberts of MSNBC about the negative message being sent by the destruction, turned the question back onto him. The woman, who gave her name as Danielle, asked “My question to you is, when we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. ... So now that we’ve burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us.

“Why,” she asked, “does it take a catastrophe like this in order for America to hear our cry?”

Because, dear child, we all know those danged buildings are more revered and valued than any number of black male lives.

So, why shouldn’t Obama join the bandwagon of denigrating young black dudes? There is very little, if any, downside to putting down brothers, no price to pay politically or socially. He might even get a political bump from detractors.

Here’s something to consider. If the people who saw themselves as rebelling against an unjust system in B’more on Monday are thugs, what does that make those cats who dressed up as Indians and threw that tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, an act of rebellion that many feel sparked the American Revolution?

Ever since Freddie Gray was killed, a line from Bonnie Tyler’s song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” has been running through my mind. It is a line that describes hundreds of communities in America like Sandtown-Winchester and the people who exist within them:

I don’t know what to do, I’m always in the dark.

Living in a powder keg, giving off sparks.

On Monday, after Freddie Gray’s funeral, we saw what happens when one of those sparks ignites.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or