Uniting a divided city: what we could learn from the fallout of Freddie Gray

This is dialogue between me and my friend, Aaron Chester, who grew up in the Baltimore area. Our goal was to find solutions to the tragedy that just occurred in his home town.

Aaron Chester: Having grown up and having lived the majority my life in the suburbs of Baltimore, and with the current climate of things across America, I can’t say I’m all that shocked about what transpired as of late. Inner city Baltimore teeters on the brink of eruption every single day. There is such a divide in this city, drawn of course by racial and socio economic lines, that when you put the right ingredients together—that you have in the death of Freddie Gray—, you end up with a true explosion. Of course I see this from my own perspective, and I see that this is all madness.

I’m not living close by anymore, but I’m afraid for my family and friends that do, because what I see is young people who are angry and desperate, taking it out on society as a whole with violence, looting and destruction. I don’t see it from the perspective of the inner city African American kid, and I’m admittedly unable to. And they don’t see it from any perspective other than their own either. And isn’t this the problem in all of society after all? I say regardless of what happened to Freddie Gray, how could violence, stealing and destruction help anything? I see people destroying their own communities and hurting the people they claim they are fighting for. I don’t say everyone or even the majority, but nonetheless there is a lot of that taking place. To me, Baltimore is a microcosm of cities across all of America, and we need to ask ourselves why is this taking place, how we solve it, and how each person in his limited view comes to sympathize and understand everyone else?

Jesse Bogner: The sad reality is that these riots happen all the time. It’s nothing new and nothing really changes in these cities. It’s very easy to see that America is split into camps, the haves and the have nots. Jon Stewart’s coverage on how improperly CNN covered the riots expressed this perfectly. While Baltimore was set aflame in its frustration with a police force that killed a man in its custody, the elite of Washington was hobnobbing with celebrities. And what did CNN cover? The red carpet for what twitter dubbed as “Nerd Prom,” where Senators, news correspondents and TV actors cracked wise about Obama’s administration. It very clearly expressed the huge divide between the elected officials’ priorities and the disadvantaged, primarily black citizens of Baltimore, who after decades of oppression both mental and physical woke up and screamed, I just can’t take it anymore. The fact that CNN chose to cover a self-congratulatory event is just a comedy of errors.

And while it would be convenient to paint this very clear picture of the urban poor and the elite, the problem in America is not so simple. There is the urban poor, who never are really given any opportunity to achieve the American dream, and are ignored until some cataclysm takes the center stage before a return to relative normalcy, but there is also a segregation of people between all socio-economic levels. We live in a world where we all depend on one another, but in our personal lives, we care exclusively for those who are close to us. As long as we continue to be slaves to the current political structure, where lobbies led by millionaires and billionaires are the ones influencing political discourse, the needs of corporations and wealthy individuals will be addressed before the needs of the majority of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. We are constantly told we come from a land of freedom, but this freedom does not exist in the country’s current state. Do you see anything changing? Will we learn anything from Baltimore, or will it just be like what just happened in Ferguson last year?

Aaron: I hope we learn from this, and we have to. Now we see uncontrollable riots on a large scale in major metropolitan areas. We see that when angry protestors come together under one cause, whether it is to destroy or not, there’s little that law enforcement can do to stop it. This situation must be looked at from both sides because failing to do so could mean widespread chaos and destruction throughout the whole country. If people are desperate enough to destroy their own communities, we have a real problem.

Jesse: While I understand Obama’s take that this civil unrest is not solving any problems and the right wing calling card of guys like Matt Walsh who say that these riots “only deserve condemnation,” what else is a voiceless population going to do? There is no course of action for the people of Baltimore to make any systemic change. However, by destroying their own communities these people are only hurting themselves. They will change the news cycle for a few days, but they are the ones who are forced to live in the aftermath of destruction.

Baltimore wisely has already arrested six suspects across racial and gender lines in the murder of Freddie Gray, calming the storm of frustration, but what happens next? What do you see as an alternative for this segment of the population with no hope? I believe that this progress must have some sort of benefit.

These people are coming to a point of frustration where they are going to have to look for alternative solutions. We can’t keep things the way they are, where poor communities flare up in rage and return to the depression of normalcy and then flame up again. This cycle will not just continue. There has to be a breaking point.

Aaron: I’m not sure that we have come to this breaking point yet, but it is for sure a sign of things to come, and things can get much worse. In the end, I don’t think the frustration is about racial issues or even socio-economic issues. These are the symptoms, but not the root of the illness. The root illness is the one that we all suffer from, in Baltimore, the U.S. as a whole, and throughout the entire world. This illness is the absence of connection between people and complete ignorance of how to live with one another in a proper way. Everyone needs to care for and sympathize with everyone else, from the government down to the common people.

We look at inner city Baltimore and we see the results of an education system that does not care for the people. The schools want to push their agenda while the youth go out to the street to a world that they have learned nothing about. Sadly if there are no positive influences in the home environment, we come to a state of desperate, angry young people who are willing to destroy their own communities for the sake of being heard in some small way.

The equality that we dream about when we think of America is still just that, a dream. But we can change that. It starts not with the government, but with us, the common people. What can each individual do to begin to foster caring, loving relationships with everyone around him? One individual who begins to educate himself about how to correctly care for and relate to others will create a “trickle up” affect. We don’t need to wait for something to “trickle down” from the government and the elites, because it won’t happen.

Jesse: I agree with you that the solution needs to come from a fundamental shift in the way people think about and measure success. America was built on the foundation of the American Dream, the idea that everyone was entitled to a family, a comfortable life with a two-car garage and a lawn. We see that this dream is not a reality for a middle class that barely exists anymore. Our desire for more has not led to any kind of meaningful fulfillment. The pursuit of happiness has led to a culture of overmedicated, overworked, depressed people and left many populations on the fringes of mainstream American society with no hope for the future. Our egos lead us to believe happiness lies in material success and though some people are able to achieve this, it is necessarily at the expense of the whole society.

If we want the “hope and change” Obama ran his campaign on, we need to start looking at our communities holistically and learn that we are all connected and dependent upon one another. We need a method to create systemic change. The success of one individual will not benefit the whole, unless this individual is able to transcend his nature, which is to dominate and exploit people.

The way to achieve this change is through education. And not what we think of as education today. Adults and children need to learn that their success is dependent on the success of others. They need to see that coming to mutually beneficial solutions will lead to more success and greater happiness. Cooperation is what built this country. The general ego of the world makes pure capitalism, the way we see it today, works as a destructive force in society, where it used to create abundance. When profit is the only motivation in business, there is no concern about how corporations and banks affect people and there is absolutely no consideration for the future and sustained growth.

This force of the ego is why our once great cities and our most beautiful buildings have become copper mines for building the infrastructure of China. There is absolute lack of cooperation in Congress, killing any possibility of the government deciding on matters in favor of the majority, the way they were intended to, when the legislative branch was invented. All this chaos creates a framework of a frustrated population that will not accept the authority of a government that does not look out for their interests. Do you think there is a way that we can reeducate our population and our government to make decisions that benefit the entire country and ultimately the whole world?

Aaron: There is most definitely a way to fix things. Baltimore shows us that for better or worse, when people come together for some kind of cause, right or wrong, the government and the public in general must respond and change accordingly. I stand by the fact that destruction of any kind hurts those doing it and everyone else. I don’t know what happened to Freddie Gray and how can I say I know how the inner city population feels when I don’t come from it? I can’t, and herein lies the solution.

We need to conduct from the bottom up massive social reform from the people, where everyone has a voice to express to everyone else how he or she feels and why. It’s not important whether or not we agree on solutions, what’s important is what occurs when we all sit together from a place of true equality, for the sake of discovering a solution. Our government may be meant to create such solutions, but this solution comes not from a body of authorities, but instead from people coming together with each other. We need to build organizations in the community that will sit concerned people together with one another, workshops so to speak. In these workshops, we must educate one another about how to come to mutual understanding, connection, and care for each other, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic situation.

Most importantly, through efforts made to connect and unite with the common goal of bettering society, we all truly come to empathize with one another. As nature has it, we are social beings that are totally shaped by our environment. The blame game is up because now it is each and every individual’s responsibility to build a better future. We need each other to do that. Baltimore this past week exposed the symptom of a sickness that continues to spread. Yes, there is injustice in every realm of society, and yes we do not understand and care for one another in the way that is needed to live in peace. But now that the sickness has been revealed to some extent, we can begin with the remedy. The remedy is education, unity and connection. When we build this with one another, beginning with discussion groups and seminars in our own communities, the system will respond. We ourselves will change. Let’s not let the suffering of all parties involved, especially the suffering of Freddie Gray and his family be in vain. The rebuilding starts right here, in the relationship between you and me.

Let us take a look at a few opinions of friends of mine living close to the situation and try and understand their thoughts without any judgment.

Sam Abrams (Baltimore City resident): This is not the solution and I don’t think anyone thinks it is. This is just painful to watch. You’re angry about poverty and injustice, but destroying your own community doesn’t fix that. It sets you back 10 years. You could’ve had a march, and that would’ve been called for. This isn’t even destruction this is a warzone. Racial divide needs to be fixed, I’m sure there’s more brutality against blacks than whites but what does destruction accomplish? The biggest struggle now is who has to clean this up?

Michael Margolies (Baltimore City resident): Love is the answer! There is a tendency to try to find external “bad guys” who are to blame in nearly all situations. Instead of demonizing each other, let’s humanize each other.

Brandon Havener (Serving in The National Guard in Baltimore): So far I’ve seen a lot more appreciation and peace from everybody. 98% of baltimore appreciates the guard for being here and protecting the city. Nothing violent at the harbor so far. There were protestors driving down the street honking their horns showing the peace sign. I think the majority of the protestors want a peaceful outcome.

Jesse: By expressing these kinds of feelings without judgment, we will be able to come to common solutions for a city that is plagued by destructive points of view that lead to destructive actions. Only by connecting and finding commonality will we be able to start making clear, achievable goals for a better Baltimore. If this city, with clear cultural differences and distinct differences of point of view, can come to connect, it will lead the entire country by example. Every bad situation is an opportunity to correct our thinking, allowing us to question the sadly unsustainable normality of American life.

Aaron Chester graduated from the University of Maryland, with a BA in journalism. He has published articles in The Baltimore Sun. He currently lives in Israel and works as a freelance writer and hip hop artist, where he goes by the name Aaron C.

toi2-jesse and ahron
Jesse and Aaron, Tel Aviv


About the Author
Jesse Bogner is an author and journalist. His memoir and social critique, The Egotist, has been translated into five languages. His work has been featured in The Daily Caller, MSN, The Daily Wire and The Huffington Post. His book of articles, Tikkunim (Corrections), was released in January 2018.