I have been absurdly, unconscionably slow in realizing the necessity of police reform, only coming to the realization at the very moment when the consensus itself did. Insofar as personal beliefs are the same personal conduct, then it’s a personal failing and a flaw of character, and I will live with guilt of that for the rest of my life.
In whatever defense/justification could possibly matter at a moment of this important, I do have a number of slightly selfish personal reasons for giving the police the benefit of the doubt and being grateful for police having an outsize presence in my life story, and much more importantly, my family’s life story. If I’m being honest with myself, the reasons are probably mostly personal, not intellectual or political.
It is not my place to tell some of the stories of crime in my family, and they will most certainly remain out of print. But crime seemed to follow my family from the moment we set foot on American soil, and has not yet let up even in the era of militarized police. Whether or not it was ever the right move to militarize police and give them the benefit of the doubt: again, and again, and again, I can tell you that the American people acceeded to their outsize power for a reason, and the reasons were damn good.
I will not tell the rather bloodcurdling stories of harassment to which my mother’s family was subjected until the stress of the intimidation compelled them to leave their Forest Park house on Maine Avenue, where they were for all intents and purposes compelled to stay until 1970, two years past the Baltimore riots when my Bubbie and Zaydie were literally escorted home by tank, and years after every other Jew had moved out of the old neighborhood, while my grandparents stayed because Bubbie, Mollie Witow now four months from her centenary, had to take care of her own mother, Tessie Katz, whom because of a botched brain operation in the early 50s that paralyzed the entire right side of her body for nearly the last twenty years of her life. Had the operation happened a generation later, the doctor could have had his license revoked. But the stories are harrowing. Irving Kristol, godfather of the neoconservative movement, said that a neoconservative is a ‘liberal mugged by reality.’ So if my mother’s entire family turned right wing from the severity of the experience, it’s quite rather understandable. My Bubbie and Zaydie’s parents did not come to this country only for their children and grandchildren to receive the exact same treatment at the hands gentile neighbors they received from Cossacks in the Pale of Settlement, yet there they were in West Baltimore, subject to precisely all of the same forces and threats to their persons.
But I will tell a few of the more harrowing stories of my father’s family, who survived the entirety of Hitler’s lacerations–at least those who managed to survive…, only to arrive to America and many to get exactly what Hitler longed to visit upon them all.
In my Zaydie’s shtetl of Bransk, 3000 Jews lived in 1939, by 1945, that number was 37. Nearly all of them came to Baltimore because my other Bubbie, Eva Tucker, formerly Chava Ticoczki nee Slodka, had two much older sisters in Baltimore who’d arrived thirty years earlier, long established. One married to a wealthy businessman, the other left by a husband in penury, both sponsoring the remaining ‘Bransker’ to come to Baltimore.
I will omit the names of the two murdered Bransker, but what happened was not merely murder, it was murder most foul – zeroth degree murder. One of them, an extremely close albeit ten years younger friend of my grandparents, father to my father’s oldest and closest friend, probably a third or so cousin to Zaydie, and a Shoah survivor just like my Bubbie and Zaydie, was murdered in his own home, in front of his wife, who was tied up and, I believe, left with the corpse until whenever they were discovered. A few days later, at the inevitable funeral at Saul Levinson Bros., Baltimore’s monopolized Jewish funeral home, the wife threw herself on the coffin.
And then there’s the other murdered Bransker. My Zaydie, in the old country a middle class farm-implement salesman, gave the money for this boy, his mother and sister to make it out before Hitler rounded them up, and somehow they bypassed the Jewish quota for immigration to make it to Atlanta. After fifty years in America, he went missing, and was discovered weeks later, his body burned all over, charred to such irrecognition that he was only identified by his dental records. At the shiva house, the wife could only gaze at the headlines of his murder and recount every harrowing detail of how he might have suffered.
These men were the truest American success stories, businessmen both, whom having escaped the worst conditions on earth, came to a country which gave them success denied to which 2000 years of Jews, only for the underbelly of the country who gave our community everything to prematurely claim their lives as a price for success. The identity of the killers is both completely immaterial and also an explanation of how widely held biases are formed.
I will not tell stories of Maine Avenue, but I will briefly relate a few stories of Woodholme Avenue, where I and my brothers grew up, and where when I was four my father had to clasp me by the mouth with maximum force to relocate me into their own room as robbers were in the front part of our rancher stealing every piece of hardware they could find and I was trying to scream at the top of my lungs. I will tell of how my father was mugged just last year in his own driveway, screaming while my mother and I were inside the house. Within thirty minutes of the crime the muggers were apprehended by a team of at least half-a-dozen policemen on a high speed chase. No one has come back to my parents’ house for any kind of retribution against my dad for testifying in court, but that kind of policing is over now. Will someone now show up on his doorstep for revenge?
And I will tell of an incident I’ve kept quiet about for thirty years which my addled mind has told me was true for decades, but my flocculent memory seems to have invented so much that I have long since no longer known what is true in my long term memory and what is not.
Until I was 13, my father’s job was to administrate a nursing home he owned in Lower Park Heights, one of the roughest most drug-addled neighborhoods in Baltimore. He constantly had to test drug test orderlies and janitors and kitchen workers, and my mother spent his eleven years at Pleasant Manor Nursing Center fearing for his safety. And yet by all eyewitness testimony, my father was a beloved boss whom in spite of having to constantly fire unreliable new workers who may have been addicts, set up 401K’s for all his longtime employees, tutored their children to raise their grades, loaned money with no real expectation of payback, and along with my mother was the only Jew at every family simcha and funeral. In an era when Jewish Baltimore divorced African-American Baltimore to lifelong Jewish prosperity and lifelong black cataclysm, my father was the mensch who stayed behind and the community servant which every self-interested Jewish overachiever had long since chosen not to be.
In the early 90s, my father took whom he thought was an extremely responsible employee, Mrs. Allen, and gave her a better paying job as our family’s household maid. Like so many maids in upper-middle-class households whom I’m sure that like every upper-middle-class household of the 20th century, we treated our ‘help’ with condescension that we didn’t even realize was condescension, but she quickly established herself as the indispensable node around which the whole house turned, coming at first once a week, then twice, then three times, then virtually full time, and when my youngest brother was a baby he always preferred her company even to our mother.
But cash would begin to go missing; of course it couldn’t possibly be Mrs. Allen, we just simply kept losing it. Then items from the house – Evan or Jordan probably hid them somewhere…
And then, on the Saturday of Thanksgiving Weekend 1990, when my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother, my parents pick me up from babysitting at Bubbie and Zaydie’s house. We return home, the house was broken into, and every piece of the jewelry my father yelled at my mother for buying was gone – not just my mother’s wedding ring and other such much more newly acquired items, but heirlooms that had been with our family since 1850. It looked like a random breakin, but the cops said that this break-in could only have been made to look like a break-in, and that there is no way the robbers could have found the ‘stash’ unless they knew exactly where it was.
The reason they knew where it was was because Mrs. Allen complained to eight-year-old me that my mother wouldn’t tell her where she kept her jewelry, and in my eight-year-old trust, I told Mrs. Allen that I would tell her where it was, but not first without going back on my word because I knew that this was wrong even had I no idea how wrong it was. When I went back on my word, Mrs. Allen seized me by the arm and squeezed as hard as her thirty-something year old self possibly could, I did my best not to cry, I relented, and I showed her the location, which I will not repeat online for fear that she still keeps it there.
My disorganizedly deranged mind seems to have fabricated other memories over the years for which I shall neither ever have closure nor catharsis, but I somehow doubt at all it fabricated this.
I have another more trivial memory, when my father had brought home a packet of ten rare candies that I was usually not allowed: my favorite, Reeses peanut butter cups, perhaps for Halloween, perhaps for Purim, perhaps just because they were leftovers from some party at the nursing home, and told me that I could have one a day as an after school snack. Somehow, in spite of this rare gold, I’d forgotten where they were. But I vividly remember the rage I felt when I came home a few days later and realized that nine of the ten Reeses were gone. I immediately called Mrs. Allen in and pointed to her and said ‘YOU’RE A THIEF!!!’ The entire room went silent like the grave, and my mother, probably understanding all too well that Mrs. Allen had in fact taken the Reeses, patiently explained that Mrs. Allen probably just had a sweet tooth, and better her eat the candy than me, whom Dad shouldn’t have brought it home for.
But if there ever was any doubt that Mrs. Allen was behind the robbery, that doubt was erased about two years later, during which time she became ever more needed with a third baby in the house, my father’s work becoming more and more strenuous, my mother having less and less time for housekeeping, both of my father’s parents developing severe dementia at the exact same time, and their oldest son beginning to exhibit all the signs of severe mental duress – a violent temper tantrum every day followed by overwhelming sobbing of remorse followed by the added stress of trying to maintain functionality in the face of schoolwork and socializing with other kids for which his all-too-severe learning disabilities were ill-equipped in extremis, and therefore both of them lodging the complaints with each other that all overstressed married couples experience at times – but all of that with the added pressure that the essential Mrs. Allen became ever more bold in the betrayal of her thefts, and therefore in her betrayals. In such a moment, Mrs. Allen could not possibly be fired when she may have been the only thing keeping the family together.
But checks from my mother’s bank account were starting to be cashed, missing from her checkbook which my mother most certainly did not tear out, write, nor have any cash from. Of course they knew who did it, and they could allow it no longer when a person can literally with the stroke of a pen separate them from their life savings. Finally, Mrs. Allen was let go, never reported to the police of course, how could such a beloved family member be reported merely for theft, but family too can betray family. For months thereafter, when we drove to my Dad’s nursing home, my youngest brother would see African-American women in Lower Park Heights from his carseat, and would sadly call out in his not yet formed language: “Mrs. Al”… “Mrs. Al”…
I guarantee that thousands of white families in Baltimore County have some stories like ours, because what we experienced as a family is probably nothing to what Mrs. Allen experienced simultaneously in West Baltimore. Was she a drug addict herself? Was her life in danger from owing money? Were her family members in danger? Did she have to post bail for siblings or nephews wrongfully imprisoned? Did she have to post it again and again when they were locked up for merely loitering on the corner? She probably needed the money much more than we did, but she was otherwise so beloved, what would my parents have refused her had she but asked?
I similarly have no doubt that the murderers of the Bransker had similarly harrowing stories of watching family members die, of mutilations beyond recognition, of terror after terror which were visited upon people their loved ones too, and perhaps more often than they ever visited them on anyone else.
But in the face of all that suffering, police seemed to promise the goodbye to all that, for all, both white and black. Policing is the obverse of education, and in both cases, the more money you spend on it, the more you get out of it. It’s true enough, American crime is still a horror show, and certain parts of every American city where life is as deadly and violent as anywhere in the world. We are now as tough on crime as anywhere in the world, and crime has not stopped, and it’s not stopped because we neglected to be as tough on the causes of crime.
In the City of Baltimore, police are funded to the tune of more than half a billion dollars per annum. Public health gets 41 million; while homeless services, employment, civil rights–not even ten million dollars of funding each, perhaps not even ten million dollars between them. Like so many American cities, there is no civil community in West Baltimore, there is no incentive for better lives, there is only poverty, there is only crime, there is only drugs, and there is only police. West Baltimore is by any metric a police state, but it became so for a reasons of social impairment just as now the police state is about to end for the very same reason. Perhaps Baltimore became a police state for the wrong reasons, but the reasons for the paranoia about crime were all too real.
Americans are a democratic people, and perhaps therefore a fickle people. We evolve with the evidence, but we either don’t learn lessons or we overlearn them. The moderate consensus that clamors now for defunding the police is the children of the moderate consensus that fifty years ago clamored for militarizing them. There is no universal standard for what is true and good, and problems evolve from generation to generation. Fifty years from now, our own children and grandchildren may well demand the reinstatement of radically hard police tactics, and they may well demand it much sooner. Every generation responds to the challenges of their own day as best they know how, but at this moment, the key statistics are that a thousand people die every year at the hands of American police, and that one in a thousand black men will die by the hands of police. The matters of life and death are the essential matters: no life, no quality of life.
About twenty years after Zaydie first came to this country, he and my great uncle Isaac owned the E-ZEE Market in extremely working class Hampden, and their building is now the property which houses The Wine Source – Baltimore’s most pretentious liquor store. 2020 Hampden is prosperous, progressive, and extremely pretentious – gentrified well past the point of being both bourgeois and bohemian. But 1960’s Hampden was crawling with Ku Klux Klan.
Zaydie Tucker, all not quite five feet of him, speaking English with his almost incomprehensible Yiddish accent, would have been such an easy meal for the Klan. But Zaydie was the smartest small businessman in Baltimore, and for years, he put a sign right outside the door which said ‘Cops Get a Free Corned Beef Sandwich.’
The Klan never got him.