The International Writers Magazine: Reality Check + Readers Responses
Baltimore is Burning
Beat-up little seagull
On a marble stair
Tryin' to find the ocean
Hard times in the city
In a hard town by the sea
Ain't nowhere to run to
There ain't nothin' here for free
“Baltimore”, Randy Newman
At some point cops will stop killing black guys and black neighborhoods will stop ending up in flames. Not sure when that will be; maybe when my daughter (now seven) will be around to see it. Hard to tell. Hope so. Who knows?
I know I’ve written more than a little on this subject now for a couple of grim years. Most of it centers on my harshly cynical view of humanity; all that stuff about hatred and violence and the silly notion that society can quell this bubbling genetic combustion or you know…what will become of us? All that stuff that seems to be obvious and hardly worth noting, but somehow escapes the noisy vox populi and the overly hyped redundant punditry.
We choose to ignore our baser instincts and go with the more “better angels” thing. I get that. I do. Like that movie with the kid and the tiger on the boat; which story would you choose to believe if you had the choice?
Then there is this useless search for answers. Is there a serviceable answer that would suffice; with any of this?
But I think on this occasion I bring some personal experience, because even the African-American community is finding it difficult to spin the mass riot in Baltimore, Maryland this week into something of a fair response to the mysterious death of another black kid by white cops.
You see, about 11 years ago I walked to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum in downtown Baltimore one afternoon with my parents and my wife. This was the first and only time I felt real, gripping fear. It was also the most disturbing level of abject poverty and destitution I have ever witnessed, and I have been to New Orleans and Israel.
Now mind you I’ve escaped some harrowing shit before. A few lowlights would be threatened at knife point at a Rolling Stones concert behind some alleyway in Hartford, Connecticut, weird vibrations at a slum bizarre in Barcelona, Spain, a quizzically half-day gypsy cab ride around the more alarmingly remote corners of Freeport, Bahamas, extremely dangerous teenaged vehicular machinations in the shotgun seat of a rusted-out 1965 Mustang in Freehold, NJ, some “bat-wielding” incident of my own making in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, an agonizingly long and perilous walk around the Old City of Jerusalem with helicopters hovering less than two hundred feet above my head, (not to mention having wandered wittingly into a Bedouin hutch), whatever it is I barely survived on the Jersey Shore 20 years ago this summer with some hedonistic rock band bent on destroying my compromised constitution, Catholic grammar school nuns, Disney World. I even managed to survive picking fights with Italian girlfriends when they were hungry.
Still, choosing to usher my family through the burned-out, boarded-up streets in downtown Baltimore with the most desperate and angry looking people I have had the misfortune (or maybe fortune, because I think once in all of our American lives, we should see this kind of arresting social and economic horror) to witness. It is the kind of “backed into a corner” vista that breeds a level of frustration that torches a CVS over something the cops may or may not have done.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that this is less a race thing than a poverty thing, which is far more prevalent in this year of our Lord 2015 than it has been in some time visa vie the soon-to-be mantra of the 2016 presidential race on both sides of the ideological aisle; income inequality. Add to that social inequality, educational inequality, health care inequality, you name it.
Now, the history of civilization is bloated with incidents of the have-nots rising up and causing mayhem for the have’s and these inner-city outbursts lately that begin with a call for justice and end up in total violent chaos is a comment on the idea of “nothing left to lose”, a mentality of the cornered animal that is not beneath us. And for further proof that Baltimore may be the template for more to come – because I think this one trumps Ferguson by a long shot – is the glaringly putrid statistics that cry out to be studied.
Baltimore’s decline, which has been steadily sinking since the 1980s, interrupted by the construction of Inner Harbor, which is only a few blocks from the pathetically Third-World conditions I witnessed in 2004, has perhaps reached its saturation point. The city’s unemployment rate is nearly double the national average and among the city’s African Americans it hovers around 30 percent. The high school graduation rate among inner city blacks is among the lowest in the country. Thus the crime rate is one of the highest of any city; its legend exploited in pop culture the way The French Connection, Taxi Driver and Death Wish cast a pall on the devolution of New York City in the 1970s, with the acclaimed The Wire series about destitute crime-ridden neighborhoods patrolled by corrupt and violent cops. Art reflected reality; since 2011 the city has doled out some six million dollars in court settlements to victims of police abuse.
So the question should not be, what the hell just happened in Baltimore?, it really should be, how did this not happen sooner and why doesn’t it happen weekly?
Baltimore has not benefitted from anything; social programs, budget cuts, a stringent police presence, outreach programs, the corporate explosion of the 1980s, the booming 1990s economic surge, the housing bubble of the 2000s or the slowly emerging economic recovery since 2009. It is our reminder that things are never “all rosy” around here. It is our reminder that places like Baltimore and Detroit and dozens of cities and towns across the U.S. in the richest most economically solvent nation in the world have been left to rot.
Last week our African American president rightfully pointed out that the U.S. economy is the strongest among any in the western hemisphere. It has come back faster than Europe by a long shot. Things are way better now than they were when the entire financial system was on the brink of total annihilation in the fall of ’08, which ushered him in into the White House in the first place. But none of this has come close to putting a dent into what is the “Baltimore Problem”, and I am in no position to suggest how it can be “solved”.
But one thing I have learned from this week is that while this eruption may in several ways have been the result of race, police, urban, sociological or even political issues, it is first and foremost economic.
READERS RESPONSES May 8th 2015
You are missing the entire point of Israel in your tirade about the megalomaniacal Benjamin Netanyahu. (WHERE THERE IS NO THERE…THERE – Issue: 3/11/15) While I also find him a vile personality and completely self-serving, and while you do make a fair point that a) the United States government has no right to pick sides in a foreign election and b) congress did this mainly to poke the president, the State of Israel is worth fighting for on all counts. As Jew and an American, I have understood the importance of this vital ally in a region where there are few if any. I know you have written for over a decade on your disgust with the Saudis getting a pass on 9/11, so after that what do we have? Pakistan has turned out to be a snake in the grass and Turkey has now screwed us at every turn. Egypt has fallen into either anarchy or a police state. Israel is it. They stand by our democratic principles and therefore we should stand by theirs. It is an imperative. And although we must hold our nose at someone as rank and amateurish as Bebe, he does have the inadvertent interest of the U.S. in his sights, if for no other reason than he is trying to stem an existential threat to the solvency of his nation’s existence.
I’m sorry. I think that is worth the fight.
Netanyahu wants one thing; an American backed war on Iran or the go-ahead to wage one itself. He has been saying since 1996 that Iran is a direct threat and only months from getting a bomb. 1996! Twenty years of “They are months from killing us all!” Who believes this nonsense now? John Boehner? Ted Cruz? His performance at the U.N. a few years ago was so absurd it actually damaged his international credibility. He will likely win his election and the next U.S. president will have to deal with this nut. But it is important for Americans to realize this military-minded gentleman only cares about one thing – and maybe that is good for him, but not so much for us – the total annihilation of Iran. This is the reaction to Iran’s rhetoric of the same to be sure, but it is damaging to us for one reason; a docile Iran, capitulating to our whims quells unrest but scares Netanyahu to death. He would abhor the ally status, just as the Israelis did when The Shah was our ally for thirty some years. He is not interested in an Iran with no weapons, he is interested in painting them as such a threat as to drag us into a war we cannot win or to give them the green light to wage an all-out Arab-Jew Biblical fight. This is their fight, not ours. Enough is enough!
Brilliant, as always. FYI, the lame duck period is only from the time the next POTUS is elected until his/her inauguration. The last two years of most two-term US Presidencies are typically when the guy goes all in, since he's got absolutely nothing to lose.
Nice metaphor, anyway, great rhythm in that sentence's list of players in the patently absurd self-outing of the GOP as clueless idiots who only know how to get elected. I see that they're trying really, really hard to start the election party early, but the potential candidates aren't playing that game.
Back to Bibi and his nation-state. I looked up how Israel got The Bomb. Hilarious. Reminded me of the Stuxnet virus, developed by Israeli programmers, targeted specifically for the computers Iran uses to control its nuclear reactors, which run Windows, only the most vulnerable operating system in the history of the Universe.
When I think of Israel and these United States, all I see is that classic pair masks from the Greek theatrical tradition. Perhaps we can't have comedy without tragedy. If only the tragedies weren't so damned pathetic, lately -- then we might see less entertainment based on failure.
Or is that us? Pogo said he'd met the enemy, and he is us. It's no surprise to me; we are our own worst enemy.
That's about the size of it, as my mom used to say. And lovely intro sentence (good enough in one sharp blow to serve as the nut graph: "Sold as some kind of diplomatic mission of great import between unwavering allies with undertones of disrespect for normal international and domestic protocol, the event was entirely political in everyway, shape and form.")
This is a very depressing column. (MIDDLE EAST BLOOD JUNGLE – Issue: 4/1/15) I like it better when you make fun of shit. This is way too close to the bone, James. I honestly think if this is the case we are all fucked. Not sure when you write these things you think it’s fun or you’re playing with concepts and ideas to make a deadline. Because this shit hits hard, man. This is seriously damning stuff. I want to just crawl into a bunker, kiss my children and wait for the doom.
“Every time the United States has conducted any military operation in the Middle East it ends in disaster, including the first Gulf War that appeared gangbusters until it led to the emboldening of Saddam Hussein and its left-overs convincing Congress to invade the nation and turn it into a tinderbox.”
100% on the money, as usual.
In regards to the Middle East, doing nothing sounds great until you realize that the vacuum will be filled by Iran and radical Islam. If that sounds fine to you, so be it. I am not sure the Israeli’s wish to have to deal with an Iran that has The Bomb. As for sucking at war, no sir, we do not suck at war. We are in fact very good at it. What we suck at is having military goals getting watered down by Dove-ish politicians. You know…engage the enemy but only if they shoot first and do so on that side of the line. No sir, we are really good at blowing shit up and being the Martyr Dating Service for the 72 virgins.
No one is “good” at war when it comes with Rules of Engagement that ensure the enemy will have a fair shot at us and then an equally fair shot at getting out of dodge unscathed. That is how you lose wars. We have been proving that since 1968.
You want this over? Revive the spirit of “Black Jack” Pershing and let loose the dogs of war. Pershing knew how to handle radical Islamists.
Remember “Isolationism” worked well when we could actually isolate ourselves. Oceans used to be great defensive structures, but since nearly every plane in existence can fly over them and ICBM technology is no longer the sole property of the US or USSR. W cannot put our heads in the sand and brag about “peace in our time” in regards to a people who want no such thing.
Want to figure out the Middle East problem? Electric cars, bitch. No more oil, no more Middle East. Simple as that. If we really thought this was an actual direct threat to the U.S then we would all enlist, wouldn’t we? Defend the border like in 1812. But we don’t. We just want someone else’s kid to die for our oil. Man up. Enlist. Put your big talk where into action. Yeah, right. Pussies want war and don’t fight it. Get someone else to do it.
So I say, embrace the pussies and go electric car, electric heat, and be done with it. Let EXXON send their employees over there.
Do yourself no favors and “like” this idiot at www.facebook.com/jc.author
© James Campion May 8th 2015
Iran: So Far Away
Here’s hoping that a deal can be nailed down with Iran over its nuclear capabilities.
James Campion is the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, "Midnight For Cinderella" and “Y”.