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Baltimore Is Not Ferguson. Here's What It Really Is

A man makes a heart shape with his hands during a peaceful protest near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire on Monday in Baltimore.
Andrew Burton
Getty Images
A man makes a heart shape with his hands during a peaceful protest near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire on Monday in Baltimore.

This week's Baltimore riot could not have happened to a nicer city.

Baltimore residents welcome strangers and even call them "hon." They sit on benches painted with the slogan "The Greatest City in America."

Baltimore is also where people looted stores and burned cars Monday night. They did it when a man died a week after being arrested.

I was about to call Freddie Gray's death the latest in a string of high-profile deaths of African-American men involving police. But that's not quite right. And that's the point. Each incident of the past year was a particular story in a particular place, which became clear as soon as we arrived in the very particular place that is Baltimore.

Nothing about this story was quite the way it seemed from a distance. For one thing, the uprising did not bring a black populace into confrontation with an overwhelmingly white police force, as happened in Ferguson, Mo., last year.

Baltimore, a majority black city, has a black mayor and a black police commissioner whose force is about half black.

This reality was plain to Taiwan Parker, who lives in the neighborhood where Gray was arrested. He told us that police-community relations have long been sour. And yet, he said, "It ain't no race thing — it's not a race thing at all."

His friend Michael Johnson agreed. In fact, much of West Baltimore seemed to agree. We interviewed 16 residents — men and women, white and black, young and old. Hardly anybody spoke of Freddie Gray's death as a racial incident.

Parker views the trouble with police as an issue of class.

In this neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested, rundown, brick row-houses line the streets. A lot of drugs are sold — a lot. "I'm a three-time felon," one man volunteered within minutes of meeting us.

Parker says he has a regular city job, but he feels some cops view everyone as a criminal.

"Some of them, they label us," he said. "They see us down here, they label us as drug dealers, we live in poverty. That's not all true."

On the morning after Monday's violence, residents of this area were busy on almost every street — bagging up debris from a looted liquor store or pushing brooms along the sidewalk.

They did this even though they weren't sure the violence was over. A helicopter hung overhead, motionless, as if suspended from a string. Waiting for something to happen.

Neighborhood children ride bicycles in the street on Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore.
Mark Makela / Getty Images
Getty Images
Neighborhood children ride bicycles in the street on Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore.

Volunteers delivered sack lunches to children. The kids had lost their free lunches when the schools closed due to violence.

There was also food for grownups. In a more prosperous neighborhood, Bob McCulley offered a plate of jalapeno corn muffins and more.

That's Baltimore: the place you get offered a wide selection of snacks in a riot zone.

McCulley is a retired cop. We met him in front of a strip mall. The shops included his wife's looted hardware store.

He said he and his wife arrived at the damaged store on Monday night to find neighbors waiting for them to help clean up the mess.

They were friendly neighbors — who worked alongside friendly looters at the shop next door.

"The neighbors boarded up the front of the hardware store as the people were still looting the Rite Aid," McCulley said. "And they're pulling up in cars and they're taking stuff from the front of Rite Aid and they're taking stuff from the back of Rite Aid."

Many people in this city had been hoping for a less-violent outcome.

One of them was Lillian Hoover, a teacher we met outside the hardware store. She remembered a protest last Saturday, before violence erupted.

"If you look at the pictures," she said, "you can see it's a mixed crowd of people, different ages, there's people with strollers. You know, it's really a diverse crowd. And I was so hopeful. You know, I was thinking: 'This is Baltimore. Baltimore is going to show the country how to do this.' "

Then Monday's violence came, and "The Greatest City in America" didn't seem as great.

At a park some blocks away, we met Farrah Spruill. She was sitting on bleachers with her 6-year-old son. I asked what she thought about raising a boy in Baltimore right now.

"That's a loaded question," she said. "I'm scared for my child every day."

But she was doing what she could. She'd come to the park for a community meeting. More than 100 people gathered at one end of the basketball courts.

Activists urged parents to bring their kids to this park while the schools were closed: They could play basketball, get some adult supervision and stay out of trouble.

"We know the real Baltimore," one called out to the crowd.

And he asked for help regaining what their city had lost.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.