The Pain of Awareness

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent a great deal of time and words capturing what has been going on around Baltimore. Whether it’s a discussion on the politics surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, the race of the officers, the comments made by the mayor or the shot of hope provided by the state prosecutor, each word has been carefully placed with the utmost care to make sure all facts are intact. I’d give myself a litany of reminders to make the job easier on my editors. “Don’t forget to have a source for this. Make sure you credit that properly. Take that out, it’s not a good fit here.” What I’ve yet to include, however, is a written account of how all of this is making me feel. And to be frank, I don’t feel very good.

There’s a certain amount of self-care necessary when you make it your life’s mission to capture of the ills of society via written word, especially in this age of social media. Being inundated with so much information at the same time regarding a particular topic can be overwhelming to the point of mental exhaustion. Two weeks ago, I had a near mental breakdown. I had been too engulfed in the matters of “today” and had come to my wits’ end. I had grown weary with the constant reinforcement of whatever post-racial progress society had fooled itself into thinking had been achieved, because the penalty of being this aware is sort of like taking the red pill in The Matrix. Once you see something and become aware of it, you can no longer unsee it. I reached that breaking point about a week before the Baltimore uprising took place.

Once you see something and become aware of it, you can no longer unsee it.

When the uprising first broke, many complained the actions were unnecessary and couldn’t fathom why a ransacked, poverty-stricken community would take to the streets to burn down a CVS and a check cashing store located in their neighborhood. For some, it was unfathomable a community victimized by police brutality for so many years would rise up and burn down a building in a neighborhood where boarded up houses are as numerous as the people that inhabit that portion of the city. Of course, there are those angry at the looting of a check cashing store who remain ignorant of an article (written in the Baltimore Sun, no less) detailing the problem of banks leaving poor communities and how that opens up those same residents to predatory lenders.

When traditional banks pull out of low-income neighborhoods, commercial check cashers, payday lenders and other “fringe” financial services take over, often charging high fees and interest rates to those who can least afford it[…]”It’s a lot of money that companies are making primarily from the low-income African-American and Hispanic communities,” said Gwen Robinson, a program associate at the Baltimore foundation’s headquarters. “So for a city like Baltimore, it’s a particular problem.”

In a sense, Baltimore residents had every reason to burn that check cashing store for the same reason they protested Freddie Gray’s death. At some point, you get tired of being taken advantage of and you need to fight back. There’s also a verifiable argument to be made about people caring far too much about damaged property instead of focusing on the loss of human life. In a country where it’s suggested people are more important than property, any cry made for property’s “death” should fall on deaf ears.

At some point, you get tired of being taken advantage of and you need to fight back.

It should be noted peaceful protests had been going on for a week before everything came to a skid the following Monday after the incident. One should question why one week of peaceful protesters with 10,000 people marching for justice had not ever made the news but the minute a few hundred teens—abandoned by the Maryland Transportation Authority so they weren’t able to go home and were met with cops in riot gear—hit the streets, so many calls were made for peace and to honor Freddie Gray’s death. I see that often: folks asking victims for peace without ever once addressing the people actually enacting the violence.

Then there is Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her piss-poor response to what was happening in her city. During the official press conference, she referred to the protestors as “thugs” because “too many generations have spent their lives building up this city to have it destroyed” and the teens were people “who in a very senseless way are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.” Later, she would make a Deion Sanders-esque backpedal regarding her comments and state she “[spoke] out of frustration and anger,” and when that happens “one can say things in a way that you don’t mean.”

What’s going to be lost in the annals of history regarding Rawlings-Blake’s comments is that it wasn’t an off the cuff remark. The uprising started right after middle and high school kids were released from school, with her comments coming a few hours afterward. Most problematic in her commentary is she used the word “thug,” a word many have come to associate with “nigger.” A black mayor in a predominantly black city calling the sons and daughters of her constituents what amounts to a racial slur while the entire country is watching is simply one of bad taste and further illustrated her (possibly feigned) ignorance as to why any of these events transpired in the first place.

A black mayor in a predominantly black city calling the sons and daughters of her constituents what amounts to a racial slur while the entire country is watching is simply one of bad taste…

Rawlings-Blake, in her “clarification,” said she called the protestors thugs because “that night we saw misguided young people who need to be held accountable, but who also need support. And [her] comments then didn’t convey that.” Her calls for accountability ring hollow, if for no other reason that up until this point, she’s made no such call for the accountability of the officers in a city that’s paid over $5.7 million in brutality cases over the last four years. How is it then, the people who are incorrectly (according to the cases) meting out violence to citizens they are supposed to protect aren’t thugs, but a broken and desperate people acting out against buildings in a neighborhood are being called out on television?

Lastly, is the issue of police brutality. Even if I disregarded the race of Freddie Gray and of all of the officers associated with his death, we still have an unarmed citizen who was (allegedly) illegally stopped and beaten for a reason that has not yet been figured out. This sort of wanton disregard for human life and the due process rights this country is founded on should not be so easily overlooked.

The problem of police brutality is not relegated to banana republics and Communist regimes; it is an American one, too. It’s the result of officers being given carte blanche to act in whatever manner best fits their version of events. Far too often we see the narrative of a cop “fearing for his life” (Vonderrit Myers) and the alleged perp “reaching for their gun” (Walter Scott) or assaulting them (Mike Brown) or selling illegal cigarettes (Eric Garner) or being shot while carrying a gun at a Walmart built in an open carry state (John Crawford).

The Baltimore problem, then, becomes just another example of how police officers choose to police the black community. Mainstream society has taken issue with blacks saying #BlackLivesMatter, frequently changing it to #AllLivesMatter. Yes. All lives matter, but all lives in America aren’t treated the same. Critics emphasize the importance of all lives, yet there is mainly one group disproportionately affected by police brutality. We know white and police lives matter because whenever either one is in danger, justice happens swiftly. When a black life is taken, I’m subjected to news reports justifying an officer’s actions and forced to argue against the idea that black people are inherently criminal. Consistently having to debate this point with every member of society, regardless of race, is a tiring endeavor.

The Baltimore problem, then, becomes just another example of how police officers choose to police the black community.

What happened to Freddie Gray in a poor Baltimore city can happen to John Smith of middle-class black America so long as the person wearing the badge is under the impression black lives aren’t worthy of respect. It can happen because of society’s callous disregard to the simple requests made by black people to “stop shooting us.” It can happen because peaceful protests go ignored and the only way to get anybody to pay attention is to create a scene people won’t be able to turn away from. It can happen because so long as black lives aren’t respected in America, the treatment will continue.

Dear reader, I’m sure you’ve read everything and may not know what any of this has to do with my day-to-day living. The thing is, being this aware about something that matters to me is both a gift and a curse. It’s always good to be informed about the issues happening in the world and, more specifically, my community. The drawback is that having to deal with all of this information in conjunction with navigating my daily life can cause a significant amount of stress. The penalty of being aware is that I can’t simply turn a blind eye to these situations. The more aware I am, the more I learn, the more I experience I gain, and the more I write about it, I’m able to see it in ways and angles people can’t fathom. Suffice it to say, sometimes, it hurts to be awake.

By Garfield Hylton

Garfield Hylton, J.D., is a dark-humored, self-deprecating misanthropist whose only hope of redemption is turning blank Google Word documents into piles of well-executed thoughts. He likes to add the suffix "J.D." on everything he writes because he understands that everything sounds better when coming from a doctor. You can listen to his podcast here: @NWAPcast.