By Karsonya ‘Kaye’ Wise Whitehead
For some of you, who live in Hamden or Mount Washington, the reality of having to set up No Shoot Zones, where children can be safe from gun violence, does not actually make sense. In that same vein, if you live in Fells Point or Hamilton, it is probably a little difficult to try and understand why it is so hard for people to adopt a 72-hour Ceasefire and agree to not shoot anyone.
For those of us who live inside the heart of Baltimore, in communities that are intimately connected to the already 187 homicides (as of August 22) we have had this year, we understand that with the increasingly high stakes nature of survival and the ongoing work to change the culture of the inner city, all voices and ideas must be incorporated. They must be tried and we must be stalwart in our attempt to move this city forward. It is an ongoing struggle but every activist and parent and resident of this city must be committed to doing the work to develop solutions that advance racial, economic, and social liberation possibilities for our marginalized communities. We are no longer able to live safely within our neighborhood silos because when one of our residents is suffering, we are all suffering.
The work to change this city is not new but the solutions set forth by Tyree Colion from No Shoot Zones and Erricka Bridgeford from the Baltimore Ceasefire are. Both Colion and Bridgeford draw heavily upon the work that has been developed by Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Safe Streets, Baltimore’s Civil Rights Office, Ericka Alston’s Kids Safe Zone, and Baltimore Bloc, to name just a few.
It is their commitment to trying to unravel the racist economic threads that bind us so tightly to the past that actually gives me hope. These are the days when the light shines the brightest in this city. On other days, when you look around and see the crime and the depression and the pessimism, it is hard to fight against the feelings of frustration and anguish that come from confronting racial injustice and social inequality every single day of your life.
It is hard, sometimes, to stand up straight in the face of a country and a city that is counting on Black people to focus more on surviving than on thriving; more on not getting shot than on finding joy; and more on teaching our children how to get low and stay out of the way than how to dream out loud. On more days than I care to admit, this is how I feel living in America writ large and how I feel living in Baltimore City.
In the wake of the recent Baltimore Ceasefire, I vacillated between feeling relieved with every hour that passed without a shooting and feeling depressed about knowing that I live in a city where death is the new normal. I think about it daily and to paraphrase Lin Manual Miranda, I imagine Black death and pain so much it feels just like a memory.
It is overwhelming because when I look at the work of Colion and Bridgeford, I know Baltimore City can and should do better. The problem, and this is a well-known fact, is that Baltimore embodies the tale of two cities. On any given day, depending upon whether you are in Mount Washington or Sandtown-Winchester, you are either in the best of times or the worst of times. You are either dealing with an epoch of belief about how much we can accomplish or an epoch of incredulity about how much pain we can deal with without completely falling apart.
The city is racially and economically divided and whether or not you thrive or you survive is deeply tied to where you are born. In this city, where you are born and raised determines how long you are going to live and the quality of your life.
According to the Health Department, a child born in a neighborhood like Homeland or Roland Park can expect to live to the age of 84 while a child born in Clifton-Berea, where nearly one in three families live in impoverished homes, the life expectancy is around the age of 60—two decades less. So even though we may live in the same city, a few blocks can make the difference between living and dying.
It makes a difference because here in Baltimore, in the most economically challenged neighborhoods, children are exposed to higher levels of neighborhood violence, poor diet and nutrition and an ongoing lack of proper medical care. They are living in war zones where they have a higher chance of being a victim of homicide, a higher chance of getting cancer and heart disease, and a higher chance of being involved in a non-fatal shooting. They live beside rows of boarded-up houses in communities overrun with liquor and tobacco stores.
Due to decades of redlining and economic underdevelopment, we have economically challenged all-Black neighborhoods with lackluster schools sitting only blocks away from robust, all-White neighborhoods with half-million-dollar homes and private, expensive, schools.
It is a deeply racially segregated city and system and it helps to explain why No Shoot Zones and Ceasefire are not just wanted but they are needed. It is how we can comfortably re-imagine our communities and work towards establishing liberated free and safe spaces for all of us. This is how we win. This is how we change this city. And this is how we bend our privilege and extend our empathy and realize that our lives and experiences are tied and knitted together and that none of us could ever be free and safe and healthy and happy in our neighborhood silos, if all of us are not free and safe and healthy and happy.
Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Letters to My Black Sons II: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.”