Traveling Freely | The New Engagement
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Traveling Freely

By Roberto Carlos Garcia

Like most parents, when I'm asked to travel for business I experience mixed feelings. On the one hand it's exciting to visit new and interesting places. I enjoy meeting people and learning about their lives and where they live. On the other hand, I'm going to miss my son's playoff basketball game. His team has one victory and ten losses; they're the 8th seed and more than likely they're going to get squashed. I should be there to see it, to cheer him on in the face of defeat, to mourn the loss with him. This trip also coincides with Father's Day. Even though I'll be back in time for Sunday I'll miss some activities. My youngest daughter's daycare is having a Father's Day appreciation BBQ. My oldest daughter would be peppering me with questions in order to determine the most useful gift to buy me.

 All that being said, tenure track teaching positions are hard to come by. So when I was asked to go to a professional development conference to bolster my faculty file, I bought my Amtrak ticket and set out for Baltimore, Maryland. At Penn Station in Newark, New Jersey I entered the Hudson Newsstand and searched for an interesting book to read on the train. I looked for a while and didn't find one. I wasn't discouraged because once upon a time, at Miami International Airport, I came across Junot Diaz' "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" after digging for an hour. I went deep into the back of the store. The cashier craned her neck to see what I was doing. In the racks were various magazines featuring articles on ISIS, Iran, Syria, Greece, and the terrorist attacks on France and Belgium. Their titles questioned America's foreign policy and Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton's ability to deal with difficult situations abroad. I felt the familiar prickliness of outrage that courses through me whenever I come across this subject. I didn't find a book, but the idea that journalists refuse to look at America's domestic policy in the same light as its foreign policy drives me mad. American politicians have made a mess of poverty stricken urban and rural America.

I overpaid for a Moleskin notebook, and stepped outside to watch the departure time screen. As a hyphenated American traveling (somewhat) freely around the east coast, I think I know a lot about American foreign policy. It is eerily similar to American domestic policy:

  • Remove money & resources from people you don't like
  • Kill the people you don't like
  • Give the money & resources to people you do like
  • Sprinkle in some violence intermittently to terrorize the people you took money & resources from
  • Blame the people you took from for their situation
  • Give the story to the media to spin, twist, and exploit in perpetuity

I've seen this formula repeated countless times in the last year; Ferguson, Missouri, pick a city in Florida, Texas, California, New York, and on and on. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of police shooting videos (state sanctioned murder), and judicial corruption. My email account is clogged with Change.org petitions asking for help reversing unjustified convictions or outrageous prison sentences. And it was not lost on me that I was going to Baltimore, where less than a year ago Freddie Gray sustained fatal injuries to his spine while riding handcuffed in a police van. There were protests and some escalated into riots. I was happy about the way protesters and public officials decried the media coverage. Protesters shouted down Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera, and Baltimore City Council President Jack Young lambasted media coverage as largely negative and as depicting African Americans according to negative stereotypes. Social media was gorged on links, rants, shares, and arguments. I know I had to unfriend a few people for blaming the victims of police shootings for their own deaths at the hands of police. 

I grew up in neighborhoods like east and west Baltimore. When residents of those communities protested to voice their anger and frustration at being disenfranchised for so long I didn't find it thuggish or criminal.  I've always wondered what's taken our communities so long to react. Violence is a large and terrible part of surviving America's ghettos. There are precious few chances to better our selves. I am honestly baffled that the violence doesn't spill out into open rebellion on picturesque "Main Streets." Folks in Baltimore know this reality all too well. As Ta-Nehesi Coates writes in his award winning book "Between the World and Me":

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.

America's domestic policy is even more imperialistic than its policy abroad (not that it's a contest, but both are tyrannical and wrong). There are few opportunities for free travel between classes, races, or American poverty. In his New Yorker article "The Mobility Myth," James Surowiecki writes, "Seventy per cent of people born into the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it into the middle class, and fewer than ten per cent get into the top quintile. Forty per cent are still poor as adults." I took a deep breath and tried to remember that this business trip will include some pleasure. I'm meeting my dear friend Sean Morrissey, a poet, a social justice worker in Baltimore, an activist with emphasis on the active, and a fellow skateboarder. It will be good to catch up, have a few drinks, talk poetry, and inevitably, politics. As interested as I was in learning everything I could about accelerated developmental education at the collegiate level, understanding what's happening in Baltimore became equally interesting.

These thoughts banged around in my head as I leafed through my new, blank, and overpriced Moleskin notebook. I started to write.

***

Penn Station Baltimore is remarkably similar to Penn Station Newark, but smaller. People go back and forth after trains, cabs or buses. Capitalism's castoffs sleep in corners on the floor and ask travellers if they can spare any change. But the ones our society has truly ignored, the indigent and mentally ill, stare off into space and have conversations with no one. I catch a cab to the hotel. Along the way I recognize a similar city and similar signs: NOW LEASING, LOFTS FOR RENT, FULLY RENOVATED, NEW UNITS AVAILABLE—CALL TODAY. I recognize familiar faces too, of people trying to hold on; security guards, cashiers, sandwich makers. They wait for the bus or the light-rail, or they walk slowly on the shaded side of the street. And then there are the faces of people who have more than they need. I have been both, and as a native New Yorker I can spot gentrification with a blindfold on. Yet another American domestic policy, revitalize working class or impoverished neighborhoods by pushing their residents out, and introducing wealth and mostly white new residents.

I risk the cliché and strike up a conversation with the cab driver, Raja. I confirm the area is indeed being gentrified and he adds that he lived and drove cabs in New York City for many years. "The first American city I experienced when I arrived to U.S. in 1983." Raja said. I expressed my disgust at gentrification but he recalled a crime-riddled Harlem, and a 42nd Street where drugs were sold and prostitution was practiced out in the open. He even remembered that a cop encouraged him to buy some marijuana and to loosen up. Raja argued that gentrification is great for lowering crime. I lamented the loss of African American and Latino businesses. Shouldn't those business owners be rewarded for enduring in the face of crime and economic hardship? Didn't they give back to their communities by maybe floating some credit here and there? What a shitty reward after so many years, to be booted out of your lease for a Starbucks or a Whole Foods. We carried on about the economic sustainability of gentrification, of soaring rents, and how long even the parents of white millennial gentrifiers could afford to pay New York prices.

We made our way down Charles Street. The Mount Vernon section of Baltimore reminded me a lot of Jersey City, Hoboken, University Heights in Newark, and of course Harlem and Brooklyn. "What really alarms me," Raja said "is the amount of young people begging for money in the street." I had seen them as well. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 40, many of them white, with paper cups in their hands asking for change. Some are struggling addicts while others run the gamut: unemployed, mentally ill, homeless. Raja explained that some street corners were full of young panhandlers and that they'd often rotate in shifts. He became nostalgic and said that America has to create more jobs for people. I pointed out that if any of these young people had criminal records finding a job would be next to impossible. "We have to do better." He said quietly. We arrived at the hotel and I paid the fare with the corporate card the purchasing department gave me for this trip. My privilege and the fact that I'm here for an education conference, is not lost on me. Raja encourages me to enjoy the Inner Harbor, stroll the boardwalk, and more importantly, "have some crab cakes." I thought of Nina Simone's song "Baltimore:"

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

***

I meet up with Sean around 8pm. As we drive to dinner I look up at the skyscrapers already in the sky, and the new ones under construction. The Domino Sugar Factory, an anachronism surrounded by monoliths that make it look even more out of place, surprises me. Domino has managed to maintain sugar production in the face of growing competition but more importantly to sustain blue-collar jobs. America desperately needs more good paying blue-collar jobs. Sean explains that besides corporations like Legg Mason and Lupin, Baltimore is home to Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour. Plank's development signs are all over Baltimore; SAGAMORE DEVELOPMENT in the Inner Harbor, and another much larger "multi use facility" planned in the Point Covington section of Baltimore.

The Point Covington project has warning signs all over it. Sagamore Development is asking Baltimore for millions to get the project done. It will receive this money in the form of a TIF. The "Journal of Property Tax Assessment & Administration" defines a TIF this way:

Through the use of TIFs municipalities typically divert future property tax revenue increases from a defined area or district toward an economic development project or public improvement project in the community. The first TIF was used in California in 1952. By 2004 all 50 American States had authorized the use of TIF.

According to Natalie Sherman's Baltimore Sun article, "BDC Moves Forward 535 Million Port Covington TIF," the Baltimore Development Corporation is all too eager to push the project through:

Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, said she understands why Sagamore has asked for city financing, but she wants to see further scrutiny of the request. "It just seems like it was already a done deal," she said. "I don't want them to just push it through. I want them to do a little homework and make sure that we're OK with it." The BDC board, which is composed of city officials and professionals from firms such as T. Rowe Price Group and M&T Bank, gave a green light to the TIF request after three committee meetings, much of which was closed to the public, and less than an hour of discussion on Thursday.

Surrounding communities are justified in their concerns. Sagamore Development is asking for a lot of money. What is most problematic is where projects that receive TIFs choose to develop. None of the developers that received TIF benefits have revitalized traditionally African American communities in East or West Baltimore. All the projects take place in and around the Inner Harbor. According to Baltimore Rising.org "Where they aren't [TIF projects] is in the city's disadvantaged neighborhoods that are desperate for employment and commerce." To complicate matters the BDC operates largely in the shadows. Again, from Baltimore Rising.org:

The BDC… is an independent, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization under contract with the city. It is noticeably reluctant to release information about how it picks the projects it funds and the success of those projects financially, for the neighborhoods in which they are located and for the city overall.

 There are more than 535 million tax dollars on the line, a fact not lost on former state planning director Ron Kreitner,  "The magnitude of this so far exceeds anything even considered, it just begs for going the extra mile in terms of protecting the taxpayers," he said. "This is so far removed from transparent government operations that it's very disturbing" (baltimoresun.org).

After dinner Sean and I walked the streets of Mt. Vernon. The enclaves in a city never surprise me; Latinos on one block, African Americans on another, Asians on another, and so on. Perhaps because I never saw white people wanting to live where I lived it still jars me to see hipsters, yoga mat carriers, and super-short-running-shorts wearing 20 somethings among the aforementioned enclaves. They pop up out of nowhere with long beards and extra small polo shirts. But gentrification in Baltimore works a little differently than it does in the cities I know. A notable percentage of the people displaced by gentrification here are working poor to lower middle class whites. The gentrifiers are middle to upper middle class college educated workers, and among them are representative minorities. However, the dissonance between these groups is all too similar. 

On the streets there is no acknowledgement between the different groups. There is a lot of walking head down by whites avoiding eye-to-eye contact with perceived minorities. I suppose you could attribute that to wanting to avoid panhandlers (white or other), but I've seen the same dissonance in NYC.  I question when it became chic to live in a city, to claim that city, but to live in it in a completely disengaged way. These days it's popular to say, "I live in Brooklyn (Flatbush, Bedstuy, etc.). I live in Harlem. Baltimore (etc.)." Millennials, hipsters, and artists equate living in these cities with edginess and grit. They want some kind of prestige for living in culturally rich, economically challenged (sometimes dangerous), diverse communities, but without engaging within them. Instead, gentrifiers blame minority residents for the economic disparities and blight of their communities.

Disturbingly, more and more white millennials are racist. The Washington Post reports, "When it comes to explicit prejudice against blacks, non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different than whites belonging to Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)." This is the generation of whites that was supposed to start dismantling white supremacy. However, too many millennials seem content to keep benefitting from it. Sean tells me about the ways white millennials stereotype minorities and the racial remarks he's heard: they're so ghetto, they can't speak English, and they're lazy. He may be white, but Sean is woke as fuck. In an era where progressive racism is a plague in the white community, you can't take shit like that for granted. We laugh at the way white millennials that grew up watching television shows like "In Livin' Color" and "Chappelle Show" missed the point. Those comedians were satirizing the way white people caricaturized minorities, they weren't necessarily providing whites with a cultural education, in part they were saying look how you fools view us. For too many, the depictions of minorities they saw then and continue to see now have become religion. Another thing too many white millennials have failed to do is contextualize the civil rights movement, institutionalized racism, and white privilege.

We end the night over a few bourbons. We can't solve all the world's problems but we can't help making sure we know what they are. Our ignorance is not a source of bliss.

****

The next day I attend presentations, break out sessions, and workshops. If you remember I'm in Baltimore for work and not some journalistic enterprise. A piece of data from one of the presentations in particular was relevant to my ruminations. At least 80 percent of students in community college remedial courses are African American and / or Latino. Over 50 percent of full time faculty at community college are white women, and although I couldn't find exactly how many of them teach developmental education, I'm sure the number is higher than 50 percent. Many of them are what the industry calls "graying" faculty, aged 60 or older.  An Inside Higher Ed article reveals "the divisions where faculty members were staying around well past 70 featured professors in the humanities, arts, natural and physical sciences and education, among others." The national push is for accelerated and integrated developmental courses. Instead of making students take three or four remedial classes before they can enroll in credit earning courses, students would take one remedial course and then an integrated remedial and credit earning course. The federal government wants students to get more bang for their student loan buck, and I don't blame them.

I am troubled by the Washington Post's data on millennials and race. I wonder what percentage of teachers in developmental courses, be they millennials, Gen X'ers, or Baby Boomers, share similar racist ideas about minorities. In particular, how many share racist ideas about laziness and lack of intelligence? Unfortunately, academic hiring of minorities is suspect to begin with. According to Colleen Flaherty's Inside Higher Ed article "Demanding 10 Percent," the numbers aren't encouraging, "A wider analysis by the Associated Press found that no state's flagship public university campus had a black faculty population approaching 10 percent, and that only a few topped 5 percent. Most campuses were between 2 and 4 percent."

As more full time tenure track positions disappear everyday remedial students may not see more minority teachers in the classroom anytime soon. At lunch, as I stood on the buffet line, I overheard a presenter (she was white) telling an Asian professor that her new homeopathic doctor, "a Chinese lady" had severely restricted her diet. She said all of this in a caricaturized Asian accent. I continue to worry about our progress in the field of education. How many times has she done something insensitive like this in class?

After a full day at the conference I'm back on Baltimore's streets with Sean. We talk about his work with the Right To Housing Alliance. Sean and a host of volunteers worked in conjunction with The Public Justice Center to write "Justice Diverted: How Renters Are Processed in the Baltimore City Rent Court." The report was made available to the public via the internet:

Our study shows that the court system prioritizes efficiencies which privilege the landlord's bottom line, and as a result, it decidedly ignores two predominating realities of poor renters and their housing. First, renters lack access to timely legal advice and have insufficient knowledge to navigate the process.

Second, renters are poor, have few rental options other than Baltimore's crumbling housing stock, and look to the court to enforce housing standards. Our data show that Rent Court defendants are among the most vulnerable people in the city. Most are Black women, living on $2,000 or less per month, without public housing assistance

Evictions exacerbate homelessness. Homelessness is another critical issue facing Baltimore and major cities across America. I wonder if judges, lawyers, property owners, or developers read this report. I wonder how deep their apathy goes. In neighborhoods across both east and west Baltimore vacant buildings line city block after city block. Surely, Kevin Plank and Sagamore Development, just to name one, could propose safe and affordable housing to the residents of these communities. Shouldn't TIF benefits be prioritized for the communities in most need? Gentrification, for good or bad, has completely missed neighborhoods like Ellwood Park, Baltimore Highlands, Northeast Patterson Park, Monument Street, Orangeville, and Madison-Eastend. The residents of these communities deserve the same opportunities as those in the inner harbor. Have you given up on them, Baltimore?

It's mindboggling that a city with such fiscal demands and needs would approve an almost 600 million dollar TIF for a development project. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake struggled to balance the budget without cutting critical education programs. Think of how 600 million dollars from development projects could save the budget. Sean keenly observes that city and state governments concede too much to corporate interests. They act powerless in the face of the corporate money machine and offer sweetheart deals one after another at the taxpayer's expense. This same scenario plays out all across America. In a 2012 New York Times article Louise Story writes:

A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. The beneficiaries come from virtually every corner of the corporate world, encompassing oil and coal conglomerates, technology and entertainment companies, banks and big-box retail chains.

 

I thought again of foreign and domestic policy and of all the social justice workers like Sean fighting to make change. They're doing research and drafting reports that prove inequity and injustice, they're writing essays and doing community service. They're trying to stem the tide of corruption, greed, apathy, and violence that's consuming our country. The most frustrating aspect of the work they do has to be that their work is readily available, yet few people seek it out. Healthcare for The Homeless, Our Daily Bread, Right to Housing Alliance, and countless other organizations are working for the people of Baltimore, we just have to look, and help.

***

My last day in Baltimore Sean dropped me off at Penn Station and I gave him a long hug. I let him know how moved I am at his almost complete disavowal of consumerism, and his dedication to serve others. We travelled freely along the gentrified and not quite gentrified streets of Baltimore together. I board the train and look forward to seeing my family. When I get home I'll hug them and kiss my wife. Then my kids will ask me about my trip. They'll want to know what I saw and what I did. My oldest will ask me if I heard about the Orlando, Florida gay nightclub massacre. And as I search for words to answer their questions I'll also be thinking about how America, with all our talk of democracy and liberty is an extremist country. I'll have to explain that the middle ground, the middle class, bi-partisan agreement, common sense legislation and socio-economic policies, are being squeezed out of existence. In America it isn't enough that we all have the right to own a gun, but that the right to own a gun must supersede common sense, logic, and fail-safes. It isn't enough to make a double or triple profit. American corporations want ten times the normal profit.  Injustice travels freely across America, more freely even then her citizens. And our cities are the same as the countries where America practices its foreign policy. Our cities are laboratories where genocidal, economic, and political policies become sport for the powerful.

The police officers responsible for the injuries that killed Freddie Gray have been acquitted of all charges. Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby held an impassioned press conference where she condemned members of the Baltimore Police force for obstructing her office's investigation. A colleague of mine is a lawyer, and he questioned why Mosby would charge the officers with homicide as opposed to criminal negligence. However, Mosby has pursued questionable convictions and supported the Baltimore police's lethal arrest methods before. Recently, Mosby's office pushed to convict Keith Davis, a Baltimore man shot in the face by police for allegedly possessing a gun. Eyewitness and police testimony were conflicting and nonsensical. Mosby's office still charged Davis with fifteen separate charges.

Mosby's press conference in response to the acquittal of the officers in Freddie Gray's death drew enthusiastic support. However, we have to look at her entire body of work before proclaiming her a hero. By the same token, the police officers sworn to protect and serve us cannot continue to be called unequivocal heroes until they start policing their own. I'm reminded of D. Watkins' "The Beast Side":

The police officers in Baltimore, as in many places in the country with dense black populations, are out of control and have been out of control. One of the major reasons is that many Baltimore police officers don't live in Baltimore City; some don't even live in Maryland. Many don't know or care about the citizens of the communities they police, which is why they can come in, beat us, and kill us without a sign of grief or empathy.

If there were empathy or even mercy perhaps Freddie Gray lives, and the countless others that have died at the hands of the police would still be here. Perhaps.

***

I hug my family tight and keep them close, I pray for the will to act, to take action, and to make a better world.

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