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Baltimore is and isn't Ferguson

Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio

 An unarmed black man has an encounter with police and ends up dead. The incident is followed by peaceful protests then violence and police in riot gear, fire, looting and media trucks.

Last August this was Ferguson. This week it’s Baltimore.

The protests in Baltimoresprang up after the death Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American, who died of a severe spinal injury that he obtained while in police custody.

On Monday, the day of Gray’s funeral,riots erupted in Baltimore, painting a familiar picture for Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewomen Patricia Bynes.

“I think as I was watching, I went through all of the entire range of emotions that I had felt from being out in that type of activity in August,” Bynes said. “So I was shocked. I was scared. I was nervous. I was concerned for the community. I was thinking about the safety of the law enforcement, but also the people who were out there trying to express their first amendment rights. I mean I went through almost every range of emotion I had felt from personally experiencing this myself.”

Baltimore is Not Ferguson

While watching chaos unfold in Baltimore reminded many of Ferguson, the point has also been made that Baltimore is not Ferguson. There’s this story from the Washington Post, which points out that, unlike Ferguson, the political leadership of the majority black city is also black.

There was a story from NPR titled “Baltimore is not Ferguson. Here’s what it really is,” which suggested class, not race, was causing tension between the community and police.

Elizabeth Nix is an assistant professor of American history at the University of Baltimore, and a 20-year resident of Baltimore. She said in some ways, Ferguson and Baltimore are very different places.

“We have a black mayor,” Nix said. “We have a black police commissioner. You know Ferguson's is a more suburban community with its own history. Baltimore's history is of a much more biracial city that’s had a strong African-American community since its founding. It had the largest population of free African Americans before the Civil War. That community was able to have access to capital, to establish business and have ownership of property even before the Civil War.”

“We’ve always had a group of powerful black professionals, very civically active people here in the black community,” Nix said.  

But despite the differences, there is connective tissue between the two cities: police misconduct. An investigationby the Baltimore Sun revealed that the city has paid out millions to settle lawsuits against police for misconduct.  

“These are not problems that are unique to Baltimore,” Nix said. “I think that American history has treated its cities in certain ways and it’s treated its poor population in certain ways and it’s used the police to control those populations and that’s the reality of American history.”

Baltimore is Ferguson

Ferguson Township Committeewoman Patricia Bynes and St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, contend black politicians are held to a different standard than white political figures.
Credit File Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Township Committeewoman Patricia Bynes with St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby (r).

Beyond documented misbehavior by police, Ferguson and Baltimore have another thing in common, Patricia Bynes said: People are tired.

“There are people who are fed up of being beaten themselves, of almost losing their lives to police, of their family members and friends being beaten and killed by police. Enough is enough. That’s the connection.”

Patrisse Cullors is co-founder ofBlack Lives Matter. The network started after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, as a way to organize social action for the black community and allies.

Cullors said although political leadership in Baltimore and Ferguson may look different, they are part of the same system.

“Every city and people have their own specificity,” Cullors said. “Black people are not a monolithic group, but what we do have in common is being repressed and oppressed by local governments and the United State government for a very long time.”

Cullors said she doesn't see a difference between Baltimore and Ferguson.

“Baltimore is Ferguson. Ferguson is Los Angeles. Baltimore is New York,” she said.

Cullors said what’s unfolding across the nation is a larger conversation about how black people are treated in America. She said the death of minorities at the hands of police is part of the same connected tragedy.

Patrisse Cullors of the Black Lives Matter network speaks in St. Louis in August 2014.
Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio
Patrisse Cullors of the Black Lives Matter network speaks in St Louis in August 2014.

Norman White, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Saint Louis University said it’s a tragedy we need to address now.

“We are at a place as a nation where we have to figure this out,” White said. “What’s going on in Baltimore today, what went on in Ferguson in August, are just emblematic of a pretty significant problem. What's going on in Baltimore today literally could be happening somewhere else two weeks from now — or a month from now, or a year from now —  if we don't get our heads around how we make police an asset to the communities that they police, as opposed to being seen as an occupying force in many respects.”

The possible cycle Norman described is a major concern for Ferguson resident Christine LaPorta.

In an email, LaPorta said what happened in Baltimore and Ferguson could happen anywhere, but what makes Ferguson stand out is that “the movement started here.”

LaPorta said her biggest concern is that "every Baltimore or New York  or South Carolina incident that occurs around the country re-opens the wound here in Ferguson. We will never fully heal until the country figures this out. How do we, as a nation, stop the next incident from occurring?”

The answer to LaPorta’s question is one many are searching for.