Looking up Gay Street Toward Baltimore Street

Looking up Gay Street Toward Baltimore Street

Monday’s weather was perfect for a bike ride–sunny, cool enough, light breeze–and I had time to take one. I hopped on and headed downtown to see what the previous few nights of unrest might have left on the streets. I saw quickly that one thing that was left was a whole bunch of cops. I zipped down Maryland and saw a group gathered in the courtyard by University of Baltimore, and then walking in a group up Cathedral, taking a right on Chase. And then there were cop cars and vans on almost every street.

Once I hit Pratt Street downtown I noticed the boarded-up windows of most shops, others getting their boards put up in anticipation of something on Monday. I knew what they knew–a youth-led march was planned, and it was slated to meet up with other organized marches from other parts of town. People would begin gathering at 3:30.

We all knew this because it was all on social media. There are calls to organize elsewhere, which I get, but if you want to let a huge group of people know where to go when, and you don’t all already know each other, social media is still the way to go.

What that means, though, is that the cops know as much as the rest of us, and they set up and prepare–and their preparation often looks like war. It’s scary, and it is its own kind of violence.

I rode around the Inner Harbor for a bit before taking a left on Gay Street to go by War Memorial Plaza to check out the set up there. I snapped this picture looking up Gay Street toward Baltimore Street because I was struck by the layers of signage on this single block. There’s the sign for Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, which is trying to develop a “superconducting maglev” to get people between the two cities in 15 minutes. Then there’s the Grace and Hope Mission, serving people experiencing homelessness for over 100 years, and then Big Top, a currently shuttered shop selling adult videos, sex toys, and lingerie. There are so many different lives being lived on this single block.

I thought about this as I continued my ride home. We are all still under some level of quarantine, but we are living it in such different ways, depending on the jobs we have–or don’t–and the shelter, company, and resources we have at our disposal. For so many this is utter catastrophe. But it isn’t for most of the people making decisions about the resources needed for collective survival. Those people, the ones likely waiting for a superconducting maglev, keep offering one time payments, tax credits, and unemployment benefits that can take months to finally end up in your bank account. They never pay interest on those delayed payments. Can you imagine the maglev crowd tolerating such a thing?

As I rode past the plaza I saw people setting up for the march and protest later that afternoon. People were hauling in bottles of water–you get thirsty walking in this heat, chanting with tired voices–and setting up food stations, gathering face masks, and sanitizer. This was well organized by people who obviously understand that some basic needs must be met if any gathering is to go on.

Cops were blocking off roads, using DPW garbage trucks and fences. It felt like a set piece coming together. I remember my first big protest when I moved to New York City in the mid 1990s. It was an ACT UP protest, and I knew it was on Wall Street. So, I took the subway to the Wall Street station and followed the police barricades. They took me right there.

I headed home for a meeting, and then I went back out on my bike to join the march and protest. It took me a minute to find the crowd, and when I did I was overwhelmed by the power of this youth-led event.

And then I was panic stricken to be in such close proximity to so many people. I haven’t touched anyone other than my ladyfriend in three months, and I haven’t been in a socially distance group with more than two or three people in that time either. I was unprepared for the panic I would feel. I thought it would feel cathartic, and it did, until it didn’t. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, and we’ve been told to stay out of groups. Most of us were wearing masks, and being outside, the chance of transmission is much smaller than if we were all inside Royal Farms Arena, for example.

But it’s also true that we still don’t know if these kinds of events could spread the virus. I hope masks do their work.

I zipped away early, taking my compromised immune system back home, grateful for those who can and do make other choices that I’m not quite willing to make yet. The crowd continued to grow. Baltimore is a beautiful and amazing city, and this collective was inspiring. This is too much, too big, and as N. from my writing group said to me this morning, it is the kind of thing that breaks the culture of fear. Lives will be lost, and yet, here we are. Lives are already lost, white supremacy continuing its deadly work, a drumbeat hundreds of years old.

Also in my ears was a tweet by Tressie McMillan Cottom. If you haven’t read her collection of essays, Thick, get thee to your local independent bookstore immediately. But yesterday I thought of her tweet about critiquing protests. Whenever you start to judge how somebody’s protesting, stop, and donate money to those doing what you think is right. For me that has meant donating to Baltimore Action Legal Team. They work to get people out of prisons and jails all year long. Find your local bail fund, and get donating if you can.

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