For the second time in 47 years I watched Baltimore burn. This time it was this past Monday evening (April 27) on CNN in the living room of my home in Los Angeles; last time it was on April 6, 1968 from the back porch of my apartment near the campus of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
In April 1968 I was a graduate student at Hopkins, putting the final touches on my doctoral dissertation. The drama started in the middle of my job interview at a think tank in Washington DC, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King. I don’t remember the substance of the interview, but I do remember someone bursting into the room, highly agitated, to inform the interviewer and me that angry mobs were on the streets of DC. He then told me that I wouldn’t be able to get to Union Station to catch my train back to the relative safety of Baltimore, which was still quiet.
I also remember being less afraid for my personal safety than for the security of the only copy of my dissertation locked away in my flimsy cardboard attaché case.
My interviewer offered to give me a ride out of the city where I could catch a train at a more secure station in the suburbs. As we drove up Connecticut Avenue, a steady stream of cars, headlights on in the middle of the sunny afternoon, headed in the other direction. Behind the wheel of every car, it seemed to me, was the face of an angry black male.
Before dropping me off at the train station my interviewer, now driver, insisted on stopping at a sporting goods store to buy a rifle. As he cradled his new possession, he noted that it was the first firearm he had ever owned. The day was getting even more bizarre.
I got home safely before dark and told my roommate, Dick, a fellow graduate student who also volunteered as a social worker with a white gang in West Baltimore, about my adventure. In our neighborhood everything was quiet.
By late afternoon the next day the city began to erupt. Although most of the action was several miles away, we could see smoke from fires in a black neighborhood just a few blocks away.
The city declared a curfew and the National Guard moved in. We sat tight for a while in our apartment until Dick decided that he should check in with his gang to make sure they stayed out of trouble. Ironically, the leader of the gang was black. In a remarkable feat of cognitive gymnastics, the animus of the gang members toward the black community apparently did not extend to him. Nor, according to Dick, did he ever express any confusion about the contradictions between his racial identity and his role in the gang.
As a gang worker, the curfew did not apply to Dick. I was pressed into service as his deputy, and we hopped into his VW bug and drove through the empty streets – empty, that is, but for the National Guard and police.
My memories of the rest of the day are fuzzy. I am not sure that what I think I remember actually happened, or I subconsciously conflated news clips and imagination with actual events. I have a hazy memory – maybe — of standing with Dick on one side of a street with his gang kids as they warily eyed their back counterparts on the other. But who knows? It all seems so unlikely.
What I am sure about is that I felt excitement about being in the middle of a major historical event, an event that was destined, I thought, to shape the future and change the world.
As I sat in my living room in front of the TV 47 years later, I wasn’t so sure. Instead of excitement, I felt a deep sadness. I loved Baltimore. It was where I came of age, where my own future started to unfold. I was surprised at how emotional I was watching the city I once loved burn yet again.
I wonder how much has really changed. But the one thing I am sure of is that I have. I am older, more sentimental, and more aware of the inevitability of loss. I didn’t cry back then. Never. Now I can barely make it through a sad movie with dry eyes.
It is hard to find anything good from an event like this, but I did. I got on the Internet and searched for Dick. He was a good friend back then. We played rugby together, shared an apartment and talked about our studies, our plans for the future, and our girlfriends. Over the years, as is so often the case, we lost touch with each other.
I had no trouble finding him. He is now “Richard” instead of “Dick” and a noted criminologist at an Ivy League university. We have exchanged a few emails and will soon talk on the phone.
I can’t do anything about Baltimore, but I can make sure that I don’t let my past slip completely away. Old friends are an important part of that past. It’s a shame that it takes events like the Baltimore riots of 2015 to remind me.