Here in Baltimore, we call older members of our community with commonly known endearing nicknames: OG, Oldhead, Big Homie, Unc, Big Ahk. “Go head big brotha, you got it” is what I said this morning to a black guy about three times my age. I was on my way to a meeting in Washington D.C. called by my bosses, probably to scold me for taking the past few days off. Yesterday, especially, I chose to stay in Baltimore to help ensure the safety of my beloved multi-ethnic city, instead of being present for an audit at work. “Naw lil brotha, you can go ahead and get on first, my leg is killing me” he retorted immediately. I pushed through a smile, despite the trauma inside from the past few days I was experiencing, and said “Elders always first” with conviction.
The train doors closed, and I slumped in my seat, sort of the same way dope fiends sprawl out across benches in Baltimore that read “The Greatest city in America.” My head raised and so did my curiosity. “What up with your leg big bruh?” I asked. He erupted, “man the Baltimore Police beat the (expletive) out of me three years ago! Stomped my knee out of place!” I slumped further in the seat, my back was almost level on the seat cushion. I sat there stupefied. Here I had been on the streets of Baltimore ushering kids into their houses, marching for peace, and reverberating the need for blacks to protect each other for the past four days, thinking I was making some real progress, and a random Unc on the train was a victim of the same violence three years before, the same violence that ended Freddie Gray’s life!
In a whisper, I pleaded “you’re lying to me, please tell me you’re lying to me.” He rambled, “Brother! I got a 2.5 million dollar case on them jokers man. They beat me up three years ago for filming another guy getting his rib cage shattered by a few cops.” Before I fell completely off my seat, I snapped my body up, and leaned in within nine inches of his salt and pepper beard. “Three years ago? Police beat on you three years ago and you’re just settling the case?” This conversation was loaded with black rage, frustration and enchantment now. The six million dollars the police department of Baltimore has paid in fines for brutality is about to tack on 2.5 million dollars more.
“But what did you do?” I blurted, but thinking inside my head that it was obvious: darker pigment equals bruises and bullets. I remember reading how Eric Bradner for CNN wrote that “blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”
He carried on: “I ain’t do a (expletive) thang! I’m a proud owner of a family plumbing company and have been teaching plumbing and HVAC for over 40 years to young guys just like you. I just happened to see the folks wailing on this dude and I started filming.”
Cops haven’t particularly enjoyed being filmed, but as of late it’s been really volatile. Three years ago I would’ve missed the memo too. “They told me to put my phone down and I said no. That’s when they stomped me out on the pavement like roadkill,” he mumbled.
I told him how I’ve been in the thick of it the past few days in Baltimore.
Then, the train sounded off the “Stadium Armory” notice, and his face sunk as he said he had to go. Walter, he told me as his name as he was getting up, added, “Take my card we’ll talk again for sure,” and left the train.
I know that in Baltimore, Big Homies like Walter love when younger ones are “involved.” But just what was I doing out there? If Walter and I would have stayed together for a few more stops, I would have shared with him more of what I witnessed just in the past four days alone, literally on the front lines of the city of many generations in my family, the only place I know as home, Baltimore. I would have shared the overwhelming feelings I have of PTGD (Post Traumatic Ghetto Syndrome). And maybe ask his wisdom on how to make sense of it all.
On Monday, April 27th, I gathered with the volunteers of the 300 Men March movement, an anti-violence outreach organization, to hit the streets and engage angered residents before they set out to protest. And I have been pushing through ever since. Wearing our black shirts with the words Street Engagement Unit in white letters, we had one objective: to talk, brother to brother, sister to sister, human to human, Baltimore native to Baltimore native, to those angry and furious about Freddie Gray, and help keep them calm and the city secure. We had the objective to save every other life in this city against the possibility of mass injury and more police brutality in light of the protests. No more Freddie Gray’s could take place now. None.
Although I stopped by the protest Saturday at city hall, what I walked into Monday evening had an energy unmatched. Directly across from me stood national guardsmen and riot police drowning in armor at the same intersection that I must have walked through tens of thousands of times since growing up here. And around the corner at Fulton Street, I saw dozens of masked kids running with book bags full of all the Jordans that they could carry shouting “hurry up son, hurry up!” Adults were shouldering cases of alcohol, and some fought their way holding pampers while striding past me.
A car fire lit while I pushed through the fray to see if the members of 300 were on the corner we were instructed to be at. Tons of clergy were marching arm and arm westbound singing peace hymns amongst the disaster. There were two imams present, Earl Al-Amin and Hassan Amin, who are both battle tested, which was a comforting sight.
I kept walking two more blocks until I met with the rest of the 300. We had orders to go into the crowds and deeper into the neighborhoods and the pockets of rioting.
We walked along the streets, 50 of us together, as women, children and elderly peered above windows, poked their heads out of doors, and came to shake our hands personally. Even amongst bottles and cars ablaze our presence was a sense of calm, a sense of relief. It was an unspoken word that only we, in Baltimore, could understand. It was us, not the police, not the national guard, that would be able to bring in a sense of calmness back to this city, that could keep angry protestors from turning violent. Baltimore needed their own people, one of them, to handle the chaos, calm the nerves. Because those in Baltimore would not listen to anyone else. And it has worked. By 10:00PM that night we dispersed but were told to be on call around the clock.
When I arrived home at 10:30PM Monday night, my family comforted me and expressed their support of my decision. For the first time in my life, I could identify with the pain of soldiers who are active in wartime. Sleep came over me like a hurricane. The next morning Tuesday the 28th of April, I sent my clinical director in Washington D.C. a text stating that I would not be present at work because men were needed to assist in this crisis. I was faced with a judgement call. She condemned my actions, but my belief is that intuition is divine, and guidance flows from above.
I sent tweets out stating that men were needed on the morning of the Tuesday, April 28th at 10:00AM in a location in East Baltimore for a strategic meeting. There were twice as many brothers there this time. My older brother Naeem Muhammad, artist from nasheed group Native Deen, drove from Northern Virginia to attend. We walked to Monument Street, a main business district in east Baltimore. Reports said rioting was taking place that morning. Streets were flooded but somehow our presence of steady temperament calmed the chaos in the street. Again, we were greeted with love. Tattoo faced black men shared hugs in gratitude for what we were doing. Baltimore’s black youth aren’t much different than any in the country. If love is absent they will express hate. “Be safe yo, it’s crazy out here shorty” one boy lamented. He knew things could go from better to worse.
The president of the 300 Men March Movement, Munir Bahar, decided that it would be necessary to head to ground zero that morning, Pennsylvania and North Avenue, to display the power of the city’s men who are rallying for peace. We walked a four mile stretch in two ranks the entire way. A saxophonist joined the march up North Avenue and played melodies that pierced through the noise of helicopters above. Arriving at the corner on North and Pennsylvania was nostalgic. Masjid activist said prayers. Yuppies burnt sage. Pastors sung praise. Student groups cleaned what was left of the debris. All of this occurred while riot police stood with guns and shields poised to act. Universal love fell through scene like confetti.
Eventually, a fight between protesters and police broke out and I rushed to position myself between the police and protesters. Their frustration was legitimate, but the discipline of the police force present here guarantees mass protester casualties if they use violent tactics. Mace landed above my right eye and a member of the “the bloods” rushed to get it out with the bottom of his shirt. For ten more minutes we stood shoulder to shoulder in the hopes that agitators would calm themselves. Bottles flew again and a few agitators were apprehended by ordinary citizens. An hour passed with most rowdy protestors who decided to move on. When it was calm, we were given orders to return to our meeting place and we walked seven to eight miles back to home base.
As of Wednesday, April 29, 2015, there are still outbursts gripping the city that intend to take back the streets that have been lost to an intentionally invisible population. And we continue to hit the streets, standing arm to arm, walking rank by rank, to talk to our fellow Baltimore neighbors. There is a camaraderie that only we, living here in Baltimore, understand.
I see now that religion’s only purpose here right now is to be a spiritual force for immediate action. I, as a Muslim, identify with the struggles of many who are oppressed. I understand that in times of unrest, we have a prophetic duty to uphold. Today, the most volatile action was student led protest and a mysterious encounter with a man battered by my city’s police department. Baltimore sleeps now. But tomorrow could mean all day tours of duty. I, as a writer, father, activist, and now soldier, have committed with many other Muslims to bringing peace back to our city. This incident has left us in tears several times. More than likely I’ll have to get therapy for PTGD. We can debate theology when the children are safe. For now, i’ll be on the streets with the other natives of this city trying to keep the peace.
This is what I would have told Walter.