Ravaged neighborhoods long left for dead lie in the shadows of the award winning, highly praised, renovation of the waterfront, the jewel in Baltimore’s charm bracelet. The influx of money, people and life that filled the harbor and its adjacent neighborhoods, had faltered by the time it reached its east and west flanks.
As if to safeguard this precious revitalization, a “zero-tolerance policy” toward crime was initiated. In time, these neighborhoods of hope squandered in neglect became little more than internment camps where residents were guarded and intimidated into compliance. The blind eye of justice turned, and allowed black to kill black, as the runoff from the massive influx of heroin from the docks held families enslaved. I‘ve traveled through the neighborhood that erupted in flames last night many times. Once, I saw a police car with flashing lights stopped in the street and I turned the corner where, in plain sight, drugs were being sold only feet away. Police cars, searchlights from police helicopters, the ubiquitous “blue lights” demarking crime zones, sentries like shadows, the gangs and the kids are all common, and commonly intermingle, here. Less seen, but very much present, are the grandmothers. With their Sunday hats and lace, they the Baptist churches they attend and the clergy are the heart of these communities, reminding us that people live here. People love here. And people do their best to live the best lives they can.
The message in those churches is of non-violence, community and love. If God is love, then love is our only option. The message given by Dr. King and the leaders of the civil rights movement was of assertive nonviolent engagement. Violence, whether it be the violence of the streets, violence within the home, or violence toward oneself can only destroy. But, love can communicate. Compassion understands and so creates a deeper bond than intimidation. Dr. King famously told his followers, that the bible said to LOVE your enemy. But, it didn’t say you have to LIKE your enemy. So, even with those for whom we have little trust, love is the best means to communicate. If we attack them, he warned, they will win.
From a Buddhist perspective, each of us is love itself, and each has an inalienable right to life. Yet, each of us is interconnected to everyone else. So, while we have a personal right, our life affects those around us. We are all in this together. So, when we learn to love ourselves, we learn to love others. And, we can do that, even if we fear them, or are angry. In fact, as love is the basis of empathy and understanding, it is imperative that we love that which we fear.
The funeral for Freddy Grey brought city state and federal dignitaries together in a service filled with hurt, love, faith and anger. Rep. Elijah Cummings was quoted as saying “I’ve often said our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see, but now our children are sending us to a future THEY will never see…. There is something wrong with that picture.” And, the messages became clear. It is time to stop. It is time to regard all life as sacred. It is time to respect that black lives matter, because ALL lives matter.
But, for too long, too many black lives didn’t matter enough. The “lets go get some scumbags” mentality of an understaffed, poorly-trained and ill-equipped police force fostered the dehumanization of a populace they were conscripted to protect. Often they did what they could with what they had. An impossible task, they almost had to objectify the populace as the enemy. So, who were the police protecting? Perhaps things have devolved to the point where police are, in fact, only safeguarding wealth. It seems that much of the world has adopted a corporate mentality. Corporations have no inherent conscience. Its up to the people within to add the humanity. The corporate structure itself lacks empathy. Its purpose is to provide for its shareholders. These structures are fiercely powerful, and while they may be very sophisticated in their acquisitional efforts, they are ultimately very crude. They act primarily for their own advancement or protection. They run much of our world and, in so doing, have created a world much like they are: benevolent as it serves them, but protective against danger and largely ignorant of things that don’t further their charter. Many of us stay out of their way, stepping in the shadows between their lumbering legs. We snuggle up to our flat screens and pretend the world out there is someplace else.
In this way, entire communities are ignored and locked into combustible environments that inject aggression internally. Held in place by a force that uses the crime inherent to that situation as justification for using whatever means is expedient, the point isn’t to communicate, but to control. Young men, who in another world would be rising up into the prime of their life, walk with eyes down bundling that energy within.
Unfortunately for Freddy Grey, he looked up. Unfortunately for Freddy Grey, he made eye contact.
So, it seems the seams in the machine broke open last night. The ill-fitting dissonance of the protectors and those they claim to protect, clashed and Baltimore burned. The wounds opened into the streets. And, now the Governor is here like a dad home from business to scold mom for being too lenient with national guard take control of this family. And now we all get a time out. And, there is blame, not the least between the Governor and the mayor, and there are shouts and there are schisms between haves and have nots, between while and black, between social conservatives and the socially conscious.
But, so many of us feel that this could be – perhaps MUST to be – the pivot point of change. In the churches there were calls were for “justice, not vengeance”. Vengeance is short sighted and acts to obscure reason, while justice might presage a change that enables communication and understanding. Perhaps this is that point.
But, justice is not passive. Justice CANNOT be passive.
And while we now wait, will the world slowly turn back to business as usual? The news outlets are describing a death from “mysterious circumstances” while videotapes clearly show a man severely injured, dragged and pushed unsecured into his unpadded steel battering cell. As days pass in this “thorough investigation”, we wait until the shouting dies down, until the mothers stop crying, until the state decides as it did in Ferguson, as it did in Staten Island, as it has done repeatedly in Baltimore, not to prosecute. And, the system decides, as it has many times before, not to change. The national guard will be in place more quickly then. And, good people everywhere will go on believing their lives matter. And others, whose lives matter a little less, will go back to holding eyes to the ground, holding down the rage, until it blows open again.
And there’s the rub.
Three years ago the ‘Arab Spring’ caught world leaders off-guard. The NSA, with fingers in so many pies, were unaware of the significance of the movements stirring beneath. Will we learn from this? Or instead, will we do business as usual until something blows open things to restore the balance? Until we meet the next Arab Spring in the form of a much closer, and more immediate Black Dawn?
I’m sure there are neo-cons planning to further secure our borders. The NRA claiming the need for the populace to arm themselves from the threat. But, the threat here cannot be met with violence. The threat is a lack of empathy. And, while it falls on both sides, it seems like the onus would be in those with the guns to lay down their arms. The onus is on the leaders to lead by understanding. Empathy is what makes us human. Resilience, firepower, intelligence, strength and adaptability have allowed our species to thrive. But without empathy, compassion or understanding we are standing at the top of a junk heap. Compassion is the flower of evolution. Once we understand the other and begin to see their humanity, we proclaim our own. Opening to our world in strength and dignity, and doing the work within, BEFORE we expect others to follow.
Compassion need not be weak. The time for weakness is well past. Compassion simply rests on the premise that if God is Love, then love is our only option. From a Buddhist perspective, if we are fundamentally good, and goodness is our birthright, then understanding the goodness of others is the only option. But love can be strong. It can be true. It can go right up into the danger and not flinch. It can hold itself to itself as it is stronger than hate, it is deeper than hurt, it is greater than fear. Compassion is not weakness of giving in, or relenting, or surrendering. It is standing up and proclaiming. It is saying I am alive and I matter. And you are alive and you matter. And together, we can build a work that makes a difference to ALL of us.
And, in order to do that, we have to let go of our Darwinian impulses to take only for ourselves. We have to let go of our pain and fear and be willing to see clearly, without flinching. For, the truth is NO ONE here is without blame. We have all compounded the problem with our ignorance, or greed. So, we al do the work of opening and the work of remaining open through the change. And the change will come. Oh, yes. Its up to us to wake up and guide the process toward the light, to stand with our hearts open and strong in the face of the clampdown, to open to others and learn from their struggle and to return the planet to those who matter. The people.
It is a stunningly beautiful day in Baltimore today, the day after the fires. Among the many images in the paper this morning, the most powerful for me was of the Pastors and congregation facing the police after the funeral. After leaving the church, they walked in line toward the police. Then they stopped and knelt in prayer for a moment. It was a gentle and definite assertion that love, contemplation and connection to higher principles are what is important. Yet, we know that. We know that that is what they, and many of us, believe. But, what happened next was amazing. The congregation rose without hesitation, walked up to the police and just stood there face to face. Look into my eyes. I am human. Look more closely and you won’t see the skin, you won’t see the home I live in or which school I send my children. Look closely enough and all you see is me. And we are all the same. We are all frightened, unsure, doubtful and capable of great understanding. We are human. And we matter.
This is where compassion begins.