We Should Have Looted The Whole Foods
An Essay By Earl Crown
The views expressed in this editorial essay are those of the author, and are not a reflection of the views of Some’n Unique Magazine, LLC who strives to maintain a unbiased position in such matters.
I was on guard all night in my office on Holabird Avenue with a shotgun and a crowbar. I smoked cigarettes at the front door, and listened to the blare of the television playing in the lobby. The news anchors shrieked about “riots” and “property destruction,” and the gruesome details of the death of Freddie Gray.
The corporate-owned television news organizations refused to say what many of us already knew. Freddie Gray had been murdered by members of the Baltimore City Police Department, and the so-called “riots” were actually an uprising, a reaction to decades of organized genocide. But CNN and WJZ were focused on the sordid details of Freddie Gray’s biography, the looting of retail stores, and the nonsensical statements that were coming from politicians and police who had been caught woefully unprepared for spontaneous rage in the streets.
Around four in the morning I walked out into the parking lot, crowbar in hand. I could hear distant sirens and see spotlights in the sky from helicopters that swarmed like angry bees over Baltimore. I looked at my shiny, black Jaguar XJ6 and wondered if I should have driven the van instead.
My office was on the eastern edge of Baltimore, on the dividing line between the city and Dundalk. The Holabird corridor is part of the dirty, industrial strip that’s wedged between the gentrified wealth of Canton and the working-class bleakness of eastern Baltimore County. The neighborhood is a remnant of the old Baltimore, the 20th century Baltimore that manufactured components of the old America.
The Polish part of my family had deep roots in this community, although I had not personally spent much time in the area prior to managing the agency. My great-grandparents are buried in St. Stanislous Cemetery, about two miles from my office on Holabird Avenue.
I managed a labor agency that specialized in temporary labor for warehouses, manufacturing, construction, ship off-loading, retail shelf stocking, auto auctions, hotel workers, and temporary office workers. I provided employment and same-day pay for a small army of homeless or nearly homeless people who depended on me and my permanent staff for their daily survival. I was also responsible for an office staff that depended on the agency for their livelihood.
The job paid well, and I didn’t work hard. I did, perhaps, 20 hours of real work each week. Most of my time was spent selling, with a few hours devoted to administrative duties. But the job felt a bit like a prison.
While a majority of our temps were hard-working, well-meaning, and dependable, a significant number of the temps were drug addicts, alcoholics, and reprobates of every imaginable category. It wasn’t unusual for a temp to smell of urine, or worse. We dealt with crack-heads and junkies and people in need of psychiatric hospitalization as a matter of routine. The most desperate, vulnerable people filled our lobby every day from 5:30 in the morning until 5 or 6 in the evening. Violence on job sites was a weekly occurrence. We saw guns on a regular basis. The office above mine was a brothel that operated 24 hours a day, with the blessing of the landlord.
I saw the part of Baltimore that the affluent residents rarely see and usually ignore. After two decades of work in the ruthless but comfortable world of finance, managing an employment agency of this sort was a form of culture shock. My lifestyle had become as dangerous as my days owning a Baltimore City nightclub years earlier. My managerial position also gave me a different point of view regarding the Freddie Gray controversy. My own negative experiences with Baltimore City police, and my personal distrust of city cops was reinforced by their murder of Freddie Gray.
I wasn’t witnessing the police oppression of the most vulnerable populations in Baltimore from the outside. While I was and always will be an outsider in that world, I was watching these events from the inside, from the point of view of Baltimore’s permanent underclass. Effectively, I was a prison guard who wore a suit and lunched with hotel managers.
The city had decided to shut down bus service that morning, and there was an overnight curfew in place. Nevertheless, by 5:30am the parking lot was teeming with rough-looking temps, just like any other morning. The temps needed to work in order to survive another day. They weren’t going to be deterred by shut-down buses, curfews, or riots. As my staff came in to open the office, they were stunned to find me armed and watching BBC News.
When the sun came up, and I was assured that my office was not in any danger, and that our day at the agency would be like any other, I decided to go home for a nap. I decided that I would cut through Canton, Fells Point, Harbor East, and downtown, then to make my way uptown to see the damage and the continuing protests.
I got into the Jag and drove toward Canton. I turned on the radio to get some news. The station was 89.7, WTMD. There was a commercial playing for a band called “Bob E. Lee and the Sympathizers” and some station-sponsored gig. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In a city that was literally BLEEDING and BURNING from racial tensions, an FM station from a state university was promoting someone named BOB E LEE and the SYMPATHIZERS. Right after the advertisement promoting Bob E. Lee and his Civil War re-enactor band, I heard an ad for The Ivy Bookstore.
I wondered if the management at WTMD was simply ignorant and insensitive about racial issues, or if they were truly callous, and were sponsoring a band named after a Confederate general on purpose. Were they that callous? And what about the band themselves? What kind of creeps would name their band after a Confederate war criminal and slave owner? How could this band and WTMD be so utterly insensitive to racial tensions in a city like Baltimore?
Like many of the other mainstream, well-funded arts institutions in Baltimore, WTMD is predominantly White. As far as I know, they only have one African-American dj who does one show on Sunday, even though it’s a public radio station in a city that is 70% Black , and no female djs.
As I drove through Harbor East, I saw on my left a soldier standing on the corner, rifle in hand, next to the Whole Foods. Two of his comrades were on the opposite corner, to my right. I made eye contact with the Whole Foods soldier as I drove slowly past him. He looked bewildered. I turned and laughed all the way up President Street and onto 83 North.
I laughed because a bewildered White soldier guarding the Whole Foods was the perfect metaphor for life in Baltimore. The comfort and safety of the privileged minority, a predominantly White minority, takes precedence over all other considerations. The main function of the police in Baltimore is NOT to preserve public safety and prevent crime. The main function of the police department in Baltimore or any other American city is to CONTAIN THE POOR.
Seventy percent of the city is African-American, but ninety percent of the wealth in Baltimore is held by Whites. This grossly inequitable distribution of power is most visible in the way that Baltimore is policed. While the city’s mayors are often Black, the police department in Baltimore is dominated by Whites who don’t live in Baltimore. The police in Baltimore are nothing more than armed guards, employed to protect the wealth and comfort of a few at the expense of the city’s true majority.
The inequities of the city are also reflected in our segregated arts scene. As a writer, DJ, and former nightclub owner, I’ve witnessed the economic and racial segregation of the Baltimore arts scene for thirty years. The crowds I see at music venues and literary events rarely reflect the demographics of the city. Among musicians, especially those outside the rock subculture, there has been some limited progress made toward a more integrated music scene in Baltimore. But the White literary community remains especially insulated from the rest of the city. Some White writers in Baltimore seem to be frightened by any discussion of race or class.
When I returned home I was too wired to nap. I tried to call the editor of a local zine. I had been writing for this zine for a number of years. The title of the zine contained the word “Baltimore,” and city life was the supposed focus of this publication. I assumed that the most important event in Baltimore since 1968 would be an event the editor would want to cover. But he didn’t answer the phone when I called. I left him a voicemail message about my desire to write about the murder of Freddie Gray and the ensuing uprising.
This editor was a friend of mine, at least at that time. He was usually receptive to my ideas and prompt in responding to me. So when my message went unreturned for a few days, I was suspicious. I began to think about the writers on this Baltimore-centric magazine. The overwhelming majority of the writers were white, and only two of the writers were African-American, and the only Black male writer for the zine was a Baltimore City cop who wrote poetry. Furthermore, most of the writers lived within insulated White enclaves within the city. For a magazine that was supposedly about Baltimore, the writers definitely didn’t reflect the demographics of the city.
As I wondered why my call was going unreturned, it also occurred to me that the editor’s brother was with the Baltimore Sheriff’s Department. I sent the editor a text.
“How is your brother doing, with all of the unrest? Is he ok?”
Within minutes, I received a response: “He’s fine.”
I struck up a conversation with the editor via text. I felt that the murder of Freddie Gray was a story worth covering, perhaps even a story that deserved its own special issue. The White editor had no interest in covering the story about the murder of a Black man at the hands of police, despite his reputation for being politically progressive. He wasn’t even particularly interested in discussing the issues surrounding the story.
In the following days, I searched for a local literary publication that might be receptive to publishing my story. I didn’t submit my essay to anyone. Rather, I looked around at the local literary publications to gauge their attitudes toward issues of social justice, race, and class.
My search led me to a disturbing conclusion. The literary publications and organizations in Baltimore are largely segregated along racial and economic lines. The White lit scene’s response to decades of police brutality in Baltimore has been to either ignore the problem, or to make some weak gestures of insincere outrage.
A few days after the uprising, I saw a poster for a CityLit event at the main Pratt Library. The poster featured sixteen writers that were scheduled to speak. If memory serves, fifteen of the sixteen faces were White. I asked some of the organizers why the writers chosen for these CityLit events never reflected the demographics of the city. Their responses were evasive and defensive. A few months later, I saw a poster for another CityLit event, yet another tribute to Edgar Allen Poe. The poster read: “some of the best writers in Baltimore,” and once again, it was a sea of White faces.
Since that time, CityLit has had a change in leadership, and their more recent events seem to embrace the entire city. The new leadership at CityLit should be credited for making the organization more reflective of the entire population of Baltimore. I have even seen that CityLit is mobilizing as part of the resistance against the new, evil regime in D.C., so I am very pleased with the evolution of that organization in the past few months.
But there still remains a lack of publications in Baltimore that are ready to address issues of race and class in an honest way. There is still a lack of established outlets for writers who want to confront the powers that rule Baltimore. Even the City Paper, which is supposedly a progressive newspaper, published a reader’s poll that showed their readers are “sick of “the Freddie Gray story more than any other local issue. While there are a handful of true social justice warriors among the White population in Baltimore, the majority of the arts scene has proven to be either apathetic about issues of race, or even downright hostile toward the Black majority in this city.
A few months after Freddie Grey was murdered by the Baltimore Police, there was a tragic flood in Ellicott City. Lives were lost and businesses were destroyed. Antique stores, boutiques, and restaurants were obliterated. The White arts community quickly rallied around Ellicott City in effort to bring the town some much-deserved relief. But the reaction of the White arts community to the flood in Ellicott City also illustrated their lack of concern with the rest of the neighborhoods in the city.
I never saw any fundraisers for Freddie Gray’s family, or for Sandtown, or Park Heights. But I saw plenty for Ellicott City. The majority of the White arts community in Baltimore only cares about the neighborhoods that make up the White enclave. In their minds, if your neighborhood doesn’t have a yoga studio, it doesn’t count. Unless the Whole Foods is in danger of being looted, the privileged, predominantly White minority barely notice the institutionalized racism around them.
Once I concluded that there wasn’t any publication in the Baltimore that could be an appropriate venue for my message, and as my disgust with the lily-White lit scene grew, I withdrew from the local writing circles. I stopped going to literary events, because when I looked around the room the faces never reflected the real Baltimore. I abandoned writing for any local publications.
I spent the next two years pouring myself into my radio show, Crucial Cuts with Earl Crown, which is broadcast by a small college radio station. In December of 2016 I launched my own 24-hour online “radio” station, RadioCrown. My mission with both projects has been to force people out of their lifestyle silos. My mission has been to foster diversity and cultural cross-pollination, and to give opportunities to artists that get ignored by the privileged enclave.
Launching my own independent media outlet has taught me about my own independence and an artist and my personal power as an individual. We all have power. Power isn’t earned or bestowed. It’s taken. We merely need to choose to exercise that power.
If our local media and arts institutions have failed when it comes to fighting for social justice, and I would argue that they have, then the segment of the creative community that has a conscience also has a duty to create more inclusive institutions. I neither seek nor desire the approval of the privileged enclave for my mission as an artist. I don’t need them, so I work around them and render them irrelevant. I suggest that you do the same, especially if you have talent and a thirst for justice.