This past Saturday, the 140th Preakness Stakes took place. The event is one of those Baltimore traditions that people from Baltimore should be excited about, like the Orioles or Natty Boh. Unlike most Baltimoreans though, I couldn’t care less about the baseball team or that nasty beer. I feel the same about Preakness. People flock in droves to the Pimlico race track, wearing bright pastels and church mother hats, to watch two minutes of horse racing. It’s Easter Sunday with horses and gambling, basically, and it’s as ridiculous to me as that combination.
So it was only by happenstance that I caught WBAL’s coverage of the race just as the reporters were beginning an interview with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. I watched because these days, it’s important to pay close attention to what the mayor says to the media.
“Has there ever been a better year for Baltimore to have some positive publicity in the spotlight?” the reporter asked, seemingly baiting Rawlings-Blake to give a clueless response.
“We certainly needed it today and I’m so blessed to be able to exhale, to enjoy the things we love about our city, to be able to showcase to the world the good parts of Baltimore.”
She went on to talk about how Baltimore gets to show their resiliency by coming together and watching horses, subtly defended her actions from three weeks ago (again), and then briefly commented on her silly Preakness hat. So much foolishness packed into a few minutes. I just sat there and shook my head as Rawlings-Blake proved once more that she just doesn’t get it.
‘Exhale’ was the word of the day for the mayor, as she mentioned it in at least two other interviews with the media. While I’m so glad that Steph was able to breathe so easily on Saturday, the fact that she took the day to actively ignore the people suffocating around her is telling. The Pimlico race track lies on the border of the devastated Park Heights neighborhood. Fifteen minutes away are Penn North & Sandtown-Winchester—the former being the site of media images of burning buildings, the latter was Freddie Gray’s neighborhood.
Residents in these communities didn’t give a damn about Preakness but it wasn’t because they shared my indifference for the event. It’s because they literally can’t think about horse racing when they’re too worried about how to live from day to day. It became apparent on Saturday that the mayor, the governor, and other members of the aristocracy—who usually enjoy haughty things like horse racing or tea and crumpets—felt that Preakness was a welcomed distraction from the reality they try to pretend doesn’t exist in Baltimore. The reality they want so desperately to be hidden from the rest of the country.
I’m not surprised. Baltimore has always been like this. For it to be relatively small compared to other major cities, it has many pockets that contain their own set of rules which foster different environments for its inhabitants. As one CNN reporter put it, each little pocket “is like another world.” The dynamic is baffling to any outsider, but Baltimoreans are familiar and comfortable with it. Because our pocket is our sanctuary. We can weave in and out of other neighborhoods and see the difference in quality of life but never really understand it or even care. We just return to our safety net and tell ourselves, “Well, if I’m okay, then they can be okay too.”
That’s the norm in Baltimore. A norm established by state-sanctioned, segregationist policies and practices, and kept in place by willful ignorance. It’s no wonder, then, that the mayor, the police, and especially the governor, would jump at anything that would restore the status quo after everyone’s relative comfort was disturbed in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death. Even with the national media’s distorted filter, a spotlight shone on the real Baltimore, forcing everyone here to publicly acknowledge what they already knew to be true.
Deputy Police Commissioner, Kevin Davis, echoed Rawlings-Blake’s need to exhale, saying that things like Preakness “serve to bring people back together and return to normalcy.”
Back to normal?
Normal is living in a neighborhood where 1 in 3 houses are vacant and the lead paint violation is three times the city average.
Normal is having greater access to liquor stores and drugs than affordable health care.
Normal is when the percentage of people in your neighborhood below the poverty line is double that of the city.
Normal is having little to no educational resources or support within your community, as you watch the governor pour millions into the state pension instead of city schools.
Normal is not being able to walk out of your house without having an encounter with the police.
Normal is when that encounter is unjustifiably violent due to the state’s zero-tolerance policing strategy. (Which, by the way, was put into practice by a former Baltimore mayor turned presidential hopeful.)
Normal is when BCPD would rather pay off the victims of police brutality rather than fire the criminals who still work in its department.
Normal is what got us here in the first place. It’s why Freddie Gray lost his life. And normal is not what the city needs right now. Anyone who wants to “go back to normal” is not nostalgic for some forgotten golden age of Baltimore’s yesteryear. Calling for normalcy is an open endorsement for the structures and policies standing on the necks of Baltimore’s marginalized residents.
These people support the status quo. They are not here for Baltimore and we do not need them.