Driving while black/white in West Baltimore

Photo by Gioncarlo Valentine

Gioncarlo Valentine’s story: This summer I returned to my hometown of Baltimore to visit my former high school for the first time in two years. This was a special occasion because one of my former college professors turned close friend was presenting a scholarship contest that would award a deserving, talented writer at the school with a little money and a platform to share their writing. Ben, my former professor, is white and practically all of the students at the school are black.

It was nice to be back in West Baltimore, the area that helped me craft so much of my identity, but seeing its conditions worsening put me a bit on edge. I don’t remember a time when there weren’t abandoned houses everywhere, but this dilapidation and decay felt new. The reds and browns of the houses, cracking and fading. Garbage lining the streets. There were people napping on the benches in the park outside the school. There were twice as many drug dealers as I remember, selling outside of the corner stores. My community was in a state of disrepair, but I was still glad to be home.

After Ben’s presentation I got in his car and we left the school’s parking lot so he could drop me off downtown at a coffee shop and head home to little Noah, his 1-year-old son.

Although I grew up in this neighborhood, I’m notoriously bad at giving directions. All the years I spent traversing the streets of Baltimore were clearly spent in vain. After telling Ben to turn left down a one-way street and realizing the error, he pulled the car over, reaching for his phone in order to get more reliable directions. Within 10 seconds, a police car pulled up behind us.

I was confused for the first few seconds; I didn’t know what the lights meant. But when I realized what was happening my spine stiffened; I was terrified. I’m a poor, black man living in America in 2018, so each time I come in contact with the police I feel both a sense of disdain bordering on hatred and the terror of knowing that under the right circumstances, my body could be taken. This is the lived reality of black men and women everywhere, no matter your attire, zip code, or demeanor; we are in danger under a police state. This trauma lives in our marrow, hovers above us like lore. But this truth, this fear, this disdain, for me, is rooted more in common history than my own experience.

I’ve never been stopped by the police. I’ve never been profiled or pulled over. And I’ve always felt a strange sense of shame about this. Because I’m a femme, gay man I’ve never been as targeted by the cops. In situations where the police would pull up on my block, I’d see them look directly past me, confronting the straight men I was with. Of course I don’t claim this as a universal truth, but many feminine, gay men can attest to the homophobic privileges we experience when it comes to police interactions, especially in places with a largely black population.

A plainclothes officer emerged from the car behind us. The man, black and tall with skin like almond, slammed his door and approached. As he got closer I started trying to ground myself. I gently reached for my phone, with the hopes of recording the interaction. But then I thought of Philando Castile, and I was scared to reach for anything. I wanted to be confident, show a command of the law, give off a “don’t fuck with me” attitude, but then I remembered Sandra Bland and remained silent. Before I could do anything, Ben rolled the window down and the officer leaned in.

Before the officer could speak, Ben explained, “We got lost and made a wrong turn” to which the officer replied, “Yeah, I figured as much.” This exchange felt almost convivial. They were both smiling as if they were in on some kind of joke. I sat in the passenger seat perspiring and confused. The officer, still smiling in his purple Ravens t-shirt, proceeded to tell Ben to make an illegal U-Turn, and then a left onto Saratoga Street

Ben thanked the man, who’d barely made eye contact with me, and we followed his instructions.

As we drove away I felt both embarrassed for being so fearful, and enraged. Soon my rage would swallow my embarrassment whole. Ben and I only had about six minutes remaining in the car. During that time we spoke lightly of the clear racial biases at play, but I was quiet for most of it. When he spoke he wasn’t tense, he wasn’t fatigued. He had the smugness of a person who’d narrowly dodged a ticket, while my back was covered in the sweat of a black man who’d narrowly gotten away with my life.

When we arrived, I exited the car, smiled, and waved. In the coffee shop I found my favorite seat was open. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice filled the cafe, echoing from the ceiling as if she were calling down from heaven. I opened my laptop and stared blankly at the dark, empty screen. I felt just as empty.

I’ve seen so many black police officers in Baltimore execute sheer and irreversible brutality on black men. I’ve seen young girls slammed and pinned to the ground by grown men in uniform, as the neighborhood rallied defenseless around them. This is why I think of the police as an enemy to the black body, aside from their slave catching origins. However, I’ve seen very few people discuss the violence shown by black police officers to black bodies. It’s a special kind of irony, like they have to prove the point that they lack bias. The idea that these men feel more allegiance to a police brotherhood with a history that is bloody and anti-black, than to the black men and women that bore and nurtured them, is a seismic psychological trapdoor. Thinking about it took my breath away.

Thinking about the friendly tone this officer took with Ben, the assumption that he had to be lost to be in such a neighborhood, and his insisting that we make that illegal turn felt very much like my first, vicarious whiff of white privilege at work.

I didn’t feel any anger toward Ben; this was not his fault. There are systems in place that make these kinds of interactions the base for his experience and feelings toward the police. If the police are kind, helpful, gentle, and forgiving to you, why would you feel apprehensive? What I felt was a lot more convoluted than that.

I felt like a traitor to black people. My proximity to Ben’s privilege thwarted my induction into a club, into an experience, into an unfortunate rite of passage for black men and women in this country. I had never been pulled over by the police and now that I had been, I’d been spared, because of my white friend.

I knew that craving abuse, craving trauma, craving the violence that I’ve known police to wield as generally as they do their presumptions about black men, was idiotic, but it was uncontrollable. I thought about all the alternative universes and outcomes. What if I was driving? What if a more masculine-presenting black man was driving? What if he’d had on a hood? What if the officer who stopped Ben was white? Would I have still been safe? I couldn’t know any of these things for certain but the feelings had weight, and that weight had value.

When I finally turned on my computer I looked up the video of Freddie Gray being brutalized by police officers. It had happened only minutes away from where the officer had stopped us, assisted us, and sent us on our way. I wished, with everything my chest could hold, that Freddie had been shown some kindness, some softness. And I was finally thankful that I had been. 

Benjamin Warner’s storyI live in West Baltimore.

Well, West of Baltimore. Catonsville, to be accurate, which is six miles from West Baltimore, where in April of 2015, Freddie Gray was taken unconscious from a police van with injuries to his spine that would ultimately claim his life. Six miles from the Penn-North neighborhood where police in riot gear stood in front of a CVS that poured brown toxic smoke from its windows, filling the street like a sandstorm.

Just six miles away, Catonsville is a quiet suburb of summertime scoop shops and a dog-friendly farmers’ market that rotates its buskers from bluegrass to Tom Petty covers. At night, I drag my garbage cans to the curb and listen to crickets. I look up and see the stars through the branches of old oak trees. But I can also feel the closeness of what happened there, just six miles away.

It’s not unusual for me to drive through West Baltimore when the Beltway is backed up, and I’m rerouted through the city. And it’s not unusual that I look out the window and find myself distracted by the small pleasantries of daily life: neighbors leaning across iron railings that divide rowhouses, a set of flower boxes in full purple bloom, children running down the sidewalk with arms outstretched—kept earthbound, it would seem, only by the weight of their backpacks.

But however much I’d like those to be the impressions I carry with me, they aren’t. The indelible images of West Baltimore—the ones that mark it as a danger zone—are real, inasmuch as those images really exist: boarded up rowhouses and corner drug deals. The absence of streetlights that quicken my pulse as twilight comes.

And if I’m driving home after a late class, and the streets are dark, I sometimes see a corner store lit up in flashes of red and blue and feel ashamed. It’s not the shame of some illegal secret, but of knowing, in that moment, that I’m safe. There’s a cop right there, protecting me from danger. I’m ashamed of what that moment exposes of the moment just before—that as I drove through the streets of West Baltimore, I’d been gripping the steering wheel in fear. Often it’s only once I’m home that I can steady myself with the truth of where I’d been: that the people living quietly behind those rowhouse doors—pressed by systemic racism and poverty—are more likely hungry than violent.

I hear the term “underserved” used quite a bit where I live. Maybe the vagueness of that word is the point. It can mean a lot of things. But walking around my Catonsville neighborhood, I certainly understand what it means to be “served.” Thinking about this difference eats at me. (Please don’t feel bad. The guilt that arises in considering the word “underserved” is a fairly self-affirming condition from which to suffer.) “Well,” a friend asked me once, “What can you do about it?”

This year, I started to volunteer at a West Baltimore high school. What those students might benefit from, I reasoned, is a bit of college-level instruction in contemporary fiction. That’s the subject I teach at a local university, and I’ve had to come to terms with the limits of what I bring to the table. But if my skills are meager, what I received in return was not. I met some exceptional students at that school: bright, motivated, and willing to discuss plot and dialogue with a man who’s approach into middle age continues to strip him smooth of any hipness. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with their passionate and dedicated teacher—a teacher who is white in a classroom of black and brown faces, a ratio not at all lost on her.

Before class on my first day, I stood lost in the hallway, looking for a bathroom.

“Do I need a hall pass or something?” I asked her.

“No,” she told me. “No one will stop you. You’re white; you’re like royalty.”

As it happens, a good friend of mine, the photographer Gioncarlo Valentine, is a graduate of this high school. On a day he was in town from New York, he stopped by to see his former teachers and sit in on one of my lessons. I was also his ride, and after class let out, I drove him through the city to a coffee shop, foregoing Waze and relying on his sense of direction. After all, he’d been born and raised in this neighborhood.

Driving with Gioncarlo is like trying to seatbelt an exotic bird. There’s a lot of flapping and screeching and raucous repeating of sentences in such a way that might suggest sarcasm. I’m always surprised when he gets out of the car that I’m not left in a haze of feathers.

On this particular drive, his animation was such that (I maintain) his directions to the coffee shop suffered.

“Just take a left!” he shouted at me. “Any of these lefts!”

I did as instructed—turned left—and as it registered to me that something was wrong, that the cars parked both sides of the street were facing me, I heard the bleat and pulse of a siren.

Later, Gioncarlo would tell me that never in his life had he been pulled over, and I would think how strange and lucky that was, and then realize, no, it has nothing to do with luck; he’s been careful his whole life, taken measures so that he’d never have to be in this situation. I’d think of all the times I’d been stopped—for speeding or blowing through a red light or driving with expired registration tags—and how each time I’d sat in the driver’s seat, simply annoyed that my day was being delayed, and how I’d spoken to the cops as though they were any other state employee, a tax assessor or park ranger . . .

But before I thought of any of that, I looked into my rearview mirror and saw a police officer step from his car, and on this street where every driver of every car was black, my heart rose into my throat because—in the seconds it took for him to make his way to my window—I was black too.

But it only lasted those seconds.

By the time he reached my window, he was smiling.

“I’m a little lost,” I said.

He looked at me, bemused, and said, “I figured as much.”

It was as if my whiteness had released some hidden valve, and depressurized the air around the car. I felt my breath return.

“Where you going?” he asked me. He wore a Ravens t-shirt, and his badge hung from a lanyard across shoulders so broad I thought maybe he was, indeed, a linebacker, on some kind of community-building ride-along.

“Light Street,” I said, and he gave me the easy directions.

I thanked him and started to pull from the side of the street, but cars, of course, were coming in my direction.

The officer stepped out and, with palm outstretched, halted the oncoming traffic. I made my three-point turn aware of the world around me, but without any fear of it, and drove out of there like royalty. 

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