North Charles Street in Baltimore has the names of the dead upon it, written in chalk, going on for several blocks.
The names are starting to fade, under wear and rain, but death is permanent, and the permanence of those dead men, women and children, printed in yellows, pinks and blues, is on the minds of Baltimore, and those thoughts stretch farther than a few blocks on North Charles Street. So do Baltimore’s problems and its solutions. Both stretch yet ever further away, eluding the grasp of the people.
What will we do? Where will we go, and how will we get there?
Those were some of the ambitious questions and unrealistic expectations a few hundred of Baltimore’s citizens had of a televised town hall at Morgan State University.
It was held by TV One’s Roland Martin on Tuesday, and it featured former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes, journalist Jeff Johnson, political commentator Julianne Malveaux, attorney Monique Pressley and political blogger Lauren Victoria Burke. The mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, was invited but was a no-show, citing a family emergency.
Around 400 people attended the taping. Almost all of them came because they wanted to be heard. But Martin could only offer them a one-way dialogue—that of a panel talking and them listening. He was running the show, but the audience wanted to be the star, so the evening went back and forth between a TV special and the outbursts of the bereaved and beleaguered, the tired and testy.
“Can’t no police put his hands on me!” shouted a man from a mostly empty balcony, a small child at his side.
Martin, trying to maintain control of the show, tried to talk the man down, but he was unrelenting.
“They’re not telling the truth! They poison the youth!”
As he was ushered away, it was accompanied by a few yelps from the crowd, pleading to Martin, “Let him express himself.”
Ebony Johnson, 26, who explicitly came to the town hall to express herself, responded, “They’re trying to marginalize us.”
Johnson, who suffers from mental illness, told a story of how she was threatened with arrest before, during a panic attack, and of how poorly she was treated when forced to go to a city hospital for treatment.
She was near tears as she recounted how it has been easier to get a reporter eager for a quote to listen than any of the City Council members or the mayor, anyone who could actually do something about her problem, other than just supply a space to vent.
“The quickest way to end up in the criminal-justice system is to have mental-health issues,” Johnson said. “It needs to be talked about. I’ve lived to tell this story.”
The audience question segment was cut from the show. Maybe for time. Maybe because it could have been unwieldy, as Q&As often tend to be unless they’re meticulously planned ahead. But the denial of the Q&A led to an anguished outburst; an impromptu shout; a man screaming from the balcony about “Yahweh” and how he couldn’t be silenced or destroyed; a trio decrying the corruption of the entire system, chanting, “The whole system is guilty as hell”; and Bloods and Crips members wandering offstage in frustration.
They didn’t want a TV town hall. They wanted a truth and reconciliation commission featuring a Rawlings-Blake piñata to bat around.
Sneers were heard whenever anyone on the panel attempted to defend her. Anyone who pushed back against that defense was met with thunderous applause. Maybe it was a good thing Rawlings-Blake didn’t show.
Torshell Cabean, a mother and grandmother from East Baltimore, voted for Rawlings-Blake but said she will never do that again. And it wasn’t even because of Rawlings-Blake’s handling of the unrest or the death of Freddie Gray. Cabean had gone sour on the mayor long before then.
“I have not been satisfied,” Cabean said of the mayor’s efforts in Baltimore. “She’s been acting disparate. Like she’s not a part of the people. She only shows up when cameras and the limelight is spotted.”
Many of the people attending the discussion were on edge, exhausted from the past three weeks. They were suspicious of the panel, even though they seemed to like it. They questioned the host, even though they wanted to take a photo with him.
After the town hall, Thelburt Williams, 22, did some friendly sparring with Martin about wanting to be heard, about being able to speak out but still maintain his career goals, and fearing pushback if he were too vocal, but Martin countered, “Talking does nothing.” Williams worried about people being discouraged, and how speaking out could affect him, but Martin pushed back again, pointing to his own career of truth telling: “What’s their choice, be discouraged or be broke? … I can’t walk around being discouraged.”
And yet that’s what Williams wanted to talk about—the pain, the anguish, the frustration. He didn’t want another pep talk about digging deeper and pushing harder. He wanted to be heard.
“People are discouraged,” he said. “They’re becoming more discouraged and let down.”
Yes, the people of Baltimore need solutions. But it sounds as if they could also use a voice.