“We cannot clog up our hospitals and their beds with people that are being shot senselessly, because we’re going to need those beds for people who might be infected with the coronavirus,” said Baltimore mayor, Jack Young on Wednesday.
Mayor Young said these words in response to a shooting in a West Baltimore park that left seven people hospitalized. It is no secret that Baltimore has had its fair share of violence in the past decade, evidenced by having more than 300 homicides the past five years.
As residents of Baltimore, we may have hoped that one silver lining could come from the Coronavirus. Maybe, with mandates to shelter-in-place and practice social distancing, we would not see the violence that has plagued this city in our collective effort to contain the Coronavirus. Schools became closed for two weeks, while restaurants and bars closed, with an entire nation devoted to stopping the spread of a pandemic.
For once, it seemed like we may have had some respite from the violence, as the newsreel focused almost exclusively on the breaking developments from the Coronavirus in America, as well as our efforts to contain the pandemic. Since I didn’t hear about the violence for just a couple of days, part of me hoped that it wasn’t there.
And then it was. On Tuesday night, in a park on the corner of Eutaw and McMechen Streets, a gunman shot seven people with a semi-automatic rifle and left all of them hospitalized. A responding officer was also wounded at the scene. The gunman is still at large. According to Baltimore Police Department Commissioner, Michael Harrison, there has been an uptick of violence since Friday, March 13.
It was yet another sobering reminder of the consuming violence in Baltimore, violence that not even a pandemic could stop. For people outside Baltimore, the statement from Jack Young about victims of gun violence taking up hospital beds meant for COVID-19 patients was sad and disappointing. For residents of Baltimore, the news was unsurprising.
For me, the violence hits close to home, as a resident and teacher in Baltimore City. I will always remember lockdowns in the classsroom where we fear the threats of active shooter. In my eight months so far as a teacher, we have had more lockdowns than I have ever had growing up in school, and it’s hard to fathom and even talk about the violence we encounter on a daily basis. The most common coping mechanism for my kids and their families is desensitization. We become numb to the lockdowns, the sound of gunshots, and the numbers in the news that tell us how many people have been shot and killed in the city.
As the nation struggles with containing a worldwide pandemic, the struggles of Baltimore include the containment and a struggle that’s painfully familiar: containing the violence that has taken too many lives in this city.
Baltimore currently has more murders per capita than El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Digest that statistic for a minute. The problems go beyond just having a lot of guns on the street. I find the national dialogue and discourse around gun violence non-representative of Baltimore. Why would you worry about a mass shooting, for example, when you worry about gun violence every day, on your walk to school, or when you go home?
In one of the first days of the school year, one of my students told me about a shooting that happened outside of his elementary school. It was a shooting on Labor Day, where three men were shot, one fatally in Northeast Baltimore, the day before school started.
It wasn’t the fact that the shooting happened, but rather how my kid said it: it was like how we would describe what we bought at the store last night. It was just a couple people shot outside his elementary school. It was just a person that died.
The way my kid described it was so natural and so normal.
And then came the series of lockdowns. Announcements came through the speaker to turn off all lights, lock all doors and windows, and move away from the door. There was no fear, no panic. The kids just did as they were told and they knew the drill as well as we remember our daily commutes to work.
I will particularly remember one lockdown we had after the final bell rang for dismissal. Kids were rushing out the school building, and then a police officer came into the building ushering all the kids back to their classrooms. My administrators motioned for us all to close our doors and windows. There was an incident up the block that involved gunshots, and some kids had already left the building and were on the way home.
The others who were locked down in the building were mad. They tried to leave out the door, while I prevented them, and they tried to look out the window to see what was going on, as if any commotion outside was a theatrical show rather than a threat to their lives.
“Move away from the window!” I yelled.
The first instinct of a child, when they hear commotion or disruption outside or in the hallway, is to look out and see what was going on. My kids had that reaction on that day. And I have had to give many lectures about why that reaction was only going to put themselves and other kids at more risk. What if someone actually had a gun? Where is the first place they would look?
The problems in Baltimore are systemic — which is why, sometimes, the Coronavirus doesn’t seem like the biggest threat, even though the state of Maryland and the nation are treating it as such. A lot of institutions gave up on Baltimore long before the Coronavirus pandemic.
You don’t have to be in Baltimore long enough to hear about the black butterfly. It is a term used to describe the map showing black residents in Baltimore compared to white residents — a map that shows the pervasive residential segregation and disinvestment in predominantly black areas that accompany the city.
Gun violence, then, is a symptom of a lot of systemic problems rather than the problem itself. We can’t solve it with a band-aid, like more restrictive gun laws or more aggressive policing. There are so many guns already on the street, so many killings even during the time of a pandemic that the problem seems insurmountable.
It seems, then, that the Coronavirus was also a band-aid that might have fixed the violence people in the city face every single day. When it seemed like such a crisis in the global media and the entire world, apparently COVID-19 wasn’t such a crisis to some in Baltimore,
Shannon Furdak, a Baltimore City teacher who wrote about seven students in her school who died in a year, reflected last year about how it felt to hear about having students who had been murdered. “I am in the business of saving and protecting kids,” she said. “And when I can’t, it feels like a failure.” I can’t imagine if the violence took one of my own kids. I worry more during our school’s closing about gun violence taking one of their lives than the Coronavirus infecting them.
I know the severity of COVID-19. I am actively social distancing and following closely political and media updates about our response to the pandemic. And yet not even a pandemic of the Coronavirus’s proportions can stop the violence in Baltimore.
I’m not surprised at all that the violence in the city still transcends the threat of the pandemic. Isn’t there something wrong with that?