What’s The Use of Art in a City on Fire? Plenty.

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Photos from Baltimore’s Student Protest by [...]

The last few days and weeks in Baltimore have been bad. A man was killed while in police custody. Protests, both peaceful and violent, occurred across the city. People have been seriously injured. A home for senior citizens was burned to the ground. School kids and police threw bricks and rocks at each other when they were not allowed to board city buses to go home as usual. Stores have been looted. Cars have been set on fire.

Riots have occurred. Our Mayor seems to be incapable of doing anything but saying the word, “Thug.” The National Guard was called in. Tear gas has been dispersed. Hundreds have been jailed after riots (about half have been released), while Freddy Gray’s killers are free. Every major and minor news agency in the country hung out for a day on North and Pennsylvania Avenues and seems incapable of understanding why this has happened.

Our self satisfied Governor has set up shop here temporarily. A curfew has been set that will damage area businesses. Our city has suffered numerous economic setbacks that will take years to recover from. And I’m sorry, but I do not think keeping Camden Yards empty while the O’s play is a tragedy. To me it is a sign of respect for that which protesters have made signs, marched, and fought for.

Camden Yards empty on April 29, 2015

I know that you are angry. I am angry about the deaths of Freddy Gray, Tyrone West, Trayvon Scott, George King, Anthony Anderson and others at the hands of Baltimore police and the fact that nothing has been done about it. I am angry at the press for being so stupid and presenting a mostly slanderous picture of Baltimore to the country and blaming the powerless instead of the powerful. I am angry that groups of young people in this city have suffered so much mistreatment and have so little hope for the future that burning area businesses seems like a good idea. I am angry that our country, as a whole, seems more upset over broken windows than a broken spine. I am angry that children in “The Wire” parts of Baltimore don’t have enough to eat and many of their parents struggle with addiction, a lack of education, unemployment, incarceration, and the cycle of poverty.

We all know Baltimore is two cities: one rich and one poor. We all know that this is not a safe or sustainable or fair way for a city to function. We know there’s a huge problem within the culture of ‘zero tolerance’ police and that the war on drugs is a bullshit excuse to put poor people in jail used by politicians who want to advance their careers.

Whose fault is it? In America we love to play the blame game. Let’s blame the poor people, the rich people, the politicians, the parents, the mayor. Everyone has a theory and this conversation is a dead end. The blame game allows us to do nothing and feel smug.

Art made by kids at Area 405 on April 28, 2015
Art made by kids at Area 405 on April 28, 2015

When the name calling stops and the last bottle is thrown and the national media leaves, we will still have this problem and no one can solve it except those who live here. What can we do? Big business wants to build here, but isn’t willing to hire felons or support a reasonable minimum wage. Suburban people want to come to Camden Yards to invest their money in this city but they need to feel ‘safe’ and this means poor people can’t be seen or heard. Police are rewarded for the number of arrests they make, not for solving actual crimes. Gentrification pushes poor people out of neighborhoods that were once viewed as crime-infested but are now seen as desirable by people with money. People of different socio-economic classes rarely mix and don’t trust each other. What can we do?

One answer that sounds crazy and simple is for artists to keep making art. Do you hear me? Keep making and celebrating and showing and discussing your art. The artists in this city are already helping to address poverty and inequity in a number of ways and have been doing so for years. I know it is hard to believe, but our efforts are making progress. Baltimore is a city of artists for a reason.

I don’t care what you make or who you are, please know your art is sacred. It doesn’t matter where you show, what instrument you play, or if anyone is buying your artwork. All art is sacred. It brings us together and makes life worth living. There is plenty that art can do.

Artists and kids Art at Area 405 on April 28, 2015

Yesterday the good folks at Area 405 and The Contemporary hosted Baltimore kids all day because schools were cancelled. They had food for students who typically receive free and reduced lunches and art supplies so that kids could express themselves. Last night an impromptu drum and congo line of all different kinds of people danced its way through the crowds assembled to protest at North and Penn. Yesterday, Single Cherry Puppet Theater did performances and workshops with children. Today the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave a free outdoor concert for children. I wasn’t there, but I saw a short video from the concert and it was great to see a sea of yellow school uniforms sitting outside, swaying to the music.

I noticed that someone posted a comment on the video, saying that the concert was a waste of time and resources, a way to deny the terrible events that have been taking place, and disrespectful to Freddy Gray. While I can understand this reaction, I have to tell you that this concert is not any of those things. Music is art. Art is sacred. It brings us together in the best of ways and celebrates every creative act. I know that you are angry, but art is always good. It only makes things better and sometimes works in ways we do not understand.

Baltimore is a city of artists for many reasons. Artists have a radical vision for the future of this city, often choosing to live and work in the parts of Baltimore that upper and middle class people pretend not to see. Artists embrace the potential for greatness in this city and we are capable of empathy for all those who live here. Many local artists work for creative non-profit organizations who serve the emotional and physical needs of the citizens of Baltimore and I personally know a number of Baltimore artists who teach art classes for free in local jails and prisons.

We are not perfect, but it is artists who gracefully cross the barriers of class, race, age, and socio-economics every single day in Baltimore. The art community has engaged in an intense and provocative conversation about this for the past year (here and here and here) and it’s no coincidence that hundreds of artists turned out for Art-Part’heid, a public conversation about inequities surrounding race and class in the arts. It is artists who make signs, attend meetings, march in protest, keep the peace, and work to heal a wounded city. It is artists who are showing up, photographing recent events to let the world know this city cannot be reduced to a stereotype, writing about their experiences, and sharing on social media. It will be the artists who rebuild in creative ways.

Art made by kids at Area 405 on April 28, 2015
Art made by kids at Area 405 on April 28, 2015

Baltimore is a city of and for artists. Regular people are welcome, too, but one effective way we engage across barriers is through the arts. Our city has a lot of problems, but artists comprehend that it is not a question of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Artists have a sensitivity for fairness and equity; artists support the social justice movement because we get that when one person is disenfranchised, hurt, murdered, or unjustly imprisoned, it affects all of us. This city needs us.

Continuing to make our art in this city is hugely significant, but it is not enough. We need to get smarter. We need to educate ourselves about money and politics, and we need to engage more effectively with the democratic systems set up, especially locally, so that our views are seen and heard. We need to be better activists and advocates. There’s a reason that the right to vote is taken away from felons in this country (and that is really fucked up and wrong): it’s because elected officials don’t want them to vote. The system doesn’t want poor people to vote and they want radical thinkers to feel disenfranchised and sit at home. If they don’t want us to vote, then we probably should.

We need to step up and participate en masse so that our votes and voices are heard. We know what the problems are and we want a solution that is healthy: a Baltimore that is equitable for all, not just for the wealthy.


If you think the police should have to follow the same laws as everyone else, great. We can start by supporting significant changes to Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR).

One action you can take right now is to contact State Senator Bobby Zirkin (D11). Tell him you support LEOBR reform and SB566, and request his support to get the vote out of committee and on the floor.

Phone: 410-841-3131 | 301-858-3131| Toll-free: 1-800-492-7122 ext. 3131
Email: [email protected]

The corresponding House committee chairman for HB968 is Joe Vallario (D23b)

Phone: 410-841-3488 | 301-858-3488 | Toll-free: 1-800-492-7122 ext. 3488
Email: [email protected]

Two area Democratic delegates are also targets on the House committee side.  Both reportedly have police officer relatives and may not support the bill.

Kathleen Dumais (D15: Montgomery County – Poolesville/Barnesville)
Phone: 410-841-3052 | 301-858-3052 | Toll-free: 1-800-492-7122 ext. 3052
Email: [email protected]

Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D23a: Prince Georges County – Bowie)
Phone: 410-841-3101 | 301-858-3101 | Toll-free: 1-800-492-7122 ext. 3101
Email: [email protected]

(Ms. Valentino-Smith is reported to believe police abuse is not a problem in Maryland.  She is also Deputy Majority Whip, so her commitment to the bill would be important if it passes to the floor.)

Once the bill makes it onto the floor for discussion, artists should contact all of our state senators repeatedly. Call, email, write, send mail art! And then we will need to monitor their votes and educate people. And then we may need to vote some of them out of office. This sounds exhausting, but so is everything else worth doing.

There are so many other problems in this city and it all seems insurmountable, but it’s not. We need to stay focused and take small steps towards progress. We need to educate ourselves and each other. In the meantime, we need to keep making our art and using it as a tool to engage with the city we love.

Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt.

Images of art used with permission from The Contemporary

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