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A Year Ago I Ran Through The Streets Of Baltimore In Fear Of My Life: Escape From The Epicenter Of The Riot.

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CVS on fire
CVS on fire

It’s been a year since my city went up in flames and a riot broke out.  I found myself running through the streets of Baltimore seeking safety. What started as a very average day suddenly turned into a week of chaos and mayhem that left Baltimore devastated.

Today everyone knows the name Freddie Gray but this time last year he was just another statistic. An unarmed Black man seriously injured in police custody. When he died, the city exploded. I had no clue what April 27, 2015 would mean to the history of Baltimore when I left my house that day. By the end of the day I would have shed more tears than I’d like to remember and spend hours in front of the television, mouth agape. Like the rest of the nation I was stunned by what I was witnessing. Even more so I was grateful, I was humbled, I was terrified.

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I, like many, watched the CVS on the corner of North and Pennsylvania burn on live national television. What many of you don’t know is that less than a hour before that CVS was set on fire I stood right there in front of it. In fact, I was stuck dead in what would later be called the “epicenter” of the unrest.

It started like a typical day for me. I had my annual OB/GYN appointment at the health department directly across the street from the CVS pharmacy. I think it was scheduled for 1:30 or 2 p.m. I arrived on time and found myself angry as I waited. The clinic was understaffed that day and I felt like I was waiting forever. It hadn’t been that long in actuality, maybe only 30 minutes when security had come through and was whispering to the staff members present. Shortly after we were told we were on lock down in the building. We were given no indication of what was going on and why we were being locked in.

I wasn’t afraid, I had no clue I had a reason to be. There was no television in the clinic and we all were at a disadvantage or I think we’d have started looking for help earlier. I saw the dr, and got my birth control ad was ready to leave until I got to the front door. The security warned that if I went out I was going at my own risk.

I finally asked what was going on outside and was told that there was some kind of riot. Teenagers were running up and down the street looting stores. Rocks were being thrown, news paper boxes kicked over. In the middle of the intersection a police car was turned upside down. People were everywhere, some participating in the looting and destruction, some standing around in shock, some capturing it all with their cameras .

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I called my then boyfriend but he wasn’t of much help, he wasn’t from the city and couldn’t navigate it without me plus he was almost 40 minutes away without traffic. It was now almost 4 p.m., possibly after 4 p.m. And all four of his children had arrived home from school. I couldn’t fathom asking him to load up four kids and come rescue me in a riot. I stayed on the phone with him long enough to try to calm myself into sustainable action.

Then my motherly instincts kicked in, It was somewhere around 4 p.m. I realized my own 15-year-old child was out there somewhere in the city trying to get home. I tried calling his cell frantically but got the voicemail. Immediately I called my parents house to see if they had heard from him and to make sure my dad was okay because he travels to work around the same time we had been initially locked in. Only aware of the scene going on around me at the time I was shocked when my stepmother informed me that she was watching the news and 15 minutes from where I was, for the moment still safe inside the clinic, the riot was worse up the street near the mall.

kids atop cop car

kids atop cop car

She told me the news was live reporting and police were practically in guerilla warfare with a bunch of children. Apparently rocks and bricks were being thrown at police. By the grace of God these cops realized they were dealing with a bunch of misguided children and didn’t use lethal weapon because this day could have been 10 times worse than it actually was.

Finally I reached my best friend who was just getting off work at 3:30 or so at a high school far across town. When I told him what was going on around me he instructed me to stay put and he was on his way. That wasn’t to be though, maybe 20 minutes to a half hour later the security inside the clinic said the devastation outside was getting to be too much. They were afraid if they didn’t lock up and get the building gated they would be broken into and looted as well. With medical supplies I can only imagine how afraid they were, every pharmacy is the area was stripped bare.

Forced out onto the street I was terrified. I had to call my best friend and let him know I wouldn’t be where I said I would. Besides, the traffic was so bad and backed up he wouldn’t have been able to get to me anyway. That left me no choice but to get to a clearer area so he would be able to meet me. Looking over my shoulders I had no choice but to half run/half walk as I tried to get to a safe place. Literally, at one point I stopped and sat on the ground behind a wall, just scared. You see trash cans and stuff just being thrown around, hear glass breaking, see people running crazily. Everyone was a threat everyone was the enemy, especially to a person like me who suffers PTSD.

I had seen scenes like this in movies, recently we had seen similar images come of out Ferguson, Missouri. An unarmed young Black boy, Michael Brown, had been killed by police the previous August. Now My city looked like Ferguson. I finally managed to gain enough confidence to run out of the danger zone to safety.

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The news made Baltimore look like Iraq. The worst images were replayed over and over on a loop. People actually thought that whole city was a mess and in ruins. It was far from that. For the most part, the destruction was limited to specific areas. The image that was shown to the world is quite different from what we were actually seeing throughout Baltimore. Peaceful protests and rallies were held daily but those weren’t reported. Only the controversy was reported for the most part, such as the protests that blocked the highway.

Times cover

Times cover

Two days after the day of unrest when I had finally managed to calm down enough to sit at the computer and put my thoughts together I posted an update on my personal website. It read in part:

“On the phone with My  best friend I did My best to  report My location. I alternated between talking to him, My DC sweetie, My son, step mom, dad and My man. I don’t think I’ve held so many conversations back to back and simultaneously  ever. My best friend was finally able to pick me up on Druid Hill and Mcmeken I believe, 10 to 12 blocks from where I had initially been thrust into the riot. As he was pulling up more  fire trucks and police cruisers flew past.

Downtown was blocked, the west side was grid locked. We did our best to get home through the mess as fast as possible. Once I got in I turned on the news and cried. I looked and saw the subway station I had just gotten off at, next to the cvs on fire. I  cried bc I had  taken shelter just across the street and now I watched that block being looted and burning. I watched the police line up in the very spot I had just fled. I watched the cvs where I get MY medicine go up in flames. I watched the ACE where I used to cash My check looted. Watched the hair store I used to shop at looted. They didn’t show it on the news but My FAVORITE downtown destination, Lexington Market, was looted.”

I can still remember my anger and disbelief as I watched mainly the youth of the city go crazy on national television. It was on every channel. What followed was a week of chaos, protests, nightly destruction for at least 3 days. A state of emergency was declared, the National Guard was called in.The city was chaotic. The damage was mainly on the west side of town with a centralized area of destruction in  east Baltimore as well. The were many business downtown affected as well. We were placed under a citywide curfew. City residents, adults included, were forced to be indoors by 10 p.m. Local businesses were forced to close early.

I was traumatized for days, I make no secret of the fact that I am legally emotionally disabled. Being caught in the middle of that mess had me screwed up for a week. I couldn’t leave my house to go therapy, even a trip to the corner store felt unsafe.

It’s been a year, the six officers who had contact with Freddie Gray during his brief time in police custody were all indicted on charges related to his death. One of the officers, William Porter, was tried and there was a hung jury. He will be tried again. There was a hold up in the trials of the other officers because of motions to force officer Porter to testify against his fellow officers. At least of 3 of the officers have now been compelled by the law to testify against others if requested. The new trials are scheduled to start in May.

Following the unrest it took the city months to get back to any kind of normalcy. Cops were afraid to do their jobs and the streets got extremely violent. There were over 340 murders in Baltimore in 2015. Many of the businesses that were destroyed couldn’t afford to or didn’t want to reopen. The loss of the CVS put a real strain on the Penn North community, leaving many elderly community members with no way to get their medications. After  months  of not being able to serve the community the CVS has since reopened.

According to Fox News Baltimore lost $67 Million in revenue since the unrest in April of last year.

There was some beauty that came from the unrest after Gray’s death. One of the most beautiful things is the Penn-North Kids Safe Zone. According to the website:

The Kids Safe Zone, for at-risk children ages 5 to 17 years old, offers recreation that includes flat screen TVs, Xbox gaming systems, board games, organized sports teams, a computer lab, girls and boys mentoring programs, peer led support groups, licensed counseling, field trips, a study lab and homework assistance.

I can’t even begin to tell you the positive results that hves come form the creation of this community center. I follow the woman who started it, Erika Alston,  on facebook and she is incredible. She puts so much time and energy into the children of the Penn-North community, it is heart wrenching at times to read her posts. She has not only given those kids a place to feel safe right in the middle of the community that was touched hardest by the unrest, but helped them connect to the officers they once feared. The local district police officers stop by the center daily and interact with those kids. The kids stay active and the center does a lot to assist the whole family as well.  They’ve helped parents get jobs and housing and supply  toiletries and re-entry  packages to people who  need them. It’s incredible to watch these kids lives transform through the resources and love they get from the staff at The Kids Safe Zone.

The city has calmed down, tourists have started to come back and we residents are trying to regain normalcy. It’s far from over though, whether or not we shall have peace is still a mystery to us all until the trials are over. I’d like to think that we’ve gotten to a point where we can protest peacefully, we can demand justice without destruction. Hopefully we can accept the answers whether we agree with them or not. Baltimore is Charm City and there are so many who thought the charm had worn off. It didn’t, like many other precious things, it got tarnished. We’re polishing it off, making it shine bright again. Today is election day, we’re a step closer to getting a new mayor. Hopefully they will be up to the task of helping Baltimore shine in the public eye again. We are so much better than how we were portrayed and the world needs to know it.

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Melony Hill
Thinker, Avid Reader, Couch Potato. Sapphire Hill is a writer from Baltimore Maryland who loves to delve deeper into the whys of everything. Staff writer for 86 Blvd and Badd Magazine. Blogger and talent promoter for Sapphire Spotlight On Talent.

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