As you would imagine, I am receiving quite a few emails from friends and readers who are asking variations on this question: What is going on in Baltimore?
A few personal comments: First of all, I have very little experience covering politics and the police beat, the two subjects that, for better and for worse, are currently at the heart of the coverage of this story. Second, I live on the Baltimore beltway south of downtown (in a blue-collar, interracial suburb with roots back to Colonial times) and I am not an expert on urban life in this complex city. I do know that -- as some journalists are noting -- there is a special poignancy to seeing smoke and flames rising from neighborhoods that still haven't recovered from the 1968 riots after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like many locals, I spent hours yesterday watching the news and trying to keep up with the social-media hooks in this story. As of this morning, talk radio is full -- as it was yesterday -- of reports of another wave of "purge" notices calling for more violence this afternoon. True?
Of course, I have been watching and listening as a religion-beat specialist and there has been much to note. Another question people keep asking me is why embattled Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn't call for a curfew LAST night. Well, the locals can tell you that Baltimore is a city that doesn't have massive resources and they were stretched to the total limit last night. There weren't enough police and firefighters to go around, on a night with about 140 car fires and major action in neighborhoods in the west and east. Could a curfew have been enforced?
So who was there to respond, until the National Guard and back-up firefighters rolled in from outside of town? If you watched CNN, Fox and other networks last night, you know the answer to that -- clergy and activists from black churches, that's who.
This one paragraph from the main report in The Baltimore Sun should point journalists in a solid direction for additional coverage today:
Church leaders took to the streets to intervene in the violence, to call for calm and pray for peace. Later Monday, more than 75 ministers met with gang members -- Bloods and Crips -- and representatives of the Nation of Islam leaders to talk about ways to end the violence.
Yes, that number is 75-plus.
If you were watching CNN last night, you saw minister after minister on the streets, as well as volunteers wearing shirts that linked them to churches and ministries. Some of the FEATURED interviews were with the politically connected pastors (and those close to the family of Freddie Gray) who have been prominent in coverage up to this point. But many of the other pastors and church members in the live reports were not the usual suspects. But 75-plus is a lot of churches and religious groups and almost certainly a lot of different kinds of churches.
To be blunt, there is too much coverage here to critique or even summarize. Right now, fires in Baltimore are leading the news at ESPN and the MLB Network.
So let's back away for a minute. Allow me to share what I hope is a relevant anecdote from a radically different situation in a totally different city -- but one that I hope can, for any journalists who read this site, point toward some valid coverage right now. If you are a news consumer, please think about this, as well.
Back in my Denver days, the city desk called me over during Holy Week and asked me to find some kind of beautiful service for a feature photograph and a small story to simply mark the season in the paper, since readers like that kind of thing.
I knew what they wanted: A nice picture from a major Catholic church in downtown, a photo of the usual suspects.
Instead, I wrote up a photo-request form for an African-American Episcopal parish over on the wrong side of town. I had met the priest several times and I knew that this parish -- as is often the case in black-heritage parishes in liturgical churches -- placed a heavy emphasis on "smells and bells" and the stunningly beautiful Anglo-Catholic rites of Holy Week and Easter.
When I called the priest, I could tell that he was surprised to hear from me.
Why? I have never forgotten what he said and I will paraphrase his words to the best of my ability after all of these years: I've never had a journalist call me before about anything that has to do with worship or the life of my church. Newspapers only want to talk to a black priest like me when there's a march or a riot or something that they consider news.
What does that have to do with Baltimore right now?
Journalists: Try to find those 75 pastors and others like them.
Yes, they will be out in the streets. However, I predict they will also be in their churches and they may even be praying, singing, counseling and doing the work that they always do -- far from the headlines. But look for them, please. They were out there last night ahead of the National Guard. They were the front lines and I don't expect that to stop.
There will be clergy in the TV lights at some of the press conferences and they are important part of the city establishment. They will get coverage, as always. There may even be nationally known people with "the Rev." in front of their names who show up with network news crews.
But look for the Baltimore women and men from the other pulpits and pews, the ones who are rarely asked to be on television. At the end of one Washington Post story (one of the reporters was my close friend Hamil Harris, who has covered both religion and police for years), there is this hint of what is happening behind the scenes, away from the crowds:
Late Monday, Freddie Gray’s twin sister, Fredericka, and other family members gathered at New Shiloh Baptist Church to pray and appeal for calm.
“I think the violence is wrong, and Freddie Gray wasn’t a person for violence,” Frederika said. “Freddie Gray wasn’t a person to break into stores and all that. I don’t like that at all.”
Look for the people who are working and praying, at the same time.