Sunday, May 1, 2016

Guest Post: Reflections from a Night Policing My City by Celia Neustadt

The following entry is written by Celia Neustadt, founder and Executive Director of the Inner Harbor Project, a community organization dedicated to empowering young people of Baltimore to "come up with solutions to issues that divide our society on the basis of race, class, and culture." 

Celia, who I was lucky enough to teach as a 9th grader and an 11th grader, graduated from Baltimore City College High School in 2008, and, after graduating from Pomona College, returned to Baltimore and launched the Inner Harbor Project. Since that time, the organization has employed over 40 teenagers, and engaged in formal partnerships with the Baltimore Police Department, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, "bridging the gap between disenfranchised young people and the urban powers-that-be to build a more peaceful, inclusive city."

Celia posted this on Facebook the other day, and I found it so reflective and thought-provoking that I asked her if I could post it on my blog. It's a side to the city, and to policing, that we really never hear. We need to hear all sides as we move forward, a year after the death of Freddie Gray.

Reflections From a Night Policing My City
Nothing I experienced during the 4 pm to 3 am window that I spent riding along with Central District’s Baltimore Police Department surprised me. Working in collaboration with police for the last four years prepared me for the type of interactions I saw but spending an entire shift gave me a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a cop.
Some context: My lens, the eyes through which I see and experience the world, has been influenced by growing up in Baltimore City. Ten years ago, 16-year-old Celia, would not have been open to thinking about the complexities of being a police officer. She was participating in “Fuck-the-police” protests. When I am asked what the most surprising thing has been about starting The Inner Harbor Project, my answer is always the open collaboration with the BPD. At 26, I work with 16 years old who actively think about the nuances of being a police officer even though they have witnessed and experienced violence by police. How’s that for progress.
The first thing that became clear to me at around 12:30 am in the morning on Mcmechen St. is that police officers on patrol are responders. They position themselves in their district, in their sector, in their post to be able to respond, when they are needed, to dire situations. We overlooked a guy littering on Pennsylvania Ave; we didn’t stop a car packed to the brim so that all mirrors were obscured; and we didn’t arrest guys for not hiding their weed well. From what I saw, Broken Windows Policing is not practiced by patrol. There are special units like the Knockers who jump out at people on corners still but that’s not what we were doing. 
We were lucky – there weren’t any shootings in Central that night, which meant that we were able to spend our time building relationships. When the shift first started, from 5-7, we hung around Lexington Market, chatting people up. We popped in a bunch of stores to say hi, ask how the Perfumery couple’s son is doing. But not surface-level interactions like, “Is he doing his homework? Instead: “How’s his Arabic coming? I heard he has a teacher from Pakistan.” These relationships are not shallow. When we saw the son at another shop, the officer thanked him for a restaurant recommendation. The officer and his wife had recently gone out for dinner at to an Indian spot at the son’s urging. It’s called Mumbai if you want to try it.
Our time was evenly split arresting those who were a danger to those around them and helping people who needed it. Interestingly, both types of people came to us. Towards the end of the shift, as the clubs were closing, we were driving on Redwood with the windows down and a guy came up to the car, unprovoked, and said, “I don’t have any drugs on me.” He was part of a group of three who we didn’t stop in that moment but we got on the radio to let people know to keep an eye out because they looked pretty out of it. Three minutes later, another officer stopped them, as they were about to get into a car. We ended up arresting the one who was about to drive because he pulled out his cell phone while talking to us and a heroin capsule came out. Another had a warrant out for her arrest in Anne Arundel and the guy who said, “I don’t have any drugs on me,” didn’t, so we let him go. Similarly, a woman jumped out of a moving car on Pennsylvania Ave, ripped open my passenger’s side door and told me she was scared and needed help. We found out, with a lot of coaxing and sweet-talking from the officer, that she hadn’t slept in five days due to the death of her mother. We were able to get her to the hospital that had a doctor at her side within five minutes of our arrival. I tell these stories together because we ended up spending our time responding to safety concerns as they came to us. 
Police officers do navigate a lot of beaurocratic bullshit that makes it harder for them to be responsive to those in need. There’s a new division called Inspections, which job is to focus on hot spots around the city. This translates into preventing groups of people from hanging out outside their house or on a street corner. This is what is thought of as a preventative approach. So the officer I was with was called by Inspections to talk to a multi-generational group on Pennsylvania Ave. We took our time getting there because the longer we held up Inspections waiting for us, the less they could focus this strategy on another area. When we got out of our car, the group immediately dispersed. We called them back with some jokes and wise cracks. When they came back, we were honest with them. We explained the way the Inspections Unit works and how we’re really sorry that you can’t hang out without getting harassed by police but it would help a lot if they just slowly strolled up and down the block. Everyone seemed thankful that this officer had the decency to be real with them but it doesn’t make the fact of the matter – wasting resources to criminalize black men for hanging out together – any less fucked up.
My last conclusion from the evening is the one I’ve spent the most time thinking about because I want to get this right. The unit that I was with was diverse. They ranged in age from 24-60. They spoke French, German and Spanish. Some are new to this country. Some are old and cynical. They have different strengths and weaknesses. They hate this city; they love this city. While they are policing my city, they make decisions based off of how they are feeling. Almost every situation they encounter, they have dealt with 100 times before. And yet, because of the inherent danger in carrying a deadly weapon in high stress situations, the work is extremely emotional. 
Before this night, I thought that officers bonded together so tightly because of the potential danger, the insecurity of the thought “if I don’t have my fellow officers’ back, then who will have mine?” But that’s not it. They bond together because of something that I felt just after ten hours with people I’d never met before: love. They love each other in an affirming, positive way. What binds the BPD together is love.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Time I Had a Chance to See Prince in the 'Rally 4 Peace' in Baltimore in May 2015

When I heard Prince was coming to Baltimore last May to perform a "Rally 4 Peace" in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, I tried my best to get tickets. I was at the computer when the tickets were released, and tried and tried (for myself and others who were hoping I might be able to secure the tickets), but wasn't able to get them; the site told me they were sold out. Later, however, my friend and colleague Amber Phelps got in touch with me, telling me she had gotten a ticket for me and another friend of ours. Thankful for her youthfully fast fingers, I joyfully attended the concert.

The tickets weren't good, but it didn't matter: our noses might have been bleeding a little, but we were in the world of Prince. But, right before the show started, we got some miraculous news: Prince himself, since there were some empty seats on the ground floor, decided that our section, the worst section in the First Mariner Arena, would be allowed to come to the floor.

We made our way to the floor seats (which I'm sure were worth hundreds of dollars) and enjoyed two-and-a-half hours of this great artist. The crowd's energy was palpable. Less than a week before, Baltimore was occupied by armed guards and we had a curfew. Now, a different national force had come to our city, and Prince felt just as powerful as all those tanks.

Prince addressed the crowd all night: "Baltimore, we are here. Where are you?", which of course produced an eruption of screams. He played all of his hits -- "Raspberry Beret", "1999", "When Doves Cry", "Let's Go Crazy", "Take Me With You", "Diamonds and Pearls". At one point, he asked, "How many hits I got?", which was awesome. I loved his swagger. He kept the hits coming.

My favorite moment was singing along to "Nothing Compares 2 U," for which I got made fun of by my friend for getting in my feelings too much. I was nearly in tears.

Yes, he slayed.

"Baltimore," the awesome protest song Prince wrote, name-checking Michael Brown and Freddie Gray before building to the refrains of "If there ain't no justice, then there ain't no peace" and "Peace is more than the absence of war," was another highlight. I can't wait for it to be released on an album. At other times during the show, he brought out Miguel, Estelle, and Doug E. Fresh as guests, plus Marilyn and Nick Mosby. It all worked, just a complete triumph of talent, vision, social justice, and joyfulness.

Now that Prince is gone, I feel lucky for that night last May. To have a big star come to your hometown in a gesture of love and change speaks to his character, and his ebullient and moving performance across nearly three hours shows just what a remarkable performer he was.

Security was really strict about photographs and recordings (and I would never attempt to record Prince), but I managed to get a few shots. Don't hate me. I wanted a memento, and I'm really glad I have it now.

Crowd shot.
My beautiful concert partner, Tameka.
With Miguel on the left.
Pretty sure this was Estelle but stage smoke is obscuring her.
"If there ain't justice, there ain't peace."
With Doug E. Fresh
Our Original Seats. Thanks for saving us, Prince!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Why I'm Upset with the Establishment Democratic Party at Pretty MuchEvery Level, Including in My District 3 Baltimore City Race

I've never considered myself too much of a rebel, but this year, I'm feeling like one, because, at every level, I feel like the "establishment" is trying to push me into voting for the lesser candidate.

In the national election, the Democratic party and the establishment, through scheduling of debates, dubious very-early endorsements (AFT, anyone?) and the questionable awarding of super delegates, has paved the way easily for Hillary Clinton to win the primary. Meanwhile, in the election for Senate, Maryland has a chance to elect the first black woman Senator in nearly 20 years, but the party's establishment is doing its best to persuade the will of the people not to elect Donna Edwards, with op-eds, structural money, and endorsements. In Baltimore City, most of the establishment wants me to vote for Catherine Pugh, who has been undistinguished and at the forefront of old Baltimore City politics for twenty years.

I'll not be swayed by the powers-that-be in any of these elections; I'll still be voting for Sanders (not a big fan of either, but I like the conversation Sanders is leading), Edwards (I want a liberal lioness in the Senate advocating for liberal causes, our own Elizabeth Warren, and, yes, having a qualified black woman in the U.S. Senate seems like it should be a priority for everyone who values diversity), and Elizabeth Embry (see my endorsement of Embry here) but nowhere is the power of the "establishment" more powerful than in my 3rd District of Baltimore City, where there could be a close race for City Council to replace retiring councilman Bobby Curran.

First of all, a full disclosure: I'm voting for Ryan Dorsey. I've met Dorsey twice -- once, when he was knocking on doors, and, another time, when he asked some Baltimore City teachers to get together with him to discuss our issues and concerns about education in Baltimore. I liked the way he talked about transportation deficits, about institutional racism, about education, about the arts. I liked that he called in a group of teachers as a focus group. And, importantly, I liked that his long campaign (I heard about him long before I met him) seemed to be very much a grassroots community movement that slowly built into a coalition centered around the needs of the 3rd district (including a couple that he's been very vocal about and led efforts to change, specifically the need to renovate the Harford Street bridge, with a bike lane, and the need to block Royal Farms from opening up a superstore on Harford Rd., a road that county commuters already treat as a superhighway). So, after researching the other candidates, I endorsed Ryan Dorsey on my blog based on a feeling that he will be a tenacious advocate of the concerns of the 3rd district as well as a fighter of the structural and institutional politics (wasteful, racist, sneaky) of Baltimore City. I'm so tired of Baltimore politics, and Dorsey represents a transformation from that. He ended up being the first candidate since President Obama in 2008 that I've donated to. He will be accessible and a full-time council person. I'm excited by all this. I think it's important that I put that all out there. (I wrote about a candidate forum here.)

And I'd be fine just supporting Dorsey's candidacy and leaving it at that. But the 3rd District race is a good example of the worst of Baltimore politics: full of insiderism and lacking transparency, with the institutions already in power attempting to place a candidate into the job of 3rd councilperson. Specifically, the establishment is doing the best they can to get me and my neighbors to vote for Jermaine Jones. His candidacy is funded almost entirely by outside-the-district interests, with very little from inside the district. Colleen Martin-Lauer (fundraiser for Martin O'Malley and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) is a big supporter.

And there is nothing wrong, ethically, with being funded outside of a district. But it does matter to me, even if it's not a dealbreaker. I want a local candidate who understands our local issues. Jermaine Jones has run in two other elections; he lost the 12th District race in 2011 and the Democratic Central Committee race in 2014. He moved to the 3rd District, a district with a vulnerable incumbent at the time, just before the filing deadline. He has family in the area, but that's not enough for me.

To each his or her own, though. But it's more than that for me. I've been very disturbed with the campaign itself, and perhaps his followers. It started with the fake Facebook profiles I wrote about in December. These fake Facebook profiles often supported Jermaine Jones; I was targeted by one of the fake profiles that befriended me and invited me to a door knocking event for Jones. When I later discovered that the profile was a fake bot, I got the willies. Often, Jones events occurred where these fake profiles were at the forefront, being three of the first to respond to an invitation, "like" a page, or say they attended:
This screen shot shows only the fake profiles attending a door knocking event; the other one shows only Jones' profile along with the fake profiles "liking" a Trade Unionist page.
Later, I saw one of the fake profiles was used to criticize other candidates after a candidate debate, with comments that seem to be about Dorsey, right under Jones's own status update. See fake "Phyllis Carter"'s comments below:

I don't know if Jones knew about the fake profiles doing this dishonest stuff before they started helping his campaign, or at what point he started knowing about them, but he definitely knows about them now and has known about them for some time. I find his silence about them to be deafening. I haven't heard him address it at all. This is not how you bring a community together.

His mailers also have been fishy. For example, below is a photo of Roop Vijayan, President of the Glenham-Belhar Community Association, on Jones' campaign literature. Mr. Vijayan was included on two different mailers. It's happened throughout the campaign -- photographs of people without permission on mailers that make it seem like they are endorsing Jones, but actually are not.

Par for the course? Maybe, but I hope not.

Here's one more example that, as a Baltimore City Public School teacher, really upsets me:

Misleading campaign literature suggesting Jones went to Baltimore CITY public schools. That descriptor is left out, because he actually graduated from Parkville High School, which of course is part of Baltimore COUNTY Public Schools. 
This campaign literature suggests Jones graduated from Baltimore City Public Schools (though the word "City" is left out), when he actually graduated from Parkville High School. It's another example of the lack of truthfulness of the campaign; he's clearly trying to get voters to think he went to Baltimore City Public Schools when he didn't. It's so troubling.

And I'm sick of it. I'm sick of Baltimore politics being about who scratches others' backs the most, about who the establishment wants in power. I'm disappointed with the endorsements of some politicians I liked who live in different districts, who I have supported in the past, supporting this candidacy. They really want Jones to be in office, as they are all part of the Democratic Best Club, an organization that, this time, has put its support behind the wrong candidate. Thankfully, Dorsey has been endorsed by the people of the district, as well as The Sun. I hope that carries him through on Election Day.

I'm pretty sure that Jones is a nice guy. But he's allowed his campaign to really come off as really dishonest. If I weren't voting for Dorsey, Jones would be my 4th favorite candidates (I actually really like Marques Dent, who has done good work in the district plus service to his country, and also know George Van Hook has done good work.) That's how important issues of integrity are to me. Even though I live in a city where Sheila Dixon has a legitimate chance to be re-elected despite the lack of integrity of her mayorship, it still remains one of my top issues. I want someone I can trust, who doesn't let others do dirty for him.

I'm not a journalist nor a political operative. I'm a resident, a teacher and coach in the city who wishes I could just spend this Saturday morning heading to the gym and running errands. But the issues I've seen during this campaign really needed mention in one place that wasn't just Facebook, because this district is already trying to come back from twenty years of being represented by a largely absent Robert Curran (my neighbor has been trying to get his office to help fix our street for almost a decade). Curran, as you can see by this YouTube clip, says (without saying verbatim) he is working behind-the-scenes for Jones' campaign. (In the clip, he mentions he is doing work for a young, African American male candidate, which only makes sense to be Jones since they are both part of the establishment, and Curran has been publicly supporting Jones at NECO meetings... )

I admit to being a political neophyte, if that's a bad thing, but I'm also a perpetual optimist who always wants people to do the right thing. Maybe politics, maybe especially local politics, doesn't allow that. But we get the leaders we deserve, and we can use campaigns to judge how they'll be in office. Dorsey, Dent, Joynes, and Van Hook are campaigns that haven't done this kind of stuff. District 3 deserves that sort of representation, not representation of someone that organizations from outside the district want in power.

Election Day couldn't come soon enough. Ready for this long and ugly campaign to be over!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Why I'm Voting for Elizabeth Embry for Mayor of Baltimore

More than ever during my fifteen years living and teaching in Baltimore City, I have been actively engaged in this mayoral election, which I consider to be the most important in decades.

I've been to forums; I've had conversations with nearly all the candidates; I've read their plans; I've discussed with voters around the city, both online and in person, and I've finally arrived at a decision I'm excited about: I'm supporting Elizabeth Embry for Mayor of Baltimore.

It wasn't easy to decide within this crowded and largely impressive field. Initially, my thoughts about Embry were prejudiced: how could I support a white woman -- a former Baltimore State's Attorney, no less -- to be the person to forge a new path for Baltimore in the wake of decades of segregation, misallocation of resources, and blatant inequity, all of which ultimately created the circumstances of the Baltimore Unrest of 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray?

However, initial surface-level discounting aside, I am now convinced Elizabeth Embry is the forward-thinking agent of change that our city needs. Throughout the Democratic campaign, she has been the candidate who has introduced the freshest and boldest ideas out of all the candidates, and her unique take on public safety, coupled with her pledge (with specifics) to help Baltimore City students gain access to college, her commitment to transparency in government, and her impressive versatility and originality on a multitude of issues, make her the best candidate to boldly lead our city forward.

This decision took months as I sifted through and researched the candidates. For me, this election is a transformation election, so both Dixon and Pugh, both part of city government for decades, faced uphill battles in getting my vote. Dixon was out of consideration for me not only because of the gift card scandal, but from what I see as an arrogance and lack of apology for her actions. I believe in redemption, but there needs to be self-recognition for that to occur, and I haven't seen that with Dixon. And Pugh, while she seems like a nice woman, has decades of Baltimore insider politics hanging off of her, something that has continued to come up with allegations of corruption this campaign and election season. I am so tired of Baltimore Machine politics, and while I think Pugh is a better choice than Dixon, I want change -- real change. I also simply haven't been convinced by Pugh's arguments (look at all the blight in her district); ultimately, she sounds more artificial and robotic than most other politicians do.

Ms. Embry stopped by while I was coaching this week.
Beyond those two candidates, I flirted with the idea of voting for DeRay McKesson, who, despite his theatrical last-minute entrance into the race, has a thorough plan for Baltimore and education credentials (and a knowledge of BCPSS headquarters) that excite me; ultimately, however, his status as a national figure trying to win a local election continued to bring him down in my eyes, especially as he missed the Baltimore Youth Summit Straw Poll (how does he miss the Baltimore Youth Forum?) to attend a function in North Carolina. Earlier in the process, I considered David Warnock, who gives a good interview, coming off as both genuine and competent, but his campaign has been one of missed opportunities -- absent at many candidate forums, including the Youth Forum, and thus never getting much beyond his truck ads, which never really grabbed me at all anyway; his campaign came off as remote, which definitely is a horrible thing if you're a rich white guy in the race. Later, I thought about voting for Nick Mosby before he dropped out of the race, as his interviews revealed acumen about issues across the spectrum, his plans were thorough, and the thought of a young black male leading this city back to glory was very appealing to me; however, his difficult task of convincing me (and others) that his campaign was about looking to the future when he was part of the last five years of City Council, largely supporting SRB's vision, ultimately proved too difficult for him. The same went for Carl Stokes, who, despite compelling arguments that the city should have elected him back in 1999, ultimately felt too old-guard to me; Pugh is 66 as of March, and Stokes is 66 as of April 30, and both feel like the previous generation of Baltimore leaders.. On the other hand, the young vibrant voice of Calvin Young seemed too inexperienced; I hope to see him in upcoming elections, such as City Council or Comptroller, in the future.

Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Joshua Harris has been very impressive throughout the campaign, and, if Pugh or Dixon are nominated by the Democrats, I'll be supporting him vociferously in the general election.

However, hopefully that doesn't happen, because, as Pugh and Dixon trade allegations about which campaign is more corrupt, Embry (who polled in 3rd place last I read) has emerged to have an outside chance at a victory.

And that is a great thing for the citizens of Batimore, because Embry is the Democratic candidate who has consistently delivered cogent and fresh arguments for the myriad of issues facing the city. At one forum I attended, she spoke of the Say Yes to Education program coming to Baltimore, an idea about giving all Baltimore City Public School students who graduate from high school in Baltimore access to a Maryland public university. This idea isn't hers originally; I've heard rumors about it being brought to Baltimore for the last year. However, she is the only candidate I've heard discuss it, and I believe that she (perhaps aided by the Embry family's decades-long commitment to education in Baltimore) has the drive and acumen to make it happen. Hearing her discuss this was probably the moment that I decided I was going to vote for Embry; instead of the same old arguments about education that I have heard about for years, about more accountability, she was discussing an idea that is bringing dramatic change to many American cities (including my kind-of hometown, Kalamazoo) and how she will bring it here. Ultimately, I trust the Embry name in education in this city, and her plans to bring Say Yes to Baltimore, to fight for our promisted Thornton funding, to fix the property tax formula so it doesn't hurt Baltimore City schools anymore, and to continue to push forward for our new buildings plan are all part of a vision that excites me as a teacher in Baltimore.

At another candidate forum I attended, Embry spoke eloquently about the injustice of the bonds system in the city, an issue I had never considered before. Boldly, she wants to end the cash bail system, because of the inequity that it perpetuates in the city -- an injustice she says she's witnessed as a prosecutor. Additionally, Embry is also the only candidate who is really discussing the failed war on drugs and its effects on the criminal justice system. She wants to end arrests for marijuana possession.  She wants drug offenders brought to rehab centers, not prison and central booking. The war on drugs remains an area of massive disparity; black people in Baltimore are 5.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though usage is roughly the same. I don't hear the other candidates discussing how ending the war on drugs, and putting rehab at the forefront of dealing with drug offenders, will help improve equity in the city, but, for Embry, this has been at the forefront all campaign.

Ultimately, this election is about vision and transformation. I'm not willing to give another chance to the old guard of the city. Embry -- who, it should be said, would continue a long thread of Baltimore mayors who have attended the BCPSS high school where I've taught for the last 15 years, Baltimore City College High School, just as former Baltimore mayors Kurt Schmoke and William Donald Schaeffer attended -- gives us the experience, without being part of the Baltimore political machine. She offer dynamism and change through practical and progressive reforms of our city's agencies, criminal justice system, and schools. I'm wholeheartedly in her corner and looking forward to casting my vote.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Student Work: "Seventh Inning Stretch," a poem written in the style of Lucille Clifton

I sometimes like to use this blog to highlight some of the great work our students produce. This here is a poem written in the style of Lucille Clifton, submitted as a summative assessment for our 9th grade 'Poetry of Baltimore' unit, which featured extensive study of the poems of Clifton and Edgar Allan Poe. After studying the two poets, students were asked to write a poem highlighting some aspect of the beauty of Baltimore, and describe how they used connotation, symbolism, and imagery in order to emulate the style of the author they chosen (Poe or Clifton). 
I took this photo last July from up above home plate!

This 9th grade student, Cody Durham, wrote a beautiful poem about Orioles Park at Camden Yards in the style of Lucille Clifton. Included below is Cody's poem, "Seventh Inning Stretch," and his rationale describing how his work was inspired by his close study of Clifton's poems. I'm publishing this with Cody's permission. Note his keen eye for details; doesn't it make you want to head to Camden Yards right now? 

I might add some more in the upcoming days; there were other gems as well. More student work available here. Read Cody's below:

Seventh Inning Stretch

we’re up 6-2
our left-handed
sets ‘em up
knocks ‘em down
two “Ks” and a ground out
then the
anthem blares

chilly girls
drunk fans
little kids
and sprawling
sprawling gangs
of fanatics
start to bob
and weave
Shouting mostly-right

“Well life on the farm is kind
of laid back”

“Ain’t much a much a country boy
like me can hack”

“It’s early to rise,
Early in the sack…
Thank God I’m a
Country Boy”

The Yard
hot dog men
over the song’s
infectious chorus
the salt eaters
order 4 more dogs
along with
5 beers

a white-maned
“you suck, Hardy”
near section 376
as his granddaughter
drowns in
mustard brown

some 45 year-old
in daisy dukes
pink nails
and tanned
cellulite shakes
her caboose

While her mustached
texts excuses in
advance why
he won’t come to
work tomorrow

the spirits of Eddie,
Cal, Brady, Brooks,
Frank, and Earl

waft through the
marking the nightly
offering to the baseball
another night of
Charm City

Bread and circuses


“Seventh Inning Stretch” is a poem I penned in the style of Lucille Clifton about discovering an aspect of Baltimore and its natural beauty. In this particular case, I wrote about the simple beauty of people-watching at an Orioles game.

Lucille Clifton's work highlights personal strength through conflict, focusing particularly on African-American experiences and family life. The most obvious thing about Lucille Clifton's poetry is what isn’t there: capitalization, punctuation, and verbosity. I mimicked Clifton’s staccato style, foregoing complete sentences in the name of shorter word bursts. For example, I begin with a relief pitcher retiring the other team’s lineup before going into the seventh inning stretch.

I go on to describe the people in the stands: lines 11 through 16 succinctly paint a picture of who is at the game in descriptive language-all of these figures are people we see in any sporting event. Their collective joy then explodes in the next four lines as the Baltimore Orioles song-of-choice, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” blares, assigning the jubilant crowd to their role as cantors.

Lucille Clifton, likewise, embraces the everyday in alluring, passionate ways. In “Cutting Greens,” Clifton mentions kale and collards in lines 1 and 2 by “curling them around   i hold their bodies in obscene embrace”
She makes vegetables into charged objects that immediately hold the reader’s attention.

In Seventh Inning Stretch, I cribbed lyrics from “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” in lines 23 through 31. After the song, I dilate on the folks in the stands in particular over the next 22 lines: The “salt eaters” who order four hot dogs from the “barking” “Hot dog man;” The grandfather-granddaughter duo who deal in anger and embarrassment (his granddaughter drowns in mustard brown embarrassment); and the preoccupied middle-aged couple with the “45 year-old in daisy dukes” and her “mustached husband” who is planning a day off from work in advance. These personalized images depict ordinary people in the throes of mass entertainment.
“Seventh Inning Stretch” is on par with the style of Clifton’s poems, especially “Cutting Greens.” Clifton’s terse depictions of her cooking tools collate implements of the kitchen with race. “the pot is black, the cutting board is black, my hand, and just for a minute   the greens roll black under the knife,  and the kitchen twists dark on its spine” My poem, on the other hand, celebrates the creature comforts people glom to in all their glory: yelling, cheering, winning, losing, drinking, and eating.

In my final two stanzas, I attempt to create connotation, denotation, and imagery through tapping into the mythos of sport. Baltimoreans celebrate their icons and anoint their own Gods. In my final stanza, I purposely use the term “bread and circuses” to draw comparison to the gladiator games that sated and distracted the populace in Rome (Freddy Gray anyone?), and to the gut-level, primal satisfaction of seeing one’s hometown beat its rival.

Most of Clifton’s poems are short and are so sparse that the sparseness takes on its own meaning. 
Her distinctive style does not vary in voice and is deceptively simple and slight, which makes it accessible to most readers. Because of her short lines and clear thoughts, punctuation is not necessary.

I aimed for a Rembrandt painting of images by way of words, celebrating the everyman and his victories, however minor they may be.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book Review: The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

Our school's 'One City, One Book' program is in its 11th year (see link with all previous ten books in program, which has included Ta'Nehisi Coates and Edward P. Jones, described here), and this year's text is The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue. Each year, our school invites all students, staff, and alum to read the same book, and then the author visits for a community reading and discussion event. A lot of cities do it now, but, back when our department started it, the idea of a whole community reading the same book was still a pretty new concept. Our program has continued to grow, under the leadership of our department head, and is a focal point of our spring season.

Anyhow, I read The Boy Who Drew Monsters over spring break, in preparation for the event with the author at our school on April 14. My expectation for the novel -- about a 10-year old boy whose drawings come to life and haunt his family -- was that it was going to be a fun, slick horror read. These expectations, however, were too low, for The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a complex literary work, often beautifully written, with layers of symbolism and foreshadowing that intrigued me throughout. And while I can't say that it scared me, Donohue's portrayal of a desolate Maine coast in the middle of a Christmas-time blizzard sets the events against a bleakly beautiful backdrop, making me shiver through much of my read and making me anticipate dread coming with every new section. 

Donohue shifts his book between a 3rd person limited narration focuses alternatingly on four characters -- the title character, Jack Peter, who has Asberger's as well as agoraphobia; his two parents, Holly and Tim; and his only friend, Nick. This keeps the narrative moving quickly, as we circle around the events of the plot through the prism of these different characters, sometimes flashing backward or forward in time a few hours with each successive shift. Interrupting the main thrust of the story are effective subplots, particularly when Donohue focuses on Holly as she seeks spiritual answers in the Catholic church, and flashbacks, such as that moment, three years ago, when the title character nearly drowned. It's a page-turner, and leads to a gratifying and twisty conclusion; as I was reading the last pages, I couldn't believe Donohue was going to wrap up the book satisfying in the amount of space he had left, but he certainly did. 

The Boy Who Drew Monsters is an eerie and atmospheric read, and I loved the characterization in the novel, particularly of Holly and Nick. Both characters are seeking answers, even questing, and their search for answers in this frigid landscape makes us really root for them. And even if their seeking takes us down some rabbit holes -- Japanese spirits, ghosts from a shipwreck, grieving and alcoholic parents -- that don't quite come together and add much to the main thrust of the story (only its atmosphere), I still was intrigued by these aspects of the novel.

I'd be very interested to speak with someone with Autism or a parent of someone with Asberger's about the portrayal of Jack Peter. His character remains opaque through the text, probably necessarily,  but the struggles of the parents seem very authentic. I also was moved by Nick's relationship with Jack Peter; his frustrations with him never erupted into outbursts about his Asberger's, only about what kind of a friend he was being.

The first time I recognized how much I liked Donohue's style is early in the novel, and I bookmarked this passage, focusing on Holly:
"The old house creaked and shuddered in the wintertime, and every stray thud was made louder and more ominous in the emptiness of the season. Perhaps the wind had blown over the trash cans. It's nothing, she told herself, and just as she slid back into the comfort of the water, another knock disquieted her. She pulled the plug from the drain and stood, dripping onto the bath rug, wrapped a thick towel around her torso, and swung open the bathroom door. Her feet left wet prints on the hallway floor."
In retyping it here, I realize some of Donohue's planning; footprints become an important motif in the novel: icy and muddy footprints in the house, footsteps on the roof, footprints in the snow outside.

Later, I was struck by how well Donohue sets up one of the final images of the book, involving a red and blue shirt, by foreshadowing it with a police siren much earlier in the novel. 

Beyond some of the cool literary features that I thought made this a neat read, though, there's plenty spooky here, as well, as in this passage focusing on Nick:
"Sleep," he told himself. "Just go to sleep."
But he could not sleep. The man on the road filled his thoughts.... Uncurling like a fern, the man had risen from the ground and stood half hunched in anticipation. In the pale moonlight, his bare skin shone white; he moved with a wild animal's hesitancy and sudden alarm. A deer caught by surprise, here and then gone, disappearing into the night. He wondered where the man had run off, for to the east lay bare rock  tumbling down to the endless sea."

All in all, The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a great choice for teens and adults alike, a book with enough literary merit, intrigue, and thrills for almost any reader. I'm excited for April 14!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Questions about Baltimore Mayoral Race with 27 days until the primary election

At our teacher happy hour the other day at the awesome new Mt. Vernon Marketplace, a friend -- a teacher who I respect and whose insight into both local and national politics I value -- asked me a tough question: who are your top-4 candidates for mayor? She, on the way to a mayoral forum on Education, was also still unsure.

This question threw me, and struck me as more difficult than any question about any election I've probably ever experienced. Baltimore is at a precipice, and this election is very important, but I still have no idea who to vote for. Honestly, everyone except Dixon and fringe candidates could be in my Top-4 at any given moment.

And, right now, my "Top 4" for the Democratic Primary would probably be Embry, Mosby, McKessen, and unsure. (Note: the most impressive candidate to me has been Joshua Harris [Green Party], who I could vote for in the general election but not the primary.) (Other thoughts about the mayoral race I've written at various points this primary season are here and here.)

Overall, a race that I thought would be pretty exciting has turned out to be fairly boring. The city's voters seem gravitating to two names that I've heard over and over again in my 15 years living in Baltimore, and neither seems the right move forward for a city badly in need of a fresh start. I'm left pondering several questions about the race:

1. What if Brandon Scott had gotten into the race? 
Almost everyone I know likes Brandon Scott, the city councilman representing the 2nd district of Baltimore, because he gets things done. He is super visible; as strong as possible on constituent services; and focused and passionate about such issues as crime, public health and education. Brandon Scott is someone who I believe when he says that he feels like his life's calling is service to Baltimore, and, even when I have disagreed with things he has said, I have never doubted his passion. If pollsters did favorability and recognition polling for City Councilmen around the city, I think his would be very high. Looking at the race, both Mosby and Scott -- youthful councilmen with visibility -- had a similar pedigree to run for mayor, but Scott has a couple of advantages that Mosby doesn't have: first, Brandon Scott isn't married to the very visible and controversial State's Attorney, creating, if he were elected, what some see as a dynastic reign on the city that many don't want. Secondly, Scott's time in City Council is distinguished, with many impressive accomplishments. I admittedly don't live near Mosby's district (unlike Scott's), but I've heard enough criticism and seen enough vacant buildings that the feeling that his tenure in city council was less than distinguished is hard to ignore. Mosby also never mentions it in his speeches, probably because he's so focused on being the candidate of the future and not the old regime... but you still have to discuss what you've done while on the council. It's hard to argue you're the candidate of change and of the future when you've been a council person for five years; it's tough to have it both ways, and Mosby hasn't figured out the way to do so politically.

So, Mosby's struggling candidacy (and, to be fair, he's someone that I like listening to and still could have my vote) makes me wonder: what would have happened if Scott had gotten into the race, as was rumored he was considering? Would he have disappeared like Mosby largely has, polling below 5%, and thus lose both the primary and his council seat in the process? Or could he have broken through to the older voters that seem to be favoring the two leaders who have been around for decades, 66-year old Pugh and 62-year old Dixon?

It's hard to tell, but I would definitely know who to vote for if Brandon Scott were in the race.

2. What if DeRay McKessen had gotten into the race a year earlier?
I think DeRay is an impressive candidate with great ideas, and thought his entrance into the race would spark some excitement in what has been a pretty dull race thus far. It didn't. He's barely registering in the polls. After watching John Waters' engaging endorsement of DeRay, I'm feeling a little sad about what might have been. DeRay should be doing well; his plans are as thorough and reasonable as anyone's; he's shown himself to be a strong organizer of people; he fits right into the social activist / Black Lives Matter conversation that is happening right now; he knows our city's educational system as good as anyone; his fame could bring some national attention to our city. But his somewhat theatrical, last-minute entrance into the race smacks of a lack of seriousness, and his campaign feels like too little, too late. I wish he was creating huge interest in the race, but instead he's making Dixon's dismissive comments about him ("Who is that?") come true, and the race is still a race between two old vanguards.

3. Where is Wes Moore? 
For years, I anticipated that Wes Moore -- a man I very much admire and respect -- might run for mayor in 2016, and, up until the Book Festival, when his mom (who we had sat behind at his talk) told us he decided not to run, I held onto that hope. If he were running, I am pretty sure he would be dominating the election; he's be that uniter candidate (and, I've heard, David Warnock would not have been in the race). But, since he's not running, I am wondering what, if any, role he might have in endorsing a candidate or in government at all with a new mayoral regime. Perhaps he's biding his time for four years, doing his thing with his important BridgeEdu organization, while Baltimore elects another same-old to the mayoral seat that he doesn't want to have anything to do with. Maybe that's the best move politically. But I'm still somewhat surprised he's been absent from the news cycle at all.

4. Why doesn't David Warnock show up to forums, or leave crazy early? 
This drives me crazy, and has made me decide not to vote for him (despite earlier support of him), unless something changes. As a campaign strategy, it just doesn't make sense to me: these are engaged and active voters who come to these forums, and I would wager that most voters are only able to attend 1 or 2. Why miss out on those opportunities? Dixon also is missing many of them, but she was never on my list. Warnock, who for the first few months of the campaign exuded both genuineness and competence in my eyes, made me doubt those earlier instincts I had about him with this. Forums matter. Facing audiences that might be less than friendly is important. Proclaiming yourself to be an education candidate and constantly touting the school you started, and then missing the education forum, is a big deal. Plus all the other forums. Mayors have to show up, and so do candidates.

5. Will Elijah Cummings endorse? 
Mr. Cummings is as establishment as the Democratic party gets, and I'm pretty sure he would probably endorse establishment candidate Pugh, but I still think his endorsement would have weight, more than anyone else's. But if he were to throw a curveball -- say, a Cummings endorsement of maybe Mosby or Stokes -- sway the election at all? I think it would. His silence right now feels a little deafening.

6. What role will race play in the election? 
Out of the 13 Democratic candidates, only 2 are white: Elizabeth Embry and David Warnock. If one of them were not in the race, would the results be different? White people are not monolithic, and I've not seen polls divided by race, but I've noticed a lot of them like Embry or Warnock. Heck, my white self has liked both of them at different points in the election cycle (and, as of now, Embry is one of my top picks, she's been awesome as far as I'm concerned). I don't see either Embry or Warnock dropping out, but if one of them did, I wonder what might happen to all that support?

7. Can Sheila Dixon win over any new voters? 
I don't think no. I think her support has topped out, but she could still win because of the number of candidates. If she were one-on-one with any of the candidates, though, she would likely lose.

8. What has happened to Jill Carter? 
I proudly voted in the last mayoral election for Jill Carter, but have been disappointed with her this election cycle. Today, she tweeted that a vote for anyone other than Pugh is a vote for Dixon. Sorry, but that's such baloney, and I'm disappointed that a candidate that I went on a limb for last election cycle would say that voting for a non-establishment candidate is throwing your vote away. I wanted her to run this election, but am no longer interested in a candidate who is that dismissive of people's desire to vote for whom their heart says.

9. Can Joshua Harris and the Green Party mount a formidable run against the Democratic candidate in the fall? 
If the nominee is Dixon or Pugh, as it is likely to be, I'm going to campaign hard for Joshua Harris in the fall. Will it be enough? Is there any chance? The numbers so far this primary season say it might be impossible; voters go back to the tried and true in this city. But I sure will try.

10. Why hasn't Carl Stokes' message had more traction?
Stokes is often the wittiest and angriest at the forums, and many of his ideas really ring true. I do wonder, for example, how things would have been different if he had been elected in 1999 instead of Martin O'Malley; he makes the case that things would have been a lot better. Like Pugh, he is trying to parlay the you-should-have-voted-for-me-before into some traction, but he's doing it a lot more explicitly than Pugh, and a lot more negatively. And I guess that's why his candidacy has lost traction as it has gone on, but it's still interesting to me, after the unrest in April: the anger we saw then isn't turning into votes for an (rightfully, probably) angry candidate.

11. What will happen to some of the fringe candidates if they lose?
Calvin Young has been one of the most impressive at the forums and in interviews, but he is so young (27) and inexperienced regarding city government that even me -- who wants a change candidate -- would have a hard time voting for him. Contrast him with, say, DeRay McKessen, who is a little older but has so many policy papers out, and I think Mr. Young, as impressive as he is as an individual, is not quite ready for mayor. Hopefully I see him in a City Council race in the next cycle.

12. Are we really getting ready to nominate Pugh or Dixon? 
Baltimore. Really? Politicians who have been part of the leadership for decades are our best choices to move forward? I just can't.