In his new book “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City” (One World), Wes Moore describes his experience on Apr. 27, 2015, the day Freddie Gray was laid to rest.
Moore had attended the funeral but left early to catch a plane to Boston for a speech he was giving on urban poverty. After the funeral, parts of West Baltimore boiled over, but Moore was already hundreds of miles away.
“As I sat in that Boston hotel room and watched my city descend into a state of emergency, I experienced a strange feeling,” he writes. “I felt guilty being away, but it wasn’t just that. An audience in Boston would listen to me talk about poverty, but at a historic moment in my own city’s history, I was MIA.”
Moore’s recollection triggered some of my own memories of the Baltimore Uprising five years ago.
I am proud of the way Beth Am’ers and others in the Jewish community showed up during those five days – Apr. 25-29 — which are the focus of the book Moore penned with journalist Erica L. Green.
There was a protest convened Apr. 25 by Jews United for Justice during which I took the longest Shabbos walk of my life. It was one of many demonstrations that day converging on City Hall to demand justice for Freddie Gray and other victims of police brutality. I am proud that Miriam and I kept our children home Apr. 28, the day after the worst of the rioting, to join thousands in West Baltimore and help clean up the damage.
I’m proud of the way so many of my congregants, including those who are not regular shul-goers, showed up on Saturday, May 2, to worship on Beth Am’s historic front steps.
But as I read Moore’s words about Apr. 27, the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, I was reminded that I, too, was MIA that night.
The funeral occurred in the late morning. Police were concerned about internet chatter and potential violence. Paranoid and over-prepared, the Baltimore Police Department showed up in full riot gear shutting down public transportation and blocking streets.
Students leaving school for the day were stranded at Mondawmin Mall. Some were looking for a fight. The vast majority, frightened and frustrated, wanted to go home but were prevented from doing so. By 3:30 police reported bottles and bricks had been thrown.
Things deteriorated from there. My house and our shul are about a mile from Mondawmin. Four years later, during our building renovations, our congregation would rent space in a church across the street from the mall because it’s within walking distance.
But that night, the whole world would come to know about Greater Mondawmin, about Penn North and the CVS on Pennsylvania Ave., about Sandtown-Winchester where Freddie Gray was born, raised, lead poisoned and deprived of most every possible opportunity to grow up healthy.
They would learn about how he was arrested and placed shackled (and cavalierly or maliciously unseat-belted) in a van, and how he came out injured beyond saving.
After the rioting and looting began, a call went out to local clergy. A number of my Christian and some Muslim colleagues showed up that night, to stand between angry police and fed-up youth.
I wanted to be there. Like Wes Moore, I, too, felt guilty not being there, but I knew I could not. That’s because I was on my way to Lutherville to lead a shiva minyan for the mother of a congregant.
I knew others could stand in the breach. I was proud to see how my colleagues gathered and, holding hands in the street that evening, helped to calm nerves. My task was to calm others’ nerves, to bear witness to a different grief.
In the weeks, months and years to come, Baltimore has been undertaking a reckoning. Perhaps you, too, reader, have grappled with your feelings, actions or inactions five years ago. Now, with the meteoric rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, there is a growing sense that more of the country is willing to ask tough questions about systemic racism and police violence.
One way to confront these questions is by reading “Five Days.” Another is to dedicate some of your High Holy Day experience to exploring the question of racial justice in Baltimore.
In 2014, Wes Moore came to speak at Beth Am. This Yom Kippur afternoon, Sept. 28, at 5 p.m., he and his co-author Erica L. Green will do so again, this time online. They’ll be joined by one or more of the subjects in their book.
All are welcome. See our website (BethAmBaltimore.org) for details.
A version of this post appears at Jmore