Seeds of Change Found in the Ashes of Baltimore's Uprising

Posted May 6, 2015

MP3 Interview with Brad Braxton, senior pastor of The Open Church, a progressive congregation in West Baltimore, conducted by Scott Harris


In a now familiar pattern, the broadcast of video images of police interaction with African-American men follows reports of abuse or death linked to law enforcement action. Such was the case in Baltimore when a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died one week after being unlawfully arrested by police on April 12. Gray’s April 19 death resulted from a severe spinal cord injury after being transported in a police van. The six officers involved in Gray’s arrest and transport had reportedly ignored his repeated request for medical help.

After Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 27, riots and looting broke out that set buildings on fire and damaged 200 businesses in the impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray lived. Following the unrest, the National Guard was deployed and evening curfews were imposed. Despite the tension, Baltimore residents continued peaceful protests against police violence, which inspired solidarity actions in other cities across the U.S.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby later filed charges that included second-degree murder and manslaughter against the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with the Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton, senior pastor of The Open Church, a progressive congregation in West Baltimore. Here, he reflects on the issue of police violence that provoked both peaceful protest and riots – while also assessing the role poverty played in the eruption of anger witnessed in the streets of Baltimore.

THE REV. DR. BRAD BRAXTON: I think what we have seen in these last few weeks, and especially with last week's uprising, is the need for many communities in our country – Baltimore simply being one of them – to have a more complex and nuanced conversation about the multiple dimensions of violence. Now we certainly know that violence is at the center of this. The young African-American man – he could be of any ethnicity – so ultimately, we must also be mindful of the issues of the use of state force on any particular community. But there seems to be a particular concentration right through in here, these last few years, as it relates to the African-American community – both women and men. It's not just an African-American male issue.

And there are many communities saying, let's have a serious conversation about violence. What about the subtle, but nonetheless real manifestations of violence that have to do with public policies that cut off large sections of communities from resources and opportunities? So I often say, there's a form of violence – that might be lethal injection, the death penalty, state-sponsored violence – but rarely do we talk in this country about violence of suffocating poverty. And so many people have been saying, "Why are these young people acting this way, and this looting and the burning?" Not that anyone would in any way want to endorse violence. The question is, can we endorse a more sophisticated conversation about the multiple ways that communities experience violence?

BETWEEN THE LINES: As you look at the situation in Baltimore, I know the Harbor area is quite famed for being redeveloped, it's a tourist attraction of some import. But what is going on in places like West Baltimore, where your church is and where a lot of this unrest and demonstrations have occurred? What is going on in these neighborhoods that the rest of America is not aware of?

THE REV. DR. BRAD BRAXTON: In a word – and this is the word I've been using a lot in my public conversation and in my own congregation, trying to provide framework – and that is the word "nihilism," which simply means philosophy or the worldview of nothingness. When the system betrays you over and over and over again, and when you see that in fact that Lady Justice is not nearly as blind as she is said to be, and when you see that certain people can commit certain kinds of crimes and they get off and others commit much lesser offenses and yet they always have stiffer sentences and all of those disparities, then a sense of "nothingness" – again, that's philosophically called "nihilism" – can take hold of your mind and your soul.

You stop caring about anything, or thinking that anything good can happen. And so what we're really dealing with in many of our communities is the lack of tangible and intangible opportunities: education, recreation centers. I've just left a meeting of clergy where we're dealing with a particular Baltimore city neighborhood not too far from where the uprising occurred, where there are just food deserts. To be sure, we need our parents to be more present, to be sure ,we need our faith communities to be more resolute and reaching out and more socially relevant. Yes, yes, yes.

And, we must realize that the system is stacked, and has been for decades, if not centuries, against various communities. One of the things that I'd like to say is that our imagination is so often truncated that we don't believe that two things or three things can be true at the same time. So, for example, there are dozens of communities all throughout Baltimore, all kinds of neighborhoods that so appreciate the police. And, we want to make a statement about over-policing, police brutality and the need for more humane and community-oriented policing.

Both of those things can be true at the same time and some of us are committed to broadening the public discourse and not allow us to get stuck in this "either-or" that so truncates the public imagination and limits real opportunities for cross-cultural healing and understanding.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Dr. Braxton, as you look at the "Black Lives Matter" movement all across this country which launched actions this past weekend called "Black Spring," what do you believe the potential of this movement is for change?

THE REV. DR. BRAD BRAXTON: There is tremendous potential if – and I really want to underscore that "if" – if we have staying power and courage. Courage – the ability to follow truth and justice and peace wherever they may lead. Wherever the bread crumbs are leading that might lead us to truth and justice and peace, we're going to follow them at great sacrifice. So that means the courage will be necessary to have the deep, deep, conversation about the deep, deep inequities upon which the very American democracy is founded.

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