Revolution Interview with D. Watkins:

Super-Segregation, Police Terror, and People's Uprising in Baltimore

May 18, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution Interview
A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.

D. Watkins is a young writer who came up in the hard streets of East Baltimore. His work has been published in the Huffington Post, Aeon, The City Paper, Vice, and Salon. His memoir, Cook Up, is due to be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016. He has also been teaching English this spring at Coppin State College in Baltimore, not far from the heart of the uprising around Freddie Gray. Revolution caught up with D. Watkins at his office at Coppin, where he was collecting students’ final assignments and nursing a sore knee from a basketball game the day before.


Revolution: In one of your pieces, “Stoop Stories,” you talked some about the history of Baltimore since the end of the Civil War, and said, “It is now 149 years later and nothing has changed.” That piece came out last year, so it’s now 150 years later—but can you get into what you meant?

D. Watkins
D. Watkins. Photo: Kyle Pompey

D. Watkins: How I grew up in Baltimore is just sitting around Black neighborhoods. So I lived on Ashland Avenue, in Lafayette housing projects, spent some time in Somerset housing projects. Went to high school in Dunbar. So all these places where I lived and went to school were nothing but Black people. I had no experiences with white people until I went away to college. And that was like a culture shock for me. I didn’t see the world the way they saw the world, and they didn’t see the world the way I saw the world. And we didn’t clash in a real negative way, but I didn’t build any of those connections of relationships that would allow me to stay, so I ended up dropping out.

And then I thought about my friends, and where we hung at, who we played ball with, who we had activities with—and it was always all Black. Our schools was Black, people who went to church went to Black churches, people when we went to parties it was Black parties. It was no interactions with any other races. And then some of the white people who I started to meet as I started stepping outside of our neighborhood had similar experiences. So Baltimore has always had a history of being super-segregated. There are a few places where the races are starting to clash and meet and intermingle. Ones like the Station North area—a lot of people in the Station North area are buying into the whole diversity kick. I meet friends at Red Emma’s and The Bun Shop all the time and we trade ideas and things like that. But even still, when I go back into my old neighborhood, it’s like, “What’s Red Emma’s?” “What’s Station North?” They still don’t know.

I’ve only gained access to this other world through education, through being exposed to different things. But Baltimore remains a segregated place. I’m going to a high school on Friday to speak—it’s all Black. High schools I’ve been to in other places, in more affluent areas, have been all white. And the way the city’s structured it seems like it’s all gonna be like that.

Revolution: There’s a whole long history to this in Baltimore, of segregated housing policies by the government...

D. Watkins: Well that’s American history, you know what I mean? It’s American history—block busting and red lining and trying to construct certain neighborhoods where they want to keep Black people out. So speaking of Baltimore history, that’s American history. Thing that’s special about Baltimore is, it was the first place after Manhattan to reach a million people. So at one point the population was a million. It had the largest free Black population. Lot of them were professional, business owners and things like that. And the Black population here has always been, like, in control. So this is one of the places where the Mob didn’t dictate. They were like wholesale, you know—whether it was alcohol, drugs, whatever. They were wholesale to Black people but they couldn’t actually dictate and run these businesses because they were never able to be let in. So Baltimore has always been a place of control, and people have a strong sense of pride, and arrogance. I haven’t been all around the world, but I’ve been to a bunch of places and I’ve spent time in a lot of different places. And I will say that this city has some of the most personality-strong, arrogant people I’ve ever met. I’m from here—I love it. I love it. It’s fun. It’s fun. But it’s bad too because sometimes your mind is so closed that you can’t really allow another person to come in and share some ideas that can help you experience this world better. That’s the downside of it.

But as far as segregation and as far as keeping the neighborhoods split, that’s definitely American history.

Revolution: There are some things about Baltimore like—the unemployment rate is high in the city, but it’s even higher in places like Sandtown-Winchester, like 50 percent.

D. Watkins: If you live in a place like Sandtown-Winchester or if you live in a place like the Black side of Park Heights, you’re gonna die 20 or 15 years earlier than a person who lives in Roland Park. It’s the same health care disparities, it’s the same education disparities, it’s the same unemployment... it’s crazy because even the times when the government reports increase in jobs overall, they miraculously find a way to go down in the Black community. We don’t really understand. But I kind of do understand—it’s because of systemic racism. This guy who I was doing events with named Karl Alexander, he completed a 35-year study that showed a Black person with some college has less of a chance of getting a job than a white person with some jail. That’s just due to social fabric. How do you control social fabric? Through these neighborhoods. Through these tax bases. Through these schools. So even if a Black neighborhood is established and potentially you have the opportunity to come through and build social fabric, lot of these neighborhoods are dismantled through urban renewal and gentrification, on top of the lack of opportunity that’s already there anyway.

I think a lot of times people underestimate the power of social fabric. Social fabric—it’s like, “So-and so, how are you doing, man, I’ve got a nephew, he’s been getting into trouble. I know you’re a journalist so you know that skill. Could he tag along, could you teach him how to conduct an interview? Maybe he can find his way in life?” And you’re like, “OK, sure, but you’d better do my taxes.” You know what I’m saying? We can barter and trade and introduce things to people outside of college, like electricians and plumbers and things like that. So social fabric allows us to trade these crafts and skills and help people especially who have trouble finding their way, you know, and it’s good. But this city is notorious for destroying that. And a lot of these cities who have been heavily gentrified are just notorious for not respecting communities of people who don’t own homes. Just because you don’t own a house, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a community. And all that ties back to the same systemic racism, and the systems that create officers like the officers who killed Freddie Gray and these officers who are killing people all over the country. Ties right back into it.

Baltimore. Photo: Revolution/

Revolution: Speaking of cops who murder people, you’ve said the Baltimore Police Department are a bunch of terrorists. Can you get into how that actually comes down, including in your own experience?

D. Watkins: OK, so I got into an argument with a guy, an intellect, an African gentleman, not a lot of American experience, but he has his views. And he asked me, “You don’t think it’s a problem that you called them terrorists?” And I said, well, one of my first encounters... the first time a cop actually put his hands on me, I never broke the law in my life. I didn’t do anything wrong. I had a disagreement. I was a kid, I was in middle school. And like, “Yo, why do you always make us lie on the ground?” And he said something to me about, none of us are going to be shit. He said something like that. And I remember telling him, “If I grew up and never even had a job, I’ll always be better than you.” That’s what I told him. And I get kicked in the ribs. Boom. This is shit terrorists do. You can come to me, you can talk to me any type of way you want—and the minute I show any type of resistance, I deserve for you to put your hands on me even though you initiated it?

When they come into these neighborhoods their language is always foul and disrespectful. They work in these neighborhoods for years and have zero relationships with any of the community members. They never use the word “love.” Many of them participate in illegal activities. There’s so many stories of Baltimore police officers who are caught up in the drug trade. There’s stories of Baltimore police officers who would pick up people off the corner and hand deliver them to drug dealers who are looking for them. Heavily involved in the drug trade.

For me, they’ve always terrorized my neighborhood. They’ve always terrorized my family. The only good cops that I came across was the ones that used to run the PAL [Police Athletic League], and they had a direct involvement with us. They played ball with us. They got to know us as people, as humans. They got to see parts of themselves inside of us and that was good. What did they do with the PAL league? Shut it down. That was the only positive experience.

But if you have some kids or like a brother or like a friend, and me and my group of friends roll up on your kid or brother and break his back and drag him, there’s no other word to call me other than terrorist or horrible person or demon. There’s nothing else. So I was telling the guy that. And we had a good conversation. I was telling him a great tool for the oppressors is to have you think you’re not even being oppressed. Or have you think that your job and your nice sweater and all that stuff is keeping you from being oppressed.

Revolution: On your point about your experience with PAL, a big part of these police “community relations” type of thing is to try to cover over the main thing that goes on, which is, as you said, police terrorizing these communities. Last summer, there were hundreds of cops who invaded housing projects in Harlem and rounded up several dozen youths on bullshit charges—and then the police and the media were talking about how they had police-sponsored basketball at those projects.

D. Watkins: Yeah, I definitely believe it can be a distraction. But I think I was forced to acknowledge that because that’s all we were gonna get. We got nothing else. We got no justice, no protection, no equal rights under the law. The only time they would ever, ever, ever try to be cool with us is when we were playing ball together. That’s it. So I definitely don’t think it solved some of the major systemic issues, but I also don’t think it hurt.

Revolution: We’ve been talking to people in the ’hood here, and we hear story after story of just how constant is the violence by the police against the people—disrespect, yes, and also violence all the time. One woman talked about seeing several times plainclothes in unmarked cars jumping out and start beating on guys just walking down the street.

D. Watkins: The worst—knockers are the worst! They’re the worst. They are the worst.

Revolution: And Freddie Gray—what was his crime? He made “eye contact” with a cop...

D. Watkins: Well again, people have you saying, “Well you know, Freddie Gray has been arrested 18 times” [in a mock chiding voice]. And I say, OK, he’s been arrested 18 times—let’s just ignore the fact how easy it is to be Black and get arrested. It’s so easy, so easy. All you got to be is having a bad day. It’s so easy. Just because he’s been arrested doesn’t mean he deserves to die! How can you say that?! That’s the biggest blow to humanity. The fact that you can say with a straight’re trying to justify that? It’s like a lynching. You’re justifying that? How can someone fix their lips to say that? “Well, you know, he’s been arrested 18 times.” I feel like I’m in another world or something. I don’t care if he’s been arrested 250 times. It’s like, we’re supposed to believe in the legal system but he doesn’t deserve... Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, all these guys, these Mike Browns, all of these people. Even people who had weapons, who did crimes, and who was murdered by cop, all of these people are innocent—because in America, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. I don’t care what the situation was.

So I watch these videos of non-Black people dealing with cops, and I see amazing restraint. I saw a white guy running towards a cop, like, “Kill me, I dare you, I’m gonna fuck you up, hurt you.” And the cop is like, “Please, please, I don’t want to hurt you.” Seriously, I don’t think I would ever see a Black video like that.

People talk trash about the uprising. They look down on us and call us “crazy” and “thugs” and all of that. But at the end of the day, that revolutionary action is what brought about those results.

On top of that, when they talk about that fake little shooting that happened a couple of days later, where a guy supposedly had a gun—think about that situation. What time in history do you hear about a Black guy having a gun, that cops see, and them not shooting him? They thought about it. He wasn’t even hurt, and they call like four ambulance trucks [laughs]—to give him CPR and mouth-to-mouth, and he’s lying on the ground. They probably was like, do you want juice and cake? [Laughs.] Are you enjoying your stay here? Come on.

So regardless of what anybody says about the uprising, that action is making people think about it. What’s the aftereffects? Like, “I could be charged for this. My career could be over for this.”

What hurts me more than anything is that it’s 2015 and minorities and poor people and Black people, we still have to force people to see us as humans. It’s annoying. I’m trying to write books—I gotta stop and prove to you that I have a pulse? That you can hurt my feelings, that I have empathy and grief? I still have to prove that? Are you Thomas Jefferson? [Laughs.] Because you know, he believed that. He wrote that in his journals. He wrote that there’s nothing wrong with slaves under his capture, because they don’t feel grief. They don’t feel pain. They’re not capable of feeling the same things I feel, so there’s no way in the world I should be considered a bad, evil person, because they can’t feel pain. He thought that.

J. Marion Sims thought that—his statue is in Central Park, he’s the guy that invented the vaginal speculum. He did that by testing on African slaves. He also used to do tests on African babies, I forgot what the condition was that was making babies sick—and he was experimenting on them. He would take a shoe awl and beat them into the baby’s head—of course in that experiment he had a 100 percent death rate. But he invented the vaginal speculum and, again, he said the same thing. He said these women, they don’t feel pain. They don’t feel pain like us, so I can experiment on them freely. And it’s “good for medicine” and “good for humanity.”

And so here we go, now 150 years later, still sitting here, saying, yo, when you hit me in the head with that club, it hurts.

Revolution: Black people aren’t officially considered three-fifths of a human as in the original Constitution, but the reality is Black people under the system are considered less than human...

D. Watkins: Yeah, that’s what’s going on. That’s what’s going on.

Revolution: We were talking earlier about housing in Baltimore—one of the things that’s striking for people new to the city is what you see in a lot of the Black neighborhoods, where there would be a row of abandoned houses, and then maybe one house or two where people are living in and then more abandoned houses, and so on. And that’s a big contrast with some other areas of the city where there’s new development.

D. Watkins: Yeah, let’s have some cops get rehab grants from the government to move into some of these neighborhoods and have them participate in the fabric of the community, let’s do that with them.

Revolution: If you had a radically different society come into being through revolution, with a whole different system and ways for people to live, then the youth and others who now have no future under this system, their energy and creativity could be unleashed to transform these neighborhoods and all other kinds of things.

D. Watkins: Right. It was difficult... de-industrialization was rough on Baltimore. I was born in the ’80s, I’m at the tail end of this. But a lot of people, old people I knew growing up, always used to be like, you get a job at Bethlehem Steel, you’re good. A dude working at Bethlehem Steel can buy a house, have a stay-at-home wife, have about four kids, send them kids to college, drive a Cadillac, and still put money in the bank. You could do all that with one job. One job. They start to lay off and they shut down. Lot of the GM factories here shut down. Like any place that goes through harsh de-industrialization, it opens the door for the crime element to move in. You’re losing that good job where you’re taking care of all those people, and you know you can’t replace it with nothing—it’s very, very easy to be depressed. Right? And when you’re depressed you want to escape. The quickest way to escape is drugs. But the quickest way to get some of that money you was making from those jobs, is to sell them. Two different sides of the spectrum.

So heroin addiction, we’ve had a strong history of that. But crack hit the city so hard, and to a lot of these good neighborhoods, to the point where people didn’t see the importance of staying in the city to try to rebuild, and try to get rid of the aftereffects of this crack cocaine tidal wave. So a lot of people thought the best thing to do was to vacate, leave their houses behind—if you have any type of opportunity to get away from the city.

’Cause it was crazy. I was born in the ’80s and coming up in the ’90s, and I always call it the “semi-automatic era”—it was nothing to see these big, dramatic guns being whipped out [makes automatic gunfire sound], you know. It was crazy. Drug wars, drug turf, drug territory, and all these things. Baltimore, 300 plus murders a year, on average. So for us kids, this might’ve been like an eight-year span, we might’ve been to like 100, 200 funerals, you know what I’m saying? Obituaries all over the place. My old crib, I used to have a wall, all of them obituaries tacked up over the wall, it was like wallpaper. Fallen friends.

So that explains a lot of the boarded-up houses. And now the crack has died down. The drug trade and all of these things have shifted and changed. Everybody’s popping pills now—and pills are just a less violent crack. A person who really, really wants a Percocet is probably not going to steal all your video games or run down the street with your flat screen. Crack was just a different type of animal.

Now, some people are trying to come back into the city, on top of urban renewal where you got some more businesses and professionals coming back into the city. So it’s still like a mix. But a lot of people who tried to fight it out through those crack times are some of those people who I was talking about earlier—the social fabric, they’re losing their homes. They’re not even able to stay even though they stuck around through the roughest times.

Revolution: One of the things the uprising did was to break down some of the divisions—like two days after the uprising broke out, there was that demonstration of thousands of students, including from campuses like Johns Hopkins, with different nationalities, but including many white students. They weren’t buying into those, from Obama on down, who were calling the youth “thugs” and talking about “senseless violence.”

D. Watkins: Yeah, I thought it was kind of cool to see a lot of people rally around a Black kid who probably they would never talk to while he was alive. That was interesting because, you know, I’m not really concerned with people who just did it because it was the “hot” thing to do to run to Pennsylvania and North Avenues. I’m not into that. But I am into people who said, “Wait a second, they treated a human like this? I have to do something.” I’m inspired by them. Because some people really don’t get it unless something dramatic happens. So I like that aspect of it. And I know a lot of them are going to fade when the story fades. But my whole thing is, anyone who wants to build, with a person like myself who’s trying to promote literacy and use that as a tool to develop critical thinking we need to push for generational change then I’m down. Then any of them who just wanted to march just because they felt like they were helping, I appreciate that, because there’s strength in numbers. And that means something too. But I do believe that some new revolutionaries and some new people who are gonna be fighting for social change will definitely birth out of this movement. And I do think some phonies who’ve been around, who act like they’re trying to be for that, got exposed. And I think that was good too.

I’m writing something right now called “The Baltimore Model.” Normally people have uprisings or burn stuff down as a result—and here, they didn’t even wait for the result. [Laughs.] You know what, we don’t even own these neighborhoods anyway. We don’t have any say in this stuff. This store’s been ripping me off for years anyway. This government’s going to twist us anyway. So what—let’s just show them we can get like Haiti over here, if you want to make it like that, as far as with their history, insurrections and uprisings and all that. I think a lot of people are paying attention.

So now I have opportunities to talk to the mayor and other politicians and all that stuff. Or the police department. And I’m not interested in really speaking to them because, I shouldn’t have to tell you obvious stuff. If you want to meet with me, then meet with me under the capacity of constructing some type of program... I shouldn’t have to pitch you ideas and programs. You should already know if a person is human, they deserve to be treated like one. I don’t want to have a meaningless conversation about some stuff that you should already know. Like if I take this laptop and slap you across the head, it’s gonna hurt. Why do I have to tell you that? Why do I have to sit here and say, look, I know you guys are in power, if I slap you with this laptop it’s gonna hurt. You should know that already, it’s obvious.


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