Looking at Baltimore in Crisis through local Pagans

Heather Greene —  April 29, 2015 — 11 Comments

BALTIMORE – On Monday, funeral services were held for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old young black man, who died three weeks ago shortly after being arrested. Many local residents, officials and even strangers joined Gray’s family and friends to say goodbye. In addition, there was a call for peace and for calm during the ceremony, after a few minor skirmishes broke out during a mostly peaceful weekend of protests.

Baltimore [Photo Credit: JJS Photo via Wikimedia]

Baltimore [Photo Credit: JJS Photo via Wikimedia]

However, by Monday afternoon, the climate in Baltimore changed drastically. According to reports, a small group of teenagers became engaged in a violent conflict with police around a mall. The situation then escalated, attracting others. Bonnie Hoppa, a local volunteer firefighter and CAYA member, confirmed the news reports, saying that the tensions were ripe for violence. The groups of kids were charged and angry, and the police were already preparing for the worst. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The violence quickly escalated and took center stage in the media, pushing aside news stories about the Nepal tragedy and completely covering up reports on the 1000s of other people who continued to protest peacefully in other parts of Baltimore. Hoppa said, “The media is really blowing that out of proportion. [Thousands] of peaceful protestors are getting less media time than a few hundred causing violence … The numbers of those driving the violence and damage do not represent the majority of who were initially there and who are marching now.”

As the crisis in Baltimore continued, many activists, protestors and outspoken or visible members of the community, such former NFL player Ray Lewis, called for peace; however, they also voiced a strong understanding of where the aggression itself came from and why. In a Huffington Post article, speaker and activist Kevin Powell directly addressed this, explaining “Why Baltimore is Burning.”

As noted in Powell’s article and by a number of others over social media, the violence was not simply a random riot by a few angry teens. It was an uprising. In a post, Pagan activist Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir echoed Powell’s own statements, saying “A riot feeds the 24-hour newscycle’s need to strike fear in the hearts of white folk who live in Middle America and who think the world is pretty durn good as it is. An uprising is the strength and power to take a stand against an unjust, corrupt system that has broken one too many backs for far too long and that needs to topple to the ground.”

It is difficult for outsiders to comprehend what has been happening in Baltimore. Media reports are often only partially reliable. Therefore, we reached out to a number of local Pagans to get a better look at the situation as it stands now.

As mentioned earlier, the local protests began over the weekend. In reaction, Black Witch, who is originally from the affected neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, published a long impassioned blog post Sunday, beginning, “I was downtown on Saturday because I’m helping out at a store in Federal Hill but got dismissed early because of the protests since I knew they would attempt to disrupt traffic.”

As she continues, Black Witch shares very serious frustrations and anger at the bigger issue of unresolved, systemic racism facing not only Baltimore, but the entire nation. She wrote, “I lived in this city my whole entire life. I was raised in the hood, I’m not at all surprised that this turned out the way it did.” Then, she ends with, “So, what is going to happen now? Not much, really. People are going to get their glass replaced, there are going to be more marches probably and nothing significant is going to happen. I’ve got nothing to be hopeful for, there’s no reason for me to believe that anything different is going to happen.”

Black Witch’s post came before the Monday uprising. However, her frustration and sense of hopelessness was echoed by others in the wake of Monday’s violence. Erica Shadowsong, a Unitarian Universalist religious education professional and solitary eclectic Pagan in Maryland, said:

To be honest, today my primary feeling is one of hopelessness and despair. It’s not the violence against Black people that has me so down; it’s witnessing the complete control of the narrative, and all American daily narratives, by powers that every day exploit the American people. The media, the militarized police force…these are symbols of oppressive power. We are losing our freedoms every day to the point that the justice system can be boldly skewed and the outrage doesn’t change it. I’m concerned and convinced more and more that we are no longer living in a country built on freedom. We are living in a compound run by a few corporations and individuals in business and government who exploit our labor, and export violence here and abroad.

Similarly, Bonnie Hoppa, who has been actively working in the affected areas, expressed her own fears in watching the events unfold. She said, “Social media was a horrendous place to be. All the dehumanizing bigots came out to have an opinion. People from outside Baltimore, even outside the state, joined the looting and bragged about it.” As the protestors clashed with police, Hoppa said that one fire truck was damaged and another had its supply hose lines cut for an active fire, which put more lives at risk. Several news reports listed specific damages to the community, including a new senior center, library, businesses and, even, local journalists.

Hoppa said that the situation there is very complicated, based on decades of problems. She also described a growing resentment within various facets of the community, and added that the “underlying narrative of violent intention toward anyone who is a ‘thug’ or black and labeled as aggressive is extremely disturbing.”

As the sun rose Tuesday and the hours progressed, the city saw far fewer incidents of violence. There were reports of volunteers cleaning up damage, and residents helping each other recover. Hoppa was called to help care for many of the children in the area, who were out of school for safety reasons. She said, “84-85% of the students in those schools are low income and are getting reduced or free lunches. For a lot of them, no school can mean no lunch, and possibly no breakfast, either. Some kids are in extended before/after care programs, because of the hours their parent(s) work.” She described the climate within the safe centers as upbeat with children playing and laughing.

Local ADF chapter, Cedar Light Grove (CLG) held a vigil from 7-9 p.m. to “hold space and a good fire for those wishing to say prayers, make offerings, or seek guidance from the kindred during this turbulent time in our city.” The group closed its temple at 9 p.m. so that attendees could get home before the citywide curfew. CLG will continue to hold open for vigils as needed. Thursday they are hosting a public Reiki session for anyone in need of healing.

[Courtesy Cedar Light Grove]

[Courtesy Cedar Light Grove]

The curfew will reportedly remain in place for seven days, and tempers have calmed to a degree. The cleanup in the city continues but the crisis itself is far from over, in Baltimore or around the nation. Community groups such as I am Love Baltimore or national groups, such as Hands up United, will continue to organize meetings and demonstrations. Today at 4:30 p.m, I am Love Baltimore is sponsoring a “March for Justice, March for Love.” On its event page, the group wrote, “Don’t forget we are not only marching to spread love in this time of high tension, but we are also marching for justice to be served for Freddie Gray.”  Hoppa will be there, along with others from the local Pagan community.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a writer, film historian, editor, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She is an acquisitions editor at Llewellyn Publishing and the author of the book "Bell, Book, and Camera." She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts.