Looking at Baltimore in Crisis through local Pagans

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.

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11 thoughts on “Looking at Baltimore in Crisis through local Pagans

  1. Many thanks for circumventing the mainstream media for a clearer look on the ground. I’m tickled that this reporting was through local Pagans. You are doing Jason proud.

  2. A very good article. It is great to see more pagans and pagan publications addressing this issue. Something that needs to be addressed within our community is the issue of white privlidge and structural racism. Nope I’m not gonna go on a rant but to the uninitiated there is a difference between personal prejudice and structural racism. Please investigate.

  3. This is a stark indication of what I have been witnessing for many years now. I have and still tell others, but it seems few care. I agree wholeheartedly with Erica.

  4. If you review the Baltimore riots of the 1960s, you will find an incredible number of commonalties. The only positive that came out of those riots was the spawning of organized, focused human Rights groups that could actually accomplish something (women’s, gay rights, etc). The large unrest with no clear propose is not likely to create change.

    It is a systemic problem, nation wide. It just happens that the arena was set for violence in Baltimore. The frustration is palpable everywhere. I hope groups organize and response in a manner that will do more than being attention to one area. I hope they will focus on the issues and on pressure for the system.

    I don’t believe that the average person had racial issues, instead, we have a system that is designed to be a bigot. It’s legal in most states to discriminate against people for sexual preference, weight, and many other things. We know that the system is discriminatory against women of any color.

    Our system is broken. I hope we can set aside any petty differences about human characteristics and tear it down to build something better.

    Just my opinion.

    Thank you for your article and for speaking with local folk.

    • You say:

      It is a systemic problem, nation wide. It just happens that the arena was set for violence in Baltimore.

      This time. This month. Next month, I don’t doubt that there will be more protests that, fueled by outsiders bent on looting for the high of it, turn violent, especially with the summer heat for the nest few months.

      I’m *not* saying the protests are wrong, but inevitable given the injustice and racist broken “law enforcement” process.

      I *do* wish that peaceful protests and other actions got more attention. I’m bothered that in collateral damage of violent protests & riots, there are kids starving for however long they are out of school, and wish something was set in place where during weather disasters and other issues that will close schools in low-income areas, that those children could get food they would miss when school is out. I don’t care what the source of this assistance is, just that it’s there.

      And thank you for your coverage.

  5. Anyone that has watched media coverage of demonstrations and protests knows that they will ignore peaceful people, even if they are the majority and only focus and report on the violent ones. Remember the old media slogan “If it bleeds it leads.” Notice the difference in how sports riots are covered if most of the people in them are white. The media is part of the problem because they decide what to call news and news is considered only to be entertainment to create advertising money for the media. If the advertisers don’t like something, then it will not get reported.

    • In his speech at the White House Correspondents dinner, Mr. Obama made reference to this in saying that one of the Saturday Night Live (SNL) members did a great job of impersonating a CNN journalist, which he was used to seeing done only by CNN journalists. Hiss, but more true these days.

  6. @baynardwoods and @byDVNLLN are good to follow on Twitter for live updates. The latter is a self-taught photog who has a photo now on the cover of time. Baynard Woods is a newspaper editor and the author of Coffinpoint: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff. His photog, Joseph Giordano, was pounced on by the police the other day.

  7. Powell & Odinsdottir have it right:

    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.

    A *riot* makes better entertainment news.