Baltimore's sporting apartheid a sign of the modern US

Police confront peaceful protesters at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, April 25.
Sunday, May 3, 2015

If you don't understand baseball's Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, then you can't understand why the Maryland city exploded this week. If you don't understand Oriole Park at Camden Yards then you can't understand why what happened in Baltimore can replicate itself in other cities around the United States.

There was a moment at the April 25 protests — two weeks after the police severed the spine of Freddie Gray — when the Baltimore police department revealed themselves. I was there and can tell you that for most of the day, it was stunning how light the police presence appeared to be.

They made the choice to turn the West Baltimore police station, whose officers arrested Freddie Gray, into an armed encampment, while giving the streets over to the march. Yes, helicopters and surveillance drones flew overhead, but police were largely absent. For me, this was not comforting.

The only other times I have seen these kinds of security tactics at a demonstration was in Latin America and South Africa, where the appearance of no police would be given. But then you would turn a corner and they would explosively appear, sometimes out of a cloud of tear gas.

This is what happened as the march left the confines of West Baltimore and approached Camden Yards where the Orioles were playing the Boston Red Sox.

As Jelani Cobb reported in The New Yorker: “There was a comparatively light police presence along the route, but dozens of officers in riot gear blocked the crowd from getting near the stadium, which seemed to confirm the protesters' most damning suspicions. A man near the front shouted, 'They only care about the Orioles!'”

Camden Yards has for 25 years been praised not only as the heart of Baltimore's “urban renewal” but also as a template for every city like Baltimore that had seen their manufacturing base disappear and with it, decent paying union jobs.

That's why we have seen similar ballparks, big on charm and big on public subsidies, built over the last generation in — to name a just a sampling — Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago's South Side, and Pittsburgh. All of these cities were at one time synonymous with industry and multiracial labour power.

Now they have boarded up factories — or factories that have been transformed into coffee shops or bars — and sports stadiums. These stadiums were all built with the promise of an attendant service economy that could provide jobs and thriving city centres, with restaurants mushrooming around the fun and games.

If we didn't know it before, the scene at Camden Yards should carve it permanently into the tablets of history: this sports-centric urban planning has been a failure.

It's been an exercise in corporate welfare and false political promises. What the stadiums have become instead are strategic hamlets of gentrification and displacement.

They have morphed into cathedrals to economic and racial apartheid, dividing cities between haves and have-nots, between those who go to the game to watch and those who go to the game looking for low-income work.

Ironically, the only person who seems to understand this dynamic among the elites of Baltimore is Orioles Chief Operating Officer John Angelos.

This is ironic not only because of his social position, but because his father, team owner Peter Angelos — a man who grew up working-class and made his fortune in labour law — was involved in a bitter struggle with stadium workers, some who lived in homeless shelters, over paying them a living wage.

I covered this story in 2007 and can still recall the courage, bitterness and sadness of stadium workers who felt like they had no choice but to go on a hunger strike to draw attention to their treatment.

During this struggle, the talk about the Orioles in West Baltimore wasn't about whether the team could win the pennant but why the people were being treated with so much contempt.

This reality of sports-driven apartheid was made even clearer outside the stadium on April 25, as a familiar scene to Orioles and Ravens fans — one I have seen countless times — entered the same oxygen as the West Baltimore demonstrators.

The panorama is as familiar to me as it is repulsive: almost exclusively young, white fans, from the surrounding suburbs or the city's gentrifying neighbourhoods, show up and get absolutely shit-faced drunk and either aggressively hit on random women or fight. I have seen more scuffles outside of sporting events in the past decade than my wife has seen teaching in a DC public high school and it is not even close.

On April 25, these fans acted like they always act, except this time they turned their taunting, frat-house, Tucker Carlson comedy routines outward at the people who had marched the physically short but politically transgressive distance from West Baltimore.

Unsurprisingly, confrontations ensued, although, with much of the cellphone video coming from inside the sports bars, the events have been wildly distorted.

Whenever Black people, out of frustration with police brutality, institutionalised poverty and neglect express this anger, there are endless cable news blatherings about what are called “pathologies” in poor Black communities.

The discussion about the “pathologies” of violent, largely white sports fans acting barbarically before and after games is long past due. But CNN's Erin Burnett doesn't hold debates about why it's appropriate to call them “thugs”.

This speaks to the stunningly different realities that exist in our cities: who gets policed and who gets to play.

A publicly funded stadium is not the root cause of what plagues our cities. But it's a flashing, blaring sign of a set of economic priorities that, like sports, has created a country that defines people as winners or losers. But, unlike sports, a country where the happenstance of your birth determines on what side of that line you reside.

This is not a Baltimore story. It's the United States in 2015.

The latest breaking news is that the Orioles have decided to return to the field this week after cancelling several games due to the protests, but will do so in front of an empty stadium — no fans (or workers) allowed inside.

This locking out of spectators has long been done in European football leagues as punishment aimed at fan clubs for engaging in coordinated acts of racism or bigotry against either visiting fans or opposing players.

That is not why the fans are being locked out in Baltimore, although perhaps that wouldn't be the worst idea in the world for everyone to take a time out.

This decision was clearly made on public safety grounds, but there will be something haunted about the visuals that will ensue.

Whenever the Orioles play away from home, the surrounding commercial neighbourhood can resemble a ghost town, revealing the inability of sport to act as an economic stimulus. Now the inside of the stadium will be the ghost town. No fans. No workers. No screaming. No cheering.

As quiet as Freddie Gray.

[Reprinted from The Nation.]

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