Since Monday evening (April 25) Baltimore has been gripped by racially charged riots. The Octagon talked to former editor-in-chief Nicky Mehtani, ‘07, currently a medical student at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute, about the recent events.
Q: Where are you situated in Baltimore, and how have the riots impacted your life?
A: I spend most of my time on the Johns Hopkins Medical campus, which is in East Baltimore, and there are National Guardsmen on campus right now. On Monday night, there were a few incidents near the hospital, but it has been relatively calm in the immediate area as of late.
Some people think that the hospital could be a target for uprisings, as it is the largest employer in the city and has had a historically tense relationship with the surrounding community.
The most major change for me has been the 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew, which started Tuesday night and will continue for a week. For a couple days, my work basically came to a standstill – it was difficult to work on anything for even 5-10 minutes without wanting to check the news again to see if there had been any new incidents.
On campus there have been a lot of impromptu discussions about race and Baltimore’s history, and what we can do moving forward. There is a general agreement that we need to sustain this energy that we have right now. The news broadcasters and National Guardsmen will go away sooner or later, but the underlying problems of police brutality, racial tensions and institutionalized oppression will not.
Q: You mentioned the tense relationship with the neighborhood. Besides just racial tensions in general, do you think there are some other reasons for the riot?
A: It’s hard to say as a whole, but Baltimore is a highly segregated city. I would say West Baltimore and parts of East Baltimore are equally impoverished. However, West Baltimore’s poverty is more widespread; gentrification in East Baltimore – in part due to Hopkins’s presence itself – has forced many low-income residents to move away.
Q: Prior to the riots, did you ever get the feeling that this city was on the edge?
A: Prior to the events of this week, there were definite tensions between residents and the police force, as I’m sure is the case in many cities. The police are not regarded as protectors of the public, but rather a source of trouble. Forms of racial oppression have been the norm for a painfully long time; Freddie Gray’s death in the hands of the police was just a particularly palpable and appalling demonstration.
As an outsider who has not been a victim of this oppression, I can’t personally make judgments regarding the violence, but I believe that the anger is absolutely appropriate. If you walk a mile through the city, you can walk through three different neighborhoods, each home to a distinct racial and socioeconomic class.
Q: These have been some of the most heavily covered riots since Ferguson last summer. While we get a image on television, what is it like to be where the event is unfolding?
A: I think the media has gotten slightly better over the last couple of days, but particularly on Monday, they were editorializing and distorting the truth. It seemed as though they were trying to fool the public into believing that all of Baltimore was going up in flames and that there was complete havoc.
However, I was in the city and I didn’t witness a single riot or looting that night. The incidents were really concentrated compared to what the media was depicting. By disproportionately broadcasting the violence, they have shifted the public’s focus away from the bigger issues of racial oppression and what has been brewing in Baltimore for centuries now.
Q: Recently we have seen more peaceful protests on television. Have you taken part in them?
A: Yes, I took part in one of the peaceful protests on Tuesday. It was right outside of the CVS that burned down Monday night. There hasn’t been nearly enough media coverage on these peaceful displays of solidarity, which have predominated.
Even gang leaders are telling younger people not to instigate violence. People are standing before the police line with their arms linked in chains to prevent fellow protesters from letting their anger turn into physical rage against police officers.
Tuesday morning, there were multiple citywide clean-ups organized on social media, and the streets were cleared within hours.
Nonprofits and churches have been working together to provide alternative outlets for youth to voice their anger and concerns. Most news sources are just beginning to cover these peaceful aspects of the events in Baltimore because the violence for the most part seems to have stopped.
Q: There have been a lot of opinion pieces lately about the protests. What’s your opinion?
A: As someone who has called Baltimore home for the past four years, it was heartbreaking to watch as parts of the city burned. However, I’ve had the privilege of feeling this sadness from the outside—of not personally experiencing the systems of oppression that very well could have led me to violence. Because of this, I do not believe that I – or anyone else who is not part of the black community – am in a position to judge what does or does not constitute an appropriate response to the wrongful death of Freddie Gray. Unfortunately, however, the media has been editorializing a lot instead of just reporting.
Q: What, if any, misconceptions do you think there have been about the riots?
A: One of the interesting things about being in West Baltimore yesterday was seeing the CVS that burned down. It’s sad because the area didn’t look too different from what you might have expected that part of town to look like. This underscores one of the problems that led to these riots in the first place.