Tale of Two Cities

by Wendi C. Thomas | May 15, 2015 11:47 am

This piece was originally published in The Memphis Flyer.

Could Memphis be Baltimore?

It’s impossible to watch coverage of Baltimore protests sparked by police brutality and not wonder: Could that happen here?

Could Memphis erupt like Baltimore?

The ingredients behind the Charm City’s unrest aren’t unique to Baltimore, but they’re not identical to Memphis.

For starters, there is no local equivalent to Freddie Gray.

Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died April 19th, a week after his spine was almost severed while in Baltimore police custody. That extreme example of state-sponsored violence collided with longstanding frustrations about police harassment and the dire economic prospects for African Americans.

Two weeks of tense protests over the value of black lives followed. Earlier this month, six police officers were charged in connection with Gray’s death.

In Memphis, the closest comparison to Gray would be Duanna Johnson, said Paul Garner, an organizing coordinator at the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center.

In 2008, Memphis police officer Bridges McRae beat Johnson after she was arrested on prostitution charges.

In 2010, McRae, who is white, pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges. Johnson, who was black, was shot to death in 2008. The case remains unsolved.

But if Memphians didn’t take to the streets after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, there’s little reason to think they’d do so now, said Marco Pavé, a hip-hop artist and activist.

“It’d take something really extreme for us to get on that level,” said Páve, who is also the CEO of Radio Rahim Music.

Still, it’s worth noting the similarities between the two cities.

Healthy public investments flow to tourist areas — such as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Memphis’ riverfront. But these investments haven’t trickled down to poor neighborhoods, such as West Baltimore and South and North Memphis.

The share of the black population is identical — 63.3 percent — and both cities have a black mayor and police chief.

The decline of good-paying, union-protected manufacturing jobs hit Memphis hard, but it sent Baltimore reeling.

As Memphis public housing projects were torn down, families were scattered across the city, unlike the concentrated pockets of poverty in Baltimore.

But Memphis has higher rates of poverty and unemployment for African Americans and a smaller share of college-educated residents.

Most of the new jobs are low-wage jobs, like the hundreds Conduit Global promised when it opened a call center last year. Last week, the company announced it will lay off nearly 600 workers, most of whom earn around $10 an hour.

Late last month, the sporting goods mecca Bass Pro Shops opened in the long-shuttered Pyramid, bringing 600 jobs, for which there were thousands of applicants.

A lottery for a city summer jobs program with 1,000 spots drew more than 6,500 applicants.

To help fund youth job programs, Memphis Light, Gas & Water now accepts donations, just like they do for people who can’t pay their light bills.

When a city has to pass the hat to raise money for jobs, something has gone horribly wrong.

Pavé doesn’t advocate violence, “but the thing I would prefer most … is for Freddie not to get murdered. That’s the most egregious part — not the response to the inequality; it’s the inequality itself.”

Community Change (CCC) and its national coalition of partners realize this, which is why they launched the Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All campaign two weeks ago.

Unrest in communities like Baltimore underscores the need for massive change on a national scale, which is why one of the main goals of Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All is to reinvest in communities of concentrated poverty, like Baltimore and Memphis.

“This campaign seeks to restart the economy in places where racial bias, exclusion, and sustained disinvestment have produced communities of concentrated poverty and despair,” Dorian T. Warren, Community Change board member and author of the “Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All” report, explained at the launch.

He continued: “This goal is to channel significant investments to communities with high unemployment and low wages, so they can rebuild their local economies and expand residents’ access to jobs and wealth-building opportunities.”

The choices we’ve made as a nation have brought us to this point. We’ve made the rules of the game, and we have the power to change them.

But in order to move forward, we must see America’s growing population of color as an asset to build on and not a threat to neutralize or worse.

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