Photo: Drew Angerer

The Small Fires: reflections on the Baltimore uprising

  • May 14, 2015

Race & Resistance

Following the city’s uprising against oppressive poverty and racism, Baltimore poet Steven Leyva reflects on the experience in a heartfelt lyrical essay.

I remember every time I’ve been pulled over by the police. The litany of reasons reads like a child’s primer: tail light, move-over law, a suspicious swerve, no turn on red, should have turned, failure to control speed, failure to yield, failure to yield, failure…

Watching Freddie Gray’s arrest on an endless news media loop I am confronted by how he does not yield, but runs. Could I enact such agency? I’ve never had to, relying instead on my professional dress, my quick code-switch to non-threating “proper” speech—I teach composition and basic rhetoric to undergraduates—or just neutral silence. And after taking my license, and reading my name, taking my registration, and reading my name, the officer still asks, “Is this your car?”

Freddie did not have the comfort of a car. The questions of ownership are directed at his body. Failure to yield.

I remember watching a kid no older than fourteen throw one of the first rocks at the police line surrounding Mondawmin Mall and thinking, “Kids got an arm.” It didn’t register as violence somehow, and I am unsure why. He’ll probably never play baseball.

I remember driving down North Avenue, the panoply of boarded and vacant homes slipping in and out of the passenger side window frame like some desolate slideshow, and wondering if a riot is the last radical art left to the poor.

What if citizens approached a protest the way a viewer approaches abstract art, with a sense of openness about how the experience might change the viewer? Would the first rhetorical move made be one of honest curiosity instead of judgement? One of my grad school teachers, Kendra Kopelke, reminded me after a poetry reading that “art doesn’t need our judgement, it needs our attention”.

I remember a full ten minutes when my face will not unscrew itself from a grimace as a CNN Anchor attempts to act omniscient about race relations. He is corrected cogently, with a question, “Are you suggesting broken windows are worse than broken spines?”

I remember a week where everyone’s pronouns are out of control. “They” becomes a rhetorical Leviathan. A student asks, “Why are they burning their own stores?” and I ask “Who is the they?” and he can’t look me in the face.

I remember rubbing my son’s cowlick down with one hand and attempting to sling my daughter’s hair into a ponytail with the other while the sound of dual helicopters—the real one outside our home and the one broadcast on WBAL—form an odd echo chamber. This is a moment when I must explain to both my children that though Momma is not black, they are.

I remember wishing I could unfriend anyone who quoted David Simon.

I remember one of my students saying that the mayor always looks like she’s about to fall asleep.

I remember the poet Jack Gilbert writing “Love is one of many great fires” as I watch a five-alarm blaze char what looks like a whole city block.

Earlier, that same afternoon, someone I thought I knew responded to the looting by posting on Facebook, “Don’t we use Napalm anymore?”

I remember the Orioles playing for an empty ballpark and thinking what a metaphor for “trickle down” economics.

I remember the gentle reminder that I am at my most arrogant when I attempt to tell an oppressed person the appropriate ways to respond to oppression.

I remember falling in love with Marylin Mosby for the fierce look she gave to a reporter who asked her the same question she’d just answered. I remember that she did not stutter when she read the charges for each officer.

I remember, I remember that remembering can be a radical act of healing.

Steven Leyva

Steven Leyva is a poet, teacher, and freelance writer living in Baltimore. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He is the author of the chapbook, Low Parish, and editor of Little Patuxent Review.

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