Recently, I broke off a little before the end of the powerful Millions March against police brutality in Baltimore to warm up with tea and chili at the Lost City Diner. I was proud to have joined Baltimoreans of all walks of life, including many of my fellow organizers of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ was not an official cosponsor of the event). While New York and Washington, D.C., certainly received more attention than Baltimore, we fail to understand the times when we focus solely on mass spectacle and ignore singular human interactions.
On the way to the diner, I passed a man asking for money for a hamburger. Apparently the people walking behind me gave some, because a couple minutes after I arrived at Lost City he came in and sat down next to me at the bar. I learned a lot about Baltimore — a city notoriously segregated, not only black/white, but black/Jewish/gentile — by talking to Billy.
He grew up in a neighborhood destroyed by the construction of Martin Luther King Boulevard in the 1970s and ‘80s. He told me about how easy it was to get produce on the Westside back in the day when the Arabbers — grocers who, like my great- grandfather, Jacob Silverman, after he arrived in Sedalia, Mo., from Czestochowa, Poland in 1913, sold from horse-drawn carts — were commonplace, before the city destroyed the produce wholesale market and the waterfront to build the touristy Inner Harbor. He told me about all the jazz and blues joints on Pennsylvania Avenue and how when the Palace closed, that was the beginning of the end.
My food came out before they even offered him water. I ordered us waters and he downed two-and-a-half big glasses, clearly dehydrated. We shared the chili and a couple bananas, and still his food hadn’t come out. When he went to the bathroom, I asked the server about the status of my new friend’s burger. He said something about having to start over because the cheese had been messed up then rushed back to the kitchen to put in the order.
While we waited for his food, Billy, some of the other people at the bar and I talked about police brutality and the march, as we watched cop cars with sirens blaring whiz by on Charles Street to kettle my friends. We talked about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black child gunned down by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehman while playing in a park, and Anthony Anderson, a 46-year-old father, also black, beaten to death by Baltimore police officers in 2013. Both deaths have been deemed homicides, but none of the officers have been charged.
Some of the people sitting at the bar had been stuck in traffic when we blocked MLK. When I told them about why we had protested, they were supportive. Let’s not pretend that all or even most people whose lives are inconvenienced by direct action are upset by it. If someone was more upset by sitting a few extra minutes in traffic caused by people bringing attention to important issues than they were about the traffic caused by the mindless Army-Navy football game, no one should care about convincing them of anything.
Billy’s burger came out, and we parted ways. I’m grateful for moments like these. We can repair this world and this city but only by listening and acting forcefully on what we hear.
Owen Silverman Andrews is a member of Jews United for Justice.