Baltimore: In Need of a Laugh, Or at Least a Smile?

What’s there to smile about in Baltimore? Good question.

Baltimore saddens us–not just because what happened to Freddie Gray fits a sickening American pattern, but because the reaction to his death continues to remind us of the disgusting disparities in American socioeconomics.  Last weekend felt like 1968 all over again–yes, I was just a kid then, but I vividly remember those riots, that televised hopeless anger. Our lack of progress is as sickening to me as Mr. Gray’s death.

In North Carolina that same weekend, I had spent time with an old classmate who now lives in Baltimore, and several of us immediately emailed to express our sorrow over what was happening in her city. But Rachel’s reply was heartening:

Wow, thanks everyone. We’ve been untouched other than a cancelled doctor appointment. And of course having our hearts broken and filled like everyone else here. Holding hope it can be the start of a break from the patterns that led to it. Not sure how much the national media are covering all the little moments? The drumline and step dancers at the central spot. Everyone sweeping and cleaning together. Street corner and basketball court conversations between elders and young people. The symphony playing outside at lunchtime.

That statement about the national media touched a nerve. Not only are they generally playing up the worst of the situation while missing those smaller human moments–let’s face it, flames and looting make for more titillating coverage than street-corner conversations–they are, apparently, having trouble distinguishing the individuality of Baltimoreans themselves.

Comedy Central’s John Oliver weighed in hilariously on this topic during his latest episode of Last Week Tonight. The YouTube link was blocked, but I’ll let The Daily Beast take over from here, quoting John Oliver:

“It has been a delicate situation handled by the media with all the deft, not-at-all racist touch that they’ve become known for,” Oliver said. “Please watch as Geraldo Rivera greets someone as Russell Simmons who is absolutely not Russell Simmons.”

Yes, the man marching with NBA star—and Baltimore native—Carmelo Anthony is none other than Kevin Liles, who bears only a very slight resemblance to Simmons.

“Geraldo, you do realize that when African Americans stand together as one, that does not mean they’re all literally the same person, right?” he continued. “Geraldo Rivera is supposed to be a journalist, and I suppose we should all be thankful that at least none of his colleagues made the same mistake.”

Oliver then cut to a clip of CNN reporter Brian Todd, who also mistook Liles for Simmons—and not only that, kept harassing him about it, proclaiming, “I’m not sure I believe you. We think this is Russell Simmons, Wolf.”

Then Oliver got serious. “This week has shone a serious light on the disparities in Baltimore between the community and the police force—disparities that were highlighted when six officers were arrested on charges in Gray’s death, and were then released on bail,” he said.

He threw to a news clip announcing that the six officers charged in Gray’s death had bail amounts ranging from $250,000-300,000.

“That sounds like a fair amount for such serious charges, but juxtapose that with the bail set for people involved in the protests, like this 18-year-old who helped smash in the windows of several cars, including a police car. How much was his bail?” asked Oliver.

The young man in question is Allan Bullock, who allegedly was captured on film bashing in the windows of an unmarked police car with a traffic cone. And his bail was set at $500,000—more than for any of the officers charged with Gray’s death.

“Five hundred thousand dollars for breaking car windows!” he said. “To put that in context, even Robert Durst had his bail set at just $300,000 after definitely not killing that guy in Galveston, Texas. That amount of money makes absolutely no sense! That kid’s crimes were misdemeanors, he turned himself in—in fact, the only explanation for his bail being set that high is that, just like Geraldo Rivera and that guy from CNN, judges in Baltimore can’t look at black people without seeing millionaire Russell Simmons.”

I salute John Oliver for pointing out this hypocrisy. I salute the strong citizens of Baltimore who are out there cleaning up their streets and safeguarding their young people. I salute any politician at any level who is doing the necessary work to address the income gap in our country which has turned cities like Baltimore into powder kegs.

(Copyright Shannon Stapleton/Reuters,

(Copyright Shannon Stapleton/Reuters,


If I could vote right now to raise my own tax rate to deal with this appalling inequality, I would. Failing that, right now, the least I can do is to send a check to help restore the Baltimore neighborhood foundation building that fell victim to the riots. And publicize whatever there is in Baltimore worth smiling about.