In April 2015, 25 year old Freddie Gray died in while in Baltimore City Police custody after being severely beaten upon arrest. On the day of his funeral, the city had had enough and erupted as riots broke out in protest. In this episode of Living in HD, I speak with activist-journalist Sean Yoes who has authored the book Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities. The book features a carefully selected compilation of articles and editorials written by Yoes that chronicles the events of 2015 and the subsequent years after Freddie Gray’s death. The focus of my story is how this native son of Baltimore uses his voice and platform to push for police reform and works to protect the narrative of the events surrounding Freddie Gray’s death and the healing in the aftermath of chaos.
Montage of voices in the open: Byron Pitts ABC News; former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake; Gray family attorney William “Billy” Murphy, Jr; and Sean Yoes.
These past couple of difficult days in my beloved hometown of Baltimore, MD have caused me some agita. I am reminded of a 1963 speech by Malcolm X that analogized the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with ‘chickens coming home to roost.” That a climate of hate was ultimately responsible for the president’s death.
Baltimore’s chickens have come home to roost. Decades of neglect; aristocracy masquerading as democracy; executive forces brutalizing the underrepresented; and politicians feeding their own greedy ambitions have contributed. Ill-equipped parents; failing schools; devastating drug culture; the flight of wealth, family structure, and old-school character from the inner city have contributed. Gentrification; greedy churches; broken promises; capitalism; a polarized government; the war on drugs; and overwhelmed teachers. We are all complicit in every window broken, every body bruised, every exploding car and burning pharmacy.
This is our spawning.
The mob mentality has a firm grip on our communities from Ferguson to Baltimore and images of angry youth standing defiantly against police forces are sobering. The images demonstrate that power is just an illusion and there is no controlling the out-of-controlled. This lost generation, our spawn, will be a problem for years to come. The large numbers of unemployed, uneducated, apathetic young men and women are the result of a butterfly flapping its wings tens, maybe hundreds of years ago. Fractal patterns that have been looping all of my life. It won’t get fixed over night.
What’s happened to our town is wrong from all angles. There is no justification for it; nothing noble about it. It’s a great big shit pile and we are all wallowing in it.
Today, I weep for my city. I only hope that the work to rebuild the spirit, the goodwill, the character of Charm City, from all levels, starts in earnest.
ManUp has gone all audioish on you. Feel free to read the text version below or enjoy the audio version of this edition of The Making of a Miscreant by hitting the play button.
My name is Joseph Bradley Lee. My friends and family call me Joey. Professional associates call me Joe. There was a time in 1972 that I hated the name Joseph. I wasn’t particularly bothered by Joseph because most people called me Joey. It was a different story, though, when school was in session.
In 1972 I was a second grader at Carter G. Woodson elementary school in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD. Cherry Hill was a mostly African-American community. In fact, if there were any non-black students at Carter G. Woodson, I never saw them. Cherry Hill was a tough neighborhood; a nurturing neighborhood; and to a degree an isolated neighborhood. And unlike any other place I have ever lived, the black folk in Cherry Hill frequently butchered the name Joseph.
“Mrs Richardson, Jozup cut in line”! “Mrs Richardson, Jozup pushed me”! Mrs Richardson, Jozup is chewing gum”! Jozup, Jozup, Jozup! The “seph” in Joseph seemed to allude the students at Carter G. Woodson. Occasionally, a teacher or two would duplicate the error in pronunciation. It was nonsensical to me. Joseph wasn’t a difficult name at all, yet no one managed to get it right.
I was so fed up with Jozup, that on one particular spring day after school I literally kicked a can up and down the street as I contemplated a name change. I sat curb side on Seabury Rd trying to figure out how to break the news to Mama Lee. I poked at a line of marching ants on their way to investigate a crumb of potato chip. A clear indication of transference of energy; my bad energy to the ants and the ants in search of something to attack.
After a few moments of pissing off the ants, a fellow classmate joined me curbside. His name was Philip. Philip wanted to talk about how Mrs Richardson swatted Byron Barnes with a yard stick because he was talking in class. Yes, the teachers, and I use that term loosely, were allowed to inflict physical punishment on us students at Carter G. Woodson elementary school. Byron was a nice kid, but trouble always seemed to find him. He also had a mouth full of the tiniest, blackest teeth you ever did see. We chuckled about that too.
After a while, Philip headed home and so did I. I was determined to have a chat with Mama Lee about the name situation so, once home, I helped myself to a bowl of cereal and turned the TV on to Leave It To Beaver and awaited mama’s arrival from work.
“I don’t like my name,” I got around to blurting out. Mama Lee wanted to know why. “I don’t like the way people say Jozup,” my reply. “Well tell them to call you Joey,” Mama Lee said with a “boy get out of my face with that silly shit” look. “I tried but they don’t listen,” my frustrated response. Then came the litany of predictable justifications, “It’s a biblical name”, “it’s your father’s name”, “it’s a strong name.” Her mouth moved plenty, but all that came out of it was Jozup, Jozup, Jozup. Then came a question that I surprisingly hadn’t anticipated, “What name do you want then?” she asked. Up to that point, I gave no consideration to a replacement moniker. So I uttered…Philip. Mama’s face was twisted and her response…incredulous. “Philip! Why Philip?” I had no response and, in fact, felt like a silly child. I soon dropped my short-lived campaign for a name change. School would soon be out for summer recess and I’d return to be Joey.
The name game followed me for a good portion of my life. Teachers called me Joseph. Friends called me Joey. And in between…a variety of nicknames.
In Cherry Hill, I was White Hiney. “Hey White Hiney,” they’d yell. Evidence that we were the lightest skinned kids in the hood.
As a teenager, Mama Lee called me Poo Bear. In front of my friends no less.
When we moved from Cherry Hill to the Wakefield area on Baltimore’s west side, variations on a wolf theme emerged. Wolfboy, Wolfie, and Wolfpire became a new attempt at adolescent cruelty. Inspired by a short-lived TV show called Lucan which ran from 1977-1978, a few neighborhood kids called me Wolfboy because of my long hair. Lucan chronicled the life of a young man who, as a boy, was raised by a pack of wolves. I was the neighborhood Lucan.
The two moles on my neck that mimicked a vampire’s bite suggested to them that I was part wolf and part vampire, hence the Wolfpire reference. This didn’t bother me. Secretly, I loved the Lucan TV show and often fantasized about being raised by wolves.
During the same period, yet another nickname surfaced. It was Ugly. No, literally the nickname was Ugly. It was given to me by my adopted godfather, Johnny Miles. Johnny Miles was a shit-talking hipster from Marion South Carolina that took a shine to my adopted godmother, Mignon Ackerman. They would later marry and become influential figures (good and bad) in my life.
“Hey Ugly, come here,” he’d say with his raspy voice. Johnny was a big guy. Over six-foot tall and thick of body. Peeled right out of a Zora Neale Hurston novel, Johnny was as country as they came. Johnny was loud. You’d never not know he was in a room; and to watch a Washington Redskins game with him was intolerable.
“Let me holla at you Ugly,” he’d bellow. “Stop calling that boy Ugly, Johnny!” Mignon jumped to my defense. “What do you want me to call him? Cutie?” I was not a kid with a confidence deficiency. I knew I was attractive and I didn’t need the likes of Johnny Miles to validate it. Johnny adored me, as did Mignon. In many ways, I was as much their child as I was Frances Lee’s. After two weeks of protesting the name, Mignon finally fell in line with her beaux and she too called me Ugly. It was and is, to this day, my favorite nickname.
It doesn’t matter what people call you as long as you know who you are. I’m a Joey. Joey defines me. More so than Joe. And more so than Joseph. Joe is my professional moniker. It started with my first broadcast assignment. I’m Joe all day long. I now live in a town where I am only known as Joe. So when I hear my wife Angela’s beautiful voice call ‘Joey”, I’m transported home, to Baltimore, to my roots. It’s sweet and peaceful and loving, her voice. It provides a sense of place and reconnects me to me, Joe to Joey.
Do you have a favorite nickname to share? Perhaps one that you hated? Let me know in the comments section.
My grandfather, Mordecai Brown, was a simple, hardworking man. He worked as a janitor in the Baltimore City school district for years and saved his money to buy a dream. An American dream to purchase land that he could call his own. Land that would relocate him from the urban hustle of the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD to the quiet countryside of New Windsor, MD. And like many dreamers from the greatest American generation, he made it happen.
Trips “up the country”, as we called it, were delightful. The property sat high on a hill accessible by a winding gravel road that parted dense forest like a great divide. Rays of sunshine tried desperately to reach the forest floor in an attempt to give life to youthful foliage. At the bottom of the hill where the road commenced trickled a natural spring that pooled crystal clear water.
Brick by brick, beam by beam my grandfather built his home; defying the odds and fulfilling his dream of land and home ownership. The house sat atop the hill at the end of the gravel road where the wood opened to a clearance. I was fascinated by the open space, trees, and nature.
Once the house was complete and my grandparents settled in, they would trek down to Baltimore to retrieve me and my brother Roland. We helped with chores and provided as much labor as 8 and 9 year-old boys could muster. On one such occasion in the early 1970’s, me and Roland piled into the back of my grandfather’s winged station wagon; ready to tackle some adventure. The winged station wagon wound its way from Cherry Hill, through the Baltimore City streets and on to Liberty Road where we would spend the next 40 minutes or so on a straight shot to New Windsor.
I remember the feeling of freedom and the lifting of burdens that city living often placed on my shoulders. At least for the next couple of days, there would be no worrying about bullies, glue-sniffers or basketball court brawls. No one would call me “White Hiney”, a reference to my pale bottom often seen when I’d give a full moon salute. Growing up “light-skinned”, at times, could be an unshakable burden and that name would stick with me and Roland until we moved to Wakefield on Baltimore’s Westside where a whole new set of nicknames would eventually emerge.
Once through Baltimore’s suburbs, farm land sprouted from the horizon. The smell was different, cleaner. At least until we were hit with the undeniable aroma of fresh cow manure. “Pew”! Roland and I would shout with twisted faces. My grandfather made eye contact through the rear view mirror, “Doesn’t that smell good?” We’d scream, “No”! and pinch our adolescent noses. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that the manure smell held a different meaning for him. It smelled like freedom and destiny; reminiscent of home and roots. Mostly, it was unlike anything that Cherry Hill had to offer. Cherry Hill, for Mordecai P. Brown, was someplace to escape from.
The winged station wagon turned off Liberty Rd. after a while an on to Roop Rd. Our excitement was palpable for we knew what sat ahead a hundred yards or less on the left side of Roop Rd. The grandparents befriended a local. A black man, roughly 70 years or older by my inexperienced estimation, who owned a small farm. On this farm he had some chicks eee i eee i oh. Among the small assortment of domestic farm animals, the old dude owned a rather large hog. This hog, at the tallest point of its body, stood taller than me, and lived in a pen just a few yards from the edge of the road. Pop Pop, that’s my granddad, would stop the station wagon in the road next to the pen so that we could say hello to Mr. Pig. Pop Pop, in turn, exchanged pleasantries with the farmer.
At the house, just minutes from the farm, we helped unload the winged station wagon and settled into our chores. We cleared land, hauled water, applied creosote to wooden beams, and removed rocks from Nana’s garden. Nana was my grandmother.
My Pop Pop laid the foundation for a larger dream home adjacent to the house that they were living in. Cinder blocks outlined each would-be room and wooden beams served as the bones that would hold the meat of his dreams. For whatever reason, the house was never finished. That was not something that we knew at the time.
All was not lost on boys of 8 and 9 years of age. The cinder block foundation might as well have been an ancient Mayan ruin, and we its conquering explorers. It was a playground, zoo, and science lab all in one. Captured turtles and toads were placed in the foundation for close study. Insects sequestered and dropped into spider webs for experimentation. A large wolf spider carrying its young on its back became Roland’s favorite pet; spending a portion of its life in a mayonnaise jar. Sitting on the wood beams, eating sandwiches, watching insects fly about, listening to song birds compose a tune, and watching squirrels engage in a game of tag was glorious past-time.
During this particular trip, while playing among the ruins, we spied a black serpent of unknown species slithering among the cinder block. Having watched our fair share of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Roland had the bright idea of capturing the snake. I idolized my older brother so I was all in. We fashioned a two-prong fork out of a tree branch. This fork was to be placed behind the snake’s head, rendering it incapable of striking and allowing for safe handling.
I reached my little hand into a hole in the cinder block wall and grabbed the snake by the tail. I flung it to the ground within the walls of a section of the foundation. It wriggled wildly with fear. Roland chased the serpent into a corner and, with precision, pinned the snake behind the head with the forked stick.
I had to be the first to handle the snake. I had to. My little right hand grasped the snake behind the head just like Marlin Perkins taught us. With my little left hand, I scooped the snake’s body until it was hoisted in the air. I was flush with pride and accomplishment. And then… engulfed with fear.
The snake dropped from my hands and slithered to a corner. My body hit the ground; mouth gapped wide open as silent screams only audible to dogs spilled from my lungs. Then I cried bloody murder. Roland dropped to his knees and the snake watched from its corner within the foundation. “What’s wrong”! my older brother shouted. But I could not answer. The shrieks poured out of the open tap. Finally I summoned the words, “I’m gonna die.” “I’m gonna die”! “I’m gonna die” “I’m gonna die”, my speech began to loop as fear’s clutch grew firm.
More words came although composure did not. “I don’t want to die,” I cried. As a lay on my back grasping my hand, Roland shook me by the arms, “Where did it bite you?” Dirt began to turn muddy where I soiled my shorts. Yes dear readers, I did indeed pissed my pants. Again Roland asked, “Where did it bite you?” I raised my hand to show my brother where the serpent exacted its revenge.
The sobbing grew and my heart pounded in my chest like a sledge hammer. “It must be the poison,” I thought to myself. “I don’t see a bite,” Roland was confused. “Where’s the bite?” “It..it..it spit poison on me,” I managed to say. Roland examined the poison closely. “It’s poop or pee you dummy,” he exclaimed. “It pooped on you! That’s not poison!” I was dumbfounded. Indeed there was wetness and slime on my hand. Indeed it was the left hand that was affected. Indeed, dear readers, my little right hand held the snake by its head. I feared, with great embarrassment, that Roland was correct. I had been pooped, not poisoned.
I gathered myself together, wiped the snot from my nose, and cleared my eyes of tears well enough to see Roland laughing at me. I failed to see the humor.
Still, there we were, two boys of 8 and 9 years of age with a task still ahead of us. A snake to capture. Roland would play the role of Marlin Perkins on this go ’round. We chased the black snake into another corner where Roland used the forked stick to secure the snake. I ran to the side of the house to retrieve an old rusty bucket to to hold our new pet.
The day grew long and it was nearing time to leave for Cherry Hill, but we were not yet ready to part with Blacky. Yes, we named the snake. The two brothers thought it would be cool to take the snake home to show their friends. So we covered the bucket with tin foil and placed it in the winged station wagon until it was time to depart. All of this unknown to my grandparents. Until discovered by Nana. You see dear readers, the snake had no intentions of traveling to Cherry Hill. None at all. It pushed its way through the tin foil and settled near the gas pedal.
The screams were loud and echoed throughout the wood. My grandfather moved with hesitant curiosity to investigate. Nana was beside herself. Our pet was discovered and in my mind, I was about to face my second near death experience of the afternoon. Pop Pop tossed the rusty bucket to the side and ordered us boys to remove Blacky from the car. We did with some measure of caution.
The day of excitement and adventure had come to an end as the winged station wagon headed back down Liberty Road. These kinds of experiences are among the building blocks that shaped the teenager and man to come. I learned an appreciation for nature and, for the second time of my life, for my own mortality. Blacky was most likely a common black snake, non-poisonous. But the risk I took capturing it and handling it is how I learned to take chances, both calculated and not.
A recent report on children’s active lifestyles suggested that the average child today spends only 10 minutes or less outside of the home. I’m so glad that I grew up in the 70’s. Life and nature have far more to teach us about life than the over-scheduled, technology driven way of today’s childrearing.
I don’t know if I woke up that morning with a plan or, like many boys, decided to turn found junk into opportunity. Or perhaps it was another kid’s idea. But the plan on a hot, sunny, summer’s day in the early 1970’s was to catch some frogs. Nothing at all unique about this endeavor for rural preteen boys, but for urban youth, it required a measure of planning and adventure.
2438 Seabury Rd in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD was home. It was my home. I lived in Section 8 housing but I didn’t know it at the time. A single mom and two boys living in an apartment on the right-hand side of the court, eventually moved to a townhouse over on the left. That court was our world and we did not often venture far beyond its borders except to cross the street to the elementary school playground and basketball court, or to the nearest corner store to buy penny candy. We all new each other. It was the kind of place, and a place in time, when the neighbors were empowered to discipline you. And the maintenance workers might toss a football around with you in between tasks.
On this day, though, we were going to catch us some frogs. But where? First things first. We needed a vessel for the frogs. My friend Keith, a brown, lanky kid with a small afro, and my brother’s friend, Tony who was a year or two older, joined me as I rummaged through neighbors hot garbage cans for frog storing containers. We emerged with plastic jugs and milk cartons that we, with ghetto ingenuity, transformed by cutting the tops off and creating handles using pieces of twine.
Now, where? Beyond the borders of the court and the elementary school, sat the Patapsco River which fed into Baltimore’s harbor. Good for catching crabs, not so much for frogs. Our attentions turned west to the train tracks.
Someone told someone who, in turn, told Keith that creeks and streams ran parallel to the tracks so we surmised that frogs must exist in the general vicinity. In tank-top, cut off shorts, Jack Purcells and pals in tow, I headed west for a couple of miles in search of amphibians. Along the way, Keith tells tales of strings of fireworks that dangle from passing trains. He tells us, “If we can hop the train without getting caught, we can snatch some firecrackers to take back home.” Even as an 8-year-old, that hardly seemed plausible. But what the hell, I was up for anything.
The tracks were rusty looking and raised above grade. They were surrounded with crushed stone on each side. To our delight, a stream ran along side a portion of the tracks, among a thin line of trees. Even at 8 years old, I had experience catching frogs. My grandparents bought a parcel of land in Carol County and I spent many a summer’s day catching frogs, snakes and turtles. So I lead the way. We filled our containers with water from the stream and set them on leveled ground.
Wading ankle-deep, hands held 6 inches or so apart, we moved slowly so as not to disturb the wildlife. Frogs sat along the bank of the stream, unsuspecting, warming their cold blood. Keith, too anxious, misses his first. He mutters a choice profanity or two. I snag my first. Then a second. The others join in with better success having watched a pro in action.
In the distance, we hear the clacking of train wheels on tracks drawing neigh. “Firecrackers”! Keith yells. The frogs that we managed to catch were put into the 3 containers and sat closer to the tracks. We waited patiently and grew excited as the train came into view. Keith told us to run along side the train and grab any rail or handle to pull ourselves up. I think Keith lied about the fireworks. I saw none. Still, hopping a moving train seemed fun and so we moved, like experienced hobos, to make our way on-board.
The train appeared to move slow on approach but seemed to gain steam as it was upon us. Clacking with rhythm. Clacking with purpose. And so were we. Moving alongside the train as fast as our little preteen legs could carry us. We three intrepid boys searched for something to grab onto. I trailed the other two and began to run out of steam. Keith and Tony kept trying in earnest. Laughing and running along side the cars, looking for something, anything to grab a hold of. Hands on knees, huffing and puffing, we three boys watched the train move on down the line. Victorious.
An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me. I was scared and afraid to admit it. Not afraid of getting on the train, but getting off of the train. Jumping off of a moving train was not something I even remotely wanted to attempt.
We made the long trek back to the frogs, failures as hobos. What seemed like miles of track was most likely a few hundred yards. Back at the site, the frogs were gone, containers smashed. Shocked and perplexed, we three boys stood there silent, speechless, and dumbfounded. Who would do such a thing? Who would ruin the perfect afternoon? It was such flapdoodle that we struggled to comprehend what might have transpired during the short time that we chased the train. One frog remained in my plastic milk container, smashed and bloodied. A sad and truculent act.
I watched Keith’s eyes as he spied a figure emerging from the tree line. A boy, much older than the three of us, carrying a hunter’s bow with bladed arrow. This older boy told us that he was looking for some “white dudes” that assaulted his father. I couldn’t help but wonder if this would-be hunter of white dudes was not himself the capricious, frog-murdering bastard that ruined my afternoon. But Tony and Keith were enchanted by the bow and arrow and did not share my suspicion. They had never seen and hunter’s bow and arrow up close. Neither had I for that matter.
“How far can that thing go?”, Keith chimed. “Really far”, answered the stranger. Now he had my interest and attention. “Let me see”, I added. “Shoot it up”, I pointed to the sky. The stranger, bow in left hand, motioned with his right, gesticulating that we give some clearance. He pointed the bow upward, pulled the string back to his ear, and loosed the arrow. It flew straight up, climbing until it was out of sight. We three boys stood, planted in the gravel, mouths wide open and eyes bulging out of our heads. The stranger’s faced turned from a look of accomplishment to having a real “oh shit” moment. “Run!”, the stranger yelled.
Without knowing the intricacies and particulars of the laws of gravity, even we three boys knew that what goes up, must come down. We scrambled. Nervous laughter echoed and gravel flew as we made our way to the tree line. My foot slipped and I landed on one knee. With a thud, the arrow landed in my back. Lodged into my right scapula.
I don’t know what was worse, the pain or the shock of being shot. Given all the wide open space, what were the odds that a single arrow shot into the air would find its way through my flesh and into bone? I fell face down in the gravel, arrow shaft sticking out of my back. Cowboys and Indians for real. The stranger panicked. He grabbed hold of the arrow with one hand and placed the other hand on my left shoulder. He yanked. He shouldn’t have done that. Every western movie you have ever seen said don’t yank the arrow. But he yanked. And he ran. I stood. And I bled.
Gash in the back and bleeding profusely I, with my friends, started the long trek back to Seabury Rd. The energy drained from me with every step. The sun grew hotter and my tank top began to stick to my skin as the blood coagulated. The boys were concerned but none of us had any idea how serious the situation had become.