The bad streets of Baltimore

My stop in Baltimore was the second time I had been in the city and indeed the second public meeting I'd done there.  Back in 2004/5 my ex was working in Washington DC and I was flying across the atlantic every few months to visit her.  On what I think might have been the third trip I made contact with Flint from NEFAC before heading over to the US and offered to do a meeting.  And so in April I headed across to do a meeting in a city I knew absolutely nothing about, apart from the fact there didn't seem to be any tourist type stuff there.  By the time I arrived in 2008 I had watched every episode of The Wire (save the very last one) so I'd a much better, or should that be worse, picture of the city.

On my first visit we'd actually thought Baltimore might make a nice weekend trip from DC, being on the coast and all.  But on checking online we'd been unable to find any tourist accommodation aside from insanely expensive conference hotels.  So I ended up doing a day trip on my own. Well in fact I managed to get the Baltimore comrades to agree to pick me up at the grad student house in DC and then drop me back there after the meeting.  I sort of feel guilty about putting them through that much hassle but it was the only way for me to get there and back in a single day and I was seeing my sweetheart for 8 days after nearly four months apart.  Anyway enough with the excuses.

I didn't get much of a look at Baltimore on that occasion.  We drove into the city and went to a supermarket which I was puzzled to see had at least six beefy security guards on the entrance, one of whom grabbed me when I tried to enter wearing a backpack.  I thought that was kinda odd.  I also found it odd when we walked from the car to the house we ate in before the meeting that there seemed to be little glass bottles of some sort scattered on the road that crunched underfoot. And of course there were loads and loads of derelict and semi derelict houses.  But bits of DC I'd walked around had been pretty run down so I assumed this was just a run down bit of town I was in.  At the time I was unaware that anyone used Heroin in the US, I'd presumed it was a European drug in the way that Crack was mostly a North American one, it was only some months later back in Ireland that I read some article on Baltimore that explained that heroin was sold in little glass bottles.

The meeting on that occasion and on my second visit was in Red Emma's, a very impressive anarchist bookshop / coffee shop right in the city centre.  I was told the crew that ran it mostly worked as carpenters or barristas with the result that the place looked good and had great coffee.  I also noticed that they tried to be really friendly, engaging anyone knew who arrived through the door in conversation.  This was a rather different experience to my visit to the DC Infoshop where I'd been looked at with suspicion and my feeble attempts to strike up a conversation had been met with stoney silence.

On that first visit the topic of my talk was the 'Shutdown of Shannon Airport', basically an account of the Irish anti-war movement of 2002 and 2003 and the various direct actions that had taken place at Shannon airport which was being used to refuel US troop planes. A good crowd turned him, a do remember an older couple staging what looked to me like a walkout not longer after I got going, I don't think they were pro war more likely affiliated to the IST whose Irish affiliate I was criticising.

After the meeting we want to a bar somewhere that in retrospect seemed somewhat similar to the dockers bar in the second season of the Wire but hey I drank a good bit of beer in a short amount of time (and ate a plate of japenpano poppers) so my recall may be off.  I suspect that may have been the first time every I came across beer being served in pitchers.  Enough beer that on the long drive back the call of nature became unbearable and we had to pull off the highway somewhere around Langley so I could pop out of the car for a minute.  This turned out to be a bit of a disaster as we were then lost but eventually we saw the Pentagon ahead and from there managed to navigate our way back.

This time around I was coming into Baltimore with a lot more knowledge of the city and on the Greyhound from Philly. I remember it being a bright sunny day but the Baltimore Greyhound station is a pretty desolate spot near the river with lots of vacant houses and industrial buildings around it.  I wasn't there long though, Flint had arranged for a couple of friends to meet me off the bus and drive me back to his place.

One advantage of living in Baltimore is that rents and house prices are really low so he lived in the ground floor of an old stone building that would probably cost tends of thousands to rent in Dublin or New York.  With a tank full of spiders.  Best of all there was an actual bed for me which was good as Philly had been pretty cramped and I was a bit behind on my sleep.

I spent a few days in Baltimore which I have to confess are pretty jumbled up in my head as I write this entry two years later.  I remember going to a Chinese takeaway one night and an Ethiopian restaurant another.  Somewhere over 30 people turned up for the public talk which was again held in Red Emma's but of the talk itself I remember little.  I recorded it, I'm listening to the start of it now and can hear the wsssh of the coffee machine as we wait to start up.  The recording is about 90 minutes someday I must get around to editing the Q&A sessions of all those recordings together and getting them online.  

The first question in Baltimore was about the fact that one of the photos showed a rally at the GPO and was this a deliberate choice.  This was somewhat unusual as I'd started the tour expecting to have lots of questions about the IRA and nationalism but over a decade into the cease fire much of that had been forgotten.  The third question in Baltimore also brought in the IRA prompting me to try and give my three minute summary of Irish republicanism and the peace process.  This is not easy!  By question 4 I'm trying to explain the role of religion in Ireland in the context of the rosery being said at some of the early protests in Rossport.  Then Flint intervenes and plants a question about WSM publication and structure before we return to religious power, the x-case and the ins and out of the bin tax campaign.

After the meeting we headed to a bar across the road owned by an wobblie anarchist whom I'd met in Ireland when he was living in Cork. Actually if I remember right we ate in a restaurant above the place first.  This was Liam's pint sized pub, he even advertised the meeting.  Actually as I remember while it was small it wasn't tiny, there was room for maybe three or four tables.  In any case from what I can tell he has moved up in the world or at least to a larger location called Liam's.

As Washington DC is very close to Baltimore I stayed in Baltimore for the DC stops and we drove across on the day.  This was at the National Conference of Organised Resistance (NCOR) which was my controversal blog post when the trip was still in progress.  Skip whom I stayed with in New York came down with a couple of other New York people and we all headed to DC together.  In Baltimore one of them was visiting a friend in the evening some ten or so blocks away and I remember Flint giving him a warning to get a taxi back as it was not safe to walk.  Not safe in Baltimore was a pretty serious business, almost everyone I talked to there had some sort of personal horror story about anti-social crime.  A month or so later I was to have a similar experience in Detroit.  People like to complain about crime in Dublin on talk radio but the occasional muggings and more common street fighting / bullying you get in parts of the city are nothing in comparison with the relentless wearing down or people I heard about in those and other places.  Of course as with all such situations the locals talk it up or down according to how you see it (I used to do the same for 'the troubles'), but there is also a weird pride as demonstrated by the 'Murder town' tshirts I saw more than one person wearing.  The Baltimore Sun (yes the paper from the last season of the Wire) maintains a google map of murders that you can display in a variety of ways.

Today of course crime is what Baltimore is famous for thank's to HBO's The Wire.  I had seen this but one of the odd things about being in Baltimore was that at the time I was there almost none of the local anarchists had.  HBO is expensive so they just knew The Wire as thing thing that resulted in street corners being blocked off for filming for time to time.  On my very last night in the city it turned out one of them knew the women who played Kima and was like 'hey would you like to meet her' and I was 'I leave the city early tomorrow morning, why do you only mention this now.'  

On a related but real life note while driving around Baltimore I saw a couple of the weird 1984ish survellance cameras that were being installed.  I'll quote my original blog post written at the time to describe these. "Incidentally Baltimore is now home to one of the odder Big Brother is watching responses to crime I've yet come across. The city is dotted with poles the pods on top of which are topped with a permanently flashing blue light. Below this is to be found the police crest and then the slogan 'Believe'. And then hanging off the bottom of the pod is a camera."

We did a private meeting in Baltimore, I think the night before I left for Virginia.  People brought food and beer over and I think maybe 8 or 10 or us spent a couple of hours talking about anarchist organisation and the experience of trying to organise in Baltimore in recent times.  


 More on the 44 stops of my 2007/8 speaking tour

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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