By John Blake.
He was a quiet man who once stood watch on his front porch, just three blocks away from where a riot erupted in West Baltimore this week.
We called him “Mr. Shields” because no one dared use his first name. He’d step onto his porch at night in plaid shorts and black knit dress socks to watch the Baltimore Orioles play on his portable television set.
He was a steelworker, but he looked debonair: thin mustache always trimmed; wavy salt-and-pepper hair touched up with pomade; cocoa brown skin. He sat like a sentry, watching not just the games but the neighborhood as well.
I knew Mr. Shields’ routine because I was his neighbor. I grew up in the West Baltimore community that was rocked this week by protests over the death of a young black man in police custody.
It’s surreal to see your old neighborhood go up in flames as commentators try to explain the rage with various complex racial and legal theories. But when I returned to my home this week, the rage made sense to me. There were no more Mr. Shields — the older black men were gone.
I asked 28-year-old Zachary Lewis about the absence of older men. He stood by a makeshift memorial placed at the spot where Freddie Gray, the man whose death ignited the riots, was arrested.
“This is old here,” he said, pointing to himself. “There ain’t no more ‘Old Heads’ anymore, where you been? They got big numbers or they in pine boxes.” In street syntax, that meant long prison sentences or death.
We hear about the absence of black men from families, but what happens when they disappear from an entire community? West Baltimore delivered the answer to that question this week.
It’s no accident that one of the most enduring images from the riot was a young mother spanking her son as she dragged him away from the protests. Where were the men in his life?
As I walked through my old streets, it was filled with nothing but black young women, children and teenage boys. It was as if an alien spaceship had come in the night and spirited all the older black men away.