On Wednesday, a state delegate from Baltimore’s 7th district, Patrick L. McDonough, thought it necessary to put out a news release asking Maryland State Police to intervene in the Inner Harbor to contain “roving mobs of black youths.” Now, lest you think I’m taking this quote out of context, I would point out that the title of McDonough’s news release was, “Black Youth Mobs Terrorize Baltimore on Holidays,” so I don’t think he was leaving much to interpretation. Delegate McDonough said in the release that he believed the Inner Harbor should be made a “no-travel zone” in order to protect innocent law-abiding citizens from said roving black youths. Reading between the lines here doesn’t require much imagination.
There are plenty of things about America in general and Baltimore in specific that are retrograde and lagging behind other first world nations. Clearly, Del. McDonough’s comments were ignorant, racially motivated and unproductive. If Delegate McDonough wishes to scare folks away from Baltimore City by invoking the specter of random racial violence, then I suggest he find his way back to the 1950s and the glory days of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. However, it is very easy for us to look at the recent tragedy involving Trayvon Martin or the recent comments by Maryland Del. McDonough and to throw up our hands in disgust and disbelief. How could we have endured centuries of slavery? How is it that we fought through the Jim Crow south and segregation, made it through Watts and Rodney King, voted an African-American man into The White House, and we still see the same old mess crop up day after day? I can’t begin to answer that, but I can point out where our collective experience has gotten us in comparison to our more homogenous brethren.
For those that keep up with world news and have even a passing interest in not seeing all of Europe fold in upon itself economically, you already know the Greece recently held a non-election election, with the traditional moderate parties losing out an alarming number of votes to the far left and right of the country’s political spectrum. None of the parties were able to obtain a majority or form a working coalition so a caretaker government has been put in place until a new, and hopefully definitive election is held in June. During that election, a previously insubstantial fringe political group known as Golden Dawn won 21 seats in Greek Parliament (7% of the vote) and has been described by The Washington Post as “the most-far right party to enter a European legislature since Nazi-era Germany.” If you think they’re being a bit hyperbolic, let me start out my saying that their party emblem and colors are very similar to those of the Nazi party, they formally use the “Roman Salute” amongst party members, describe themselves as a “People’s Nationalist Movement,” has a singular leader who controls the entire party and it is their self-stated goal to throw all of the immigrants out of Greece.
I feel like this bears some elaboration and repeating. This a modern, 21st-century political party that controls a sizable chunk of Greek Parliament and wants to expel all “non-Greeks” from their country under the banner of nationalism. They actually have said that they want to place land mines on their border with Turkey to stop immigrants from coming in. and that it is a part of their party platform to put immigrants into work camps. Their leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos recently said at a Golden Dawn rally, “Those who betrayed the motherland—you should be scared now.” Their members have been linked to the ethnic cleansing at Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian War, which consisted of the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims and for which ex-General Radko Mladic is currently being tried at The Hague for committing crimes against humanity. A few days ago, the Golden Dawn dropped leaflets in the Gazi district of Athens, an area known as common LGBT hangout in the city. The leaflets read, “After the immigrants you are next.” This is a group that takes racism and xenophobia and elevates it into fascism.
This world has been so filled with history that you can’t live on a day when something momentous did not occur years or centuries or millenia before. I realize this, but I’m also not one to discount significance as being mere coincidence either. It was on this day, May 17th, in 1940, that the Luftwaffe finished bombing the Dutch town of Middelburg—about 70 miles southwest of The Hague—leading to full Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. Fourteen years later, in Washington DC, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous opinion of The Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education, ending de jure racial segregation in the United States. These two events have nothing to do with one another, but they both have a great deal to do with the political climate in Europe that we find today. While Radko Mladic is being tried for his war crimes in The Hague, city council member and Parliamentary Leader for the Party For Freedom, Geert Wilder, continues his crusade to drive Islam out of the Netherlands. In the same vein as his Greek counterparts, Wilder has compared the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and has called for the book to be banned in The Netherlands, along with instituting a ban on burqas, new Muslim immigrants and the construction of new mosques. Wilder’s party, the Party for Freedom, is currently the 3rd largest party in the country, holding 15% of the seats in parliament.
Europe never went through the same growing pains that we did here in America. For better or worse, race has become the most indelible marker of the American experience. There isn’t a dusky corner of our history that wasn’t shaped by race. Countries like Greece or The Netherlands never had a civil war over slavery. Their nations weren’t formed from some randomly assembled hodgepodge of the social cast offs and religious cast aways that America was. Even when a man like Delegate McDonough makes an ignorant comment about violence and race in Baltimore, you only need to look back 150 years to find a time where McDonough’s likely ancestors were at the bottom of America’s racial totem pole, occupying the unenviable spot held by Italians, Jews, Catholics, blacks, eastern europeans, latin americans and arab americans as the least privileged ethnic group in the country. This is not to downplay the significance and potentially harmful consequences of racially charged comments in America, but it is to say that we have a far more open dialogue about race and religion in the country than elsewhere in the western world.
On the corner of Lombard and Gay streets in downtown Baltimore, in the Inner Harbor where all of the controversy surrounding Del. McDonough’s remarks took place, is the New Baltimore Holocaust Memorial. In it’s center is a 15-foot high bronze sculpture in the form of a flame. As you walk closer,it becomes apparent that this flame is made up of skeletal, burning corpses, languishing in perpetual agony as a reminder of the atrocities of Dachau and Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Underneath this flame is the famous quote from George Santayana that reads: “Those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it.” It has only been 67 years since the liberations of the concentration camps that littered Nazi Germany and we are witnessing a scene all-too-familiar. European financial crisis gives way to desperation and opportunism by fascist, hateful forces who channel public anger for their own means. When my grandmother and grandfather died, I remember we found several ingots of gold and silver stowed away in a chest in their basement. Their parents were from the old country and after living through the pogroms, the likely imparted their experience to their children who bore witness to World War II. They always kept enough money out of the bank and out of American currency in case…”in case of what?” I thought a teenager. Now I know and I am sadder for it.