Is Baltimore Like a Reservation for Non-Indians?

Mark Rogers

An interesting question was posed to me in light of the recent injustice and unrest in Baltimore. The question: is Baltimore or life in Baltimore, comparable to an Indian reservation? On its face, the question seems to be a request for comparison of the two, but under the surface, I think it becomes a question about the truth of the ethnic experience in America.

The question also brings to mind the thought-provoking documentary Welcome To The Reservation by the late, great Russell Means. He makes a strong case using a powerful analogy that the governing institutions in America are creating a state of perpetual dependence and fear through the use of police tactics, economic exclusion and revocation of liberties. It is a sound analogy, but let’s examine a more direct comparison.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have never lived in Baltimore, or on a reservation, so these thoughts are mere observations. My expertise lies in the fact that I share Indian and Black heritage, and have lived in urban and suburban settings for most of my life.

To begin with, one has to understand the uniqueness of Baltimore. It’s South, but not the deep South. It’s urban, but doesn’t have the same population as New York or Atlanta. It’s a Mid-Atlantic hub between the North and South—everything flows through it, but its people tend to stay put, and rarely migrate, for better or worse.

I was not surprised by the brutality described by the city’s residents during their confrontations with the Baltimore Police Department (during the recent protests in the city). I have been a brown man in urban environments, and I know first hand that the police will treat you differently no matter what the infraction or perceived infraction. Let’s remember that the initial encounter that resulted in Freddie Gray’s—the 25-year-old African American man who died several days after being arrested by Baltimore police—death was about perception; how Gray looked at the officer. It’s no secret, in my own neighborhood, and in neighborhoods where large numbers of young black men reside, that “look” at the police can get you stopped and cuffed. Running from the police could get you hurt or killed.

By coincidence, when I was asked to write this piece, I was near the tail end of a binge watch of HBO’s The Wire, which is set in Baltimore from 2002-2008. I understand that some citizens of Baltimore have a love hate relationship with the show (I have seen one writer dismiss the show entirely because there is a Baltimore cop that helped write it). But, in my opinion, for a fictional story, there is an unprecedented and unmatched amount of truth telling along the entire series.

The show depicts allusions to the “Western District way,” which amounts to “cracking skulls” and “tuning up” perps on the way to booking. It showed cops of every color conforming to a well-established standard of using unlawful force to establish control in a city rife with crime. In fact, the city’s crime stats were discussed in the special features section of the DVD, and described a murder rate greater than the rates of other major cities. It showed an arrest rate that equaled one-sixth of the entire city’s population. Now, when you factor in decades of neglect in the inner city’s infrastructure, and public education system and the ever-present corruption at every level of government, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that riots erupted (I am not condoning the riots, but violence begets violence and offers no real solution)

But let me get back to the underlying question, is Baltimore like a reservation for non-Indians?

I think we can agree that the inner city or the ghetto, to use the colloquial, is a result of physical and socioeconomic segregation. In that sense, the inner cities share much in common with Indian reservations. There are barriers, visible and invisible, that keep the residents within it’s borders and keeps opportunity out. The persistent unemployment, the lack of revenue generation, the heavy handed policing and more create a vicious cycle of crime, drug use, government dependence and apathy.

The difference is the extremeness of the segregation. The inner cities evolved because of “white flight," an occurrence in which many white people move out of a city as more and more people of other races move in, as different neighborhoods opened up to black, Latino and Asian residents. Reservations, on the other hand, were created to be as remote as possible from the “civilized” people that created them. A resident of the inner city could still create opportunity by commuting to available work. This was never intended in the reservation system. Indian communities were effectively ostracized from society when eradication failed. Indian eradication defined policy in America for many years, and the reservation system created a “virtual eradication” by keeping Indian people as far away from mainstream America as possible (in a physical and socioeconomic sense). Nearly every ethnic group has had laws created and applied to them to enforce segregation or exclusion, but the Indian has the unique position of having legislation that called for their eradication on a national level.

 A second difference is the concept of ownership. The apathy of the inner city has a connection to lack of ownership. The inverse of this is displayed when black, Latino and Asian people started businesses within these segregated communities. People supported their businesses and created neighborhood institutions that, in turn, created opportunity. The myriad of little “insert foreign city or country name here” or ethnic towns in every major city is proof positive of a type of community ownership that can overcome the economic aspects of segregation. On reservations though, different laws and standards of ownership prevent people from taking advantage of home and business lending. This, the remoteness of reservations and a tradition of non-materialism among Indians, does not create an atmosphere where Indian owned businesses thrive.

Considering the political realities of the reservation versus the ghetto, there is no comparison between the two because the land base of a reservation allows for the political reality of a nation state. Being a resident of an inner city may mean that laws are applied differently to you, but it does not form the basis of sovereignty in a way that a reservation does. That is one of the most important, and one of the more positive, aspects of the reservation system. Although it does not afford it’s residents the opportunities to interact economically and socially with mainstream America, it does provide an uncontestable means of establishing true nationhood. The ghetto may feel like it’s own nation or state, but the reality is that it is simply a mainstream municipality subject to socioeconomic segregation from the rest.

The comparisons really start to break down when one looks at the differences in legislation and policy regarding the African American and Indian communities over time. Assimilation into the mainstream culture has been the underlying goal regarding policy applied to both communities as well as other ethnic communities. For the Indian community, this did not come into play until the failure of eradication efforts. Also, one must consider that there was no official policy of relocation levied upon the African American community as a whole. The only other ethnic group, to my knowledge that has been relocated en masse were Japanese Americans, who endured internment during World War II.

The seclusion, neglect and associated social problems attributed to the American ghettos are something that is shared with any community that is systematically excluded and segregated from mainstream America. I’m sure that residents of the various Chinese, Somalian, Hmong, Cuban and Mexican communities and many others would be inclined to agree. It is a misnomer to classify these neighborhoods as reservations yet it reveals the mindset of those who choose to use such a label. It is the assumption of a group of people as an alien presence, separate from what is defined as American by some. The German, Irish, Italian and Polish communities, among others, have experienced similar exclusion before assimilation into the mainstream culture. But, the European immigrant communities had an easier time blending into the American mainstream by virtue of skin color (this in no way minimizes or legitimizes the bigotry that they too faced).

No single ethnic community in America has a monopoly on unequal treatment, injustice and bigotry. Each has a unique tale to tell of their experience in America and it would do us all well to consider that and listen to each other to find the truth and alleviate the legacy of exclusion that has plagued us all.

Mark Rogers is a citizen of the Montaukett and Matinecock Nations located in Long Island, NY where he is known as Toyupahs Cuyahnu (Crazy Turtle). He has served as a grass roots activist in the African American and Native communities and is a proud veteran NCO of the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Corps. He is presently working on a writing career and seeks to aid fellow veterans through his writing.

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