2017 Week Two: Criminal Justice & Government Agencies
I entered the emergency room, my hand gripping the lower right quadrant of my abdomen. I looked around the crowded room filled with loud grunts and the subdued sobs of people accustomed to their pain. Suddenly, their groans and faces disappeared to an all-encompassing whiteness and a sharp pain that felt like 10,000 bullets being fired into my gut. I winced and stumbled to the nearest desk.
“Hi, I’m Anthony and I would like to check in please,” I said recoiling from the pain.
“Over there,” the woman pointed apathetically; “Check in is over there,” she clarified, annoyed she had to repeat herself when she noticed my confused gaze.
I stumbled to where she had pointed and repeated myself. The man sitting behind the desk looked up from his phone and asked me a slew of questions before he instructed me to sit down, immediately returning to his cell. I found the nearest chair and sat, relieved as the pain slowly receded. I examined the room filled with majority African-American people of all ages and abilities; one man’s head lay limp on his shoulder, sleeping in spite of the surrounding chaos; one woman had a blanket covering her entire body and face, screaming loudly of pain every few minutes; another man walked around, his shoes without laces with a blanket wrapped around his emaciated torso.
Hours passed and I saw a nurse and PA, got fluids through an IV, and at 4:45 a.m. I was injected with a 2 c.c. dose of morphine. The dearth of empathy, patience and care from the staff shocked and depressed me, but nothing was worse than their seeming incompetence as they wildly guessed people’s diagnoses. At 8 a.m,, the PA with a self-proclaimed thirty years of experience called a patient suffering from severe chest pains who had left after eight hours of waiting. She screamed into the phone, “you can go to Mercy if you want but you have to go to some hospital, and tell them we found a spot on the top of your right lung. Now, wait… wait… I don’t mean to scare you; it could just be scar tissue, but it could also be cancer. Did you hear me?” She got louder, not understanding how telling someone they might have cancer over the phone might shock them into silence. “I said it could be cancer. Now, go to a hospital and tell them about the spot… yes a spot.” Later when she hung up the phone, she screamed to a staff member across the room, “We though he had a broken rib but we found a spot!” as if the entire Emergency Room had not heard her entire conversation.
I laughed loudly, and my friend who had chosen to suffer with me in the Emergency room over night, joined me. Later, we would discuss the simultaneously ludicrous and heinous treatment we experienced and observed that night. I was especially saddened when the loud PA tried to whisper to me, “you shouldn’t be here long; we try to prioritize our students but I didn’t want her to hear that.” If my “privileged” treatment as this bad, how were those of others?
The next morning, I was forced back into the waiting room where I met and spoke with other patients who shared my resentment. We joked about the ad on the T.V. that proclaimed the Hospital’s esteemed status in the world. And, we discussed our unique experiences and what had forced us into the emergency room. One elderly black woman with a beautiful raspy voice was no stranger to the ER, having undergone 5 hernia surgeries and innumerable insulin injections, as she was rolled around in her wheel-chair by her loving husband. One middle-aged white woman spoke about her undiagnosed abdominal symptoms, using the knowledge she had garnered in her unfinished years at nursing school to explain her experiences with the medical system. We coalesced into a small circle and began to discuss our lives as an automatic trust built between us through our shared experience as “disabled” people. Politics, family, history and jokes were exchanged as the hours continued to pass. A young black woman with Sickle Cell Anemia who was finishing her masters at University of Baltimore but had been delayed a year by a sudden flare up joined us for a few minutes.
Our circle of friendship ended as I was called back inside. At noon, twelve hours after I had checked in, I was given a room and fell asleep in the bed. Doctors, nurses and surgical experts waded into and out of my dreams: taking my blood pressure, asking about my symptoms, and discussing future steps. I was moved up to the 9th floor and the process was repeated in the evening. I was now in the part of the hospital I was familiar with; the loving nurses, hurried doctors and the clock-work technicians who opened the door every four hours taking my blood pressure, temperature and heart rate and scribbling it down in their notebook. This was my second home.
So, what is so ironic about this?
The fact that the senate healthcare bill which would strip people with pre-existing conditions like me of care was released the day I stumbled into the emergency room. I laughed as I watched my life discussed as an unnecessary expense to society between the sharp pains that made me wish I was dead.
As I sit in my hospital bed and write this reflection, I appreciate my newly gained ability to communicate with my supervisor and others that I would have to miss work or require certain accommodations for of my disability. This knowledge and skill is, in reality, one of the most I will learn during this internship. Throughout my life, neither Crohn’s nor my ambition to take advantage of all opportunities will abandon me. And, now, I am closer to learning how bring these two parts of my life together.
I was in the car with Andy, who was driving his stick-shift blue pickup truck north on York Road on our way to visit two makers’ home studio by the Senator theater. We passed by Value Village Thrift Store, characterized by the expansive window front with its current deals spray painted across (50% off select items!) and I could peek between the paint to see old china cups, wooden chairs, and racks of used clothing.
“Have you been there before? It used to be my favorite thrift store, gives me nostalgia,” he recalled, as he shifted gears and headed to the left. I recognized the name as one my roommate once mentioned as a place her and her brother liked to get “new” clothes. Another thing about York Road — in the past few times I’ve driven on it, I’ve seen a yard sale going on — I guess it’s something about the summertime and a desire for some fresh starts — so, my roommate and I are jumping on the train and hosting one later next week.
“Huh, that Pizza Boli’s is new.”
We looked a little closer, and in fact, the Pizza Boli’s on the right side of the road hadn’t even fully unpacked its boxes yet. There’s a Pizza Boli’s in Remington I went to get breadsticks at once after getting back from a concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion. The Baltimore staple restaurant is one whose name I’ve seen plastered on hundreds boxes of back when I would go to ACCE, a high school in Hampden, to tutor my student in Thread.
Every piece of this city is connected, I’m realizing.
“Have you ever noticed how there are no through-streets from 39th St and up?” Andy asked me as we were driving back down to Abell. Thinking of the Guilford neighborhood, which sits just north of Waverly, brings me back to October of last year when my friend Danielle and I spent a couple hours our a “pretty houses tour,” being more raucous than the neighbors might have appreciated. We walked, though, and I hadn’t really taken notice of the deliberate disencouragement for cars to enter into the neighborhood.
So, maybe this piece of the city isn’t connected.
During this week, I interacted with many returning citizens through focus groups. Prior to this week, I had only met with male returning citizens. However, our final focus group was at Marian House, a transitional home dedicated to assisting women. This experience was very distinct, mostly because it was with women. In this focus group, individuals discussed distinct problems that they encountered as women impacted by the criminal justice system.
Their experiences included struggles with mothering behind bars, menopause, sexual assault, and health problems such as breast cancer.
One woman spoke of how she had to face breast cancer alone. She started crying as she described the pain and fear she felt, all of which she had to endure alone. Another woman spoke of how she had to choose to have a hysterectomy to survive, therefore disabling her from ever having children.
An obvious difference between male and female focus groups was the sisterhood that the women exemplified among themselves.
A woman I was sitting next to spoke of how terrifying it was to be released from prison after spending 28 formative years imprisoned. She said that the women in Marian House helped her adjust, teaching her what most people think are simple tasks such as using a cell phone or taking the bus.
All of the other women echoed this, saying that they will always help her.
She continued, stating that she goes through periods of depression, unable to forgive herself for what she had did. This woman killed her cousin when she was 15. Another woman told her to forgive herself, and another quickly followed. All of the women began to follow, telling her that she made a mistake, but that she must forgive herself for it.
This was something I had never witnessed before: such unconditional love, that even something as horrendous as murder could be forgiven. This sisterhood was beautiful, and different than what I had ever encountered.
“How does the media portray kids in Baltimore?” Zeke asks.
I’m sitting in a room and taking pictures as Zeke speaks to a room of around 15 black high schoolers.
“Violent,” a voice says.
“Criminals,” another kid chimes in.
“Juvenile delinquents,” says another.
Zeke’s “This is Working” initiative partners with YouthWorks in order to not only pair Baltimore youth with jobs, but insure that they also receive career coaching, mentorship, and weekly reflection sessions. Zeke has told me that having a support system is really important to these kids because it’s often not there back at home.
After they speak, Zeke looks into their eyes and tells them that he believes that they will do amazing things at their jobs this summer. He tells them that all these portrayals and stereotypes in the media aren’t true. Looking over at the kids sitting at my table, I believe him. A girl maybe just 15 years old smiles wide when I swivel my camera to her. I watch Tyrone’s attentive eyes as he raises his hand quickly every time Zeke asks a question. He wants to be a comedian someday and make people laugh.
Just like I’m spending a summer in Baltimore — learning, growing, and working — these kids will too.
So much of the conversations I’ve had with my co-workers this week have been on the issue of crime and violence in Baltimore. Zeke’s constituents are in a panic ever since the homicide in Canton, which is under Zeke’s district. People have been contacting our office and asking for answers, and I don’t blame them. But really, I hope that people in the “white L” of Baltimore remember that the city’s children aren’t born criminals. I hope that people advocate for initiatives in the government that continue to invest in kids’ futures.
Earlier this past week, Zeke invited the team over to his house for pizza. Our team is a lively one — with Zeke, four staff members, and a rotating cast of around nine interns (including me!), there’s never a dull moment. Even when munching on pizza from Matthew’s after work hours, our conversations kept turning to Baltimore’s redevelopment, Baltimore’s segregation, Baltimore’s kids, Baltimore, Baltimore, and more Baltimore. And I think that’s a testament to the genuine concern and care that my co-workers have for this city. Everyone here is a workaholic, and no one stops thinking about how to make things better.
That night, we went up to Zeke’s rooftop and looked out over the neighborhood of Canton. The Natty Boh building was winking down on us, and the stars and skyline looked a lot like each other. I felt my heart swell, as I fell more in love with this city.
A running theme, throughout my life, has been the recurring realization that nothing is ever perfect. After my time with CDF Freedom Schools last summer, I figured out that the nonprofit sector wasn’t perfect. Now that I’m in a local government organization, it’s beginning to dawn on me that this isn’t perfect either.
Now, of course, I didn’t walk in expecting everything to be perfect. But I always expect things to be imperfect at a level so far above me that the flaws are out of my hands. I’m always pleasantly surprised by how useful I can be, even in little ways, and how good work can be done at every level of an organization. Sometimes being essential, even as a lowly intern, can be as simple as taking the initiative to do the things that no one else wants to do. I’m happy to report that I’m doing plenty of that, and even though I did a lot more clerical work and repetitive tasks this week than last week, I did them as thorougly as I could. My supervisor and all of the staff members who have borrowed me over the past week have taken notice of that effort to be thorough, even with the simple things, and I think that it has helped me build a reputation in the office as a reliable, hard worker. It has given me the confidence to have agency in the office, and to assert myself a little more often.
I become a supervisor next week, and I couldn’t be more nervous about it. I know that there’s no way that I will be able to misrepresent myself – I have never, ever been able to fake my way through anything. I’m disastrously honest at all times, and I can only hope that the kids working for me can apppreciate me for exactly who I am. I know that I’m going to do my best for them, and that nothing more can be asked of me.
It doesn’t help soothe the nerves. I remember a conversation with an education advocate at CDF last summer, how she said that she quit teaching because she was doing her best to teach her students, but that they deserved better than her best. She recognized that she wasn’t equipped to be the best possible teacher for her students, kids at an inner-city school who needed guidance and patience that she simply didn’t have enough of. So she stepped back and decided to advocate at a higher level, to hopefully get better qualified teachers to the places where they were most desperately needed.
What I admired about her was her self-awareness, her knowledge of her strengths and her acceptance of her weaknesses. She took that awareness and made a decision, choosing to serve in the best way she could. I want to be able to do that. I don’t know many people who would have been able to make a choice like that.
I want to have the awareness, at the very least. I have no illusions about my abilities. I know that they are limited. I can’t say if I’m really qualified to supervise, I can’t say if I’m going to succeed. Supervising is intimidating, and I have doubts about the value of my authetic self for the kids I’m going to serve.
I can only hope that my best is enough.Tags: 2017, CIIP, CIIP 2017, City Hall, Councilman Zeke Cohen, Freestate Justice, Made in Baltimore, Mayor's Office of Employment Development, Office of Sustainability, Office of the Public Defender, Out for Justice, Week Two, Youthworks