By Sonja Sohn
“GO ... go. Sonja — go!”
I hear my name, and sprint out into the middle of the projects. I’m supposed to kick the man in front of me, as hard as I can.
It’s a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. The reason I’m having trouble isn’t because I’m worried about hurting him. He’s wearing body pads.
He is an actor and in this sequence of events his character, a low-level drug dealer named Bodie, has just hit a cop. I’m playing a cop who’s supposed to rough him up — do anything it takes to defend my brethren.
But something about this scene turns my stomach. Really?? I gotta defend a cop — and like it?
If this were just acting, it would be a piece of cake. But the weight of it feels too heavy. I’m caught in some netherworld between my past and my present as I try to talk myself into this bit as quickly as I can.
We are on set in West Baltimore in 2001, shooting the first season of HBO’s “The Wire,” where I am working on my first big television job, playing the role of Detective Kima Greggs.
I drop my arm from the brick wall and fix my costume. I take a step back and realize I’ve been standing right in front of the wide open door of someone’s apartment.
We are shooting here because it conjures just what we need for the show: an inner city that has been abandoned and neglected for too long.
But it’s not a set.
I’m uncomfortably close to the insides of somebody’s life. I quickly straighten up when my head is drawn back around toward that door.
An overweight elderly woman dressed in a ripped cotton housedress leans on her kitchen table. Graying braids stick up from her head. A tiny, barefoot baby crawls around a dirty floor in a diaper and looks up, toward the woman. I can feel a rotting stench of brokenness, so fierce it seems to be suffocating everything in that apartment and deep down inside of me. It is not anguish, depression or desperation that I sense. There is only the smell of surrender, a resignation to the circumstances of her life.
In that moment, I cannot just stand there watching myself roll out to sea. I’ve got some HBO butt to kick. And then it hits me. Try to remember something — just one little thing — redeeming about a cop. C’mon now, I used to call them whenever I thought Mama’s life was in danger. There must’ve been something about them that made me keep calling. All I can remember is a sweaty officer in a short-sleeve uniform, standing in the door of my childhood apartment, refusing to look at me.
I first came to Baltimore 14 years ago for the job on “The Wire,” a cable drama about cops and crime.
I lived and worked in the city for almost a decade. It is where I became a first-time home buyer, where I sent my daughter to public school, where I discovered that I had the soul of an activist. It’s the place where I drained my bank account to the tune of almost $200,000 to start a nonprofit organization that served formerly incarcerated youth from 2009-2014. We called it “ReWired for Change,” and the goal was simple: We wanted to give young people who had been incarcerated a realistic chance of getting their lives back on track.
For all the time I was there, I twisted my brain to not only do my part, but to also try to figure out why the underserved citizens of Baltimore seemed so apathetic. It took five years of working in those communities for me to learn what I had sensed to be true — what working on “The Wire” should have taught me — that there was a hopelessness on the streets of Baltimore that ran so deep that it seemed to have killed the spirit of the people.
Hopelessness is not something that simply pops up out of nowhere. It has a source. It is never meaningless, and it is never created within a vacuum. I remember seeing it on the faces of the young people I worked with, who traveled by bus across the city, some with kids in tow, to do exactly as we had been instructing them — stay out of trouble by attending G.E.D. classes, look for employment and participate three evenings a week in our anti-recidivism program — only to come up empty-handed every time they applied for the few jobs available to them.
One girl told me the first week of class that she had just lost a friend in a drive-by shooting and had participated in a retaliatory attack. Over the course of four years, I watched her quit rolling with her old crew, earn her G.E.D., graduate from community college and sign up for the National Guard. She still can’t find a steady job.
There is, without question in my mind, a genealogy to the anger that has been on display since Freddie Gray was killed. It’s rooted in a history that is dominated by years of voting for inept and disrespectful politicians. Campaign promises for better schools and more employment opportunities, often made at church services and community meetings during election time, never quite seemed to materialize once the politicians took office.
It is this public betrayal of trust that I believe was at the root of the violence, even more than the culture of police brutality that was so pervasive that underserved Baltimoreans accepted it as a fact of life.
Now, however, I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because it seems as though Mr. Gray’s family might see justice. And I am hopeful because I have seen what the people of Baltimore can do in small flashes of fighting against apathy.
One snapshot of that fight: In the fall of 2012, I worked with more than 100 African-American citizens on an initiative called the Baltimore Wake Up that gave funding to people to improve their neighborhoods. A group of formerly incarcerated men living in a halfway house worked to revitalize an empty lot, and a group of established women worked with adolescent girls from East Baltimore on a self-esteem-building project.
One week, the men cleared a mountain of trash, the next, they purchased materials. The women bought art supplies so the girls could make collages with visions for their future, and cosmetics and feminine products for a class on beauty and hygiene. Six months after the project started, we all came together to celebrate. We were surrounded by photos of what they’d accomplished. Formerly abandoned lots were now full of tree seedlings sprouting up from freshly mulched soil. Photos of the young women’s vision boards showed snapshots of dreams not yet broken.
On Friday, one city official seemed to finally answer the desperate pleas of poor Baltimore residents. With the chief prosecutor’s announcement that she was charging six police officers in the death of Mr. Gray, I sensed something lift. It is a break from the defeat I felt when I had to take a breather from my nonprofit. It’s a reprieve from the despair that I felt all those years ago, struggling to act in the reality of the Baltimore poor.
And now, I know that when I return to hit the city streets I love, finally, I will be able to breathe.
Sonja Sohn is an actor who played Detective Kima Greggs on HBO’s “The Wire,” and the founder of a nonprofit organization for formerly incarcerated youth in Baltimore.