Open letter to Prince: In Baltimore, Visit the Grassroots. Otherwise, You’re Drowning Them Out

Dear Prince,

As a Baltimore native, I want to personally thank you for your interest in helping Baltimore.

However, as someone who has worked on social justice issues in the city for most of my adult life, I’m writing to question your timing/methods.

I was out of town on Monday, so I saw what the city looks like from the outside. Knowing people I worked with in the city were helping to lead protests, I was terrified from what I saw on cable news.

I thought Baltimore was basically done for as a functional city.

To my surprise, when I got home, about 5 minutes walk from the scenes of “ground zero”, I found very little visible damage from the so called “riot”, but a community so structurally neglected as to make it difficult to see how the community would change much even if a full scale riot had broken out.

Seeing Baltimore from the outside last weekend, I can also see why you may feel the need to come. Baltimore is in pain; the people are angry and mistrustful and need help. As a Baltimore native, I also know exactly why that narrative is so problematic. From the outside looking in, you would assume Black Baltimore is rudderless, without unity and devoid of the ability to heal itself. This image is useful for the media, politicians, and elite “saviors” to frame West Baltimore as needing the benevolence of philanthropic institutions.

It also happens to be incorrect.

West Baltimore is full of institutional and communal leadership structures which are ignored, disavowed, and often directly attacked by the very same politicians and institutional non-profits that I’m sure are welcoming, and perhaps directly benefiting from, your planned visit. This may shock or even confuse, but let me explain. Few cities have mastered the illusion of democracy, the veneer of justice, and the art of co-option as well as Baltimore. A city run largely by Black politicians and saturated with non-profit organizations, all claiming to “love Black people” and wanting to “empower” (read “save”), Black Baltimore is yet the home of some of the highest inequity in the country.

There is an industry in Baltimore around peddling solutions to the misery of Black people, framing programming as the “solution” for people deemed culturally or intellectually deficient. Thus, many of the “youth organizations” your benefit concert would be benefiting are not controlled by the community, are not accountable to the communities they serve, and are not staffed by people who have immersed themselves within the cultural and intellectual heritage of the communities they serve. This is not to say the people there are mean spirited or bigoted, but structurally there is a system which props up institutional nonprofits as de facto “civilizing missions,” viewing the youth they serve as needing to be properly ingratiated into the dominant culture, a process which tacitly demonizes their indigenous culture and frames those in these communities who do not wish to take this path as inferior, problematic, even “thugs.” This raises questions about the concert; at 2-4 hundred dollars a ticket, how much of this money actually goes to charity, and which charities? Far from fixing Baltimore’s problems, by ingratiating yourself into a system which ignores at best and demonizes at worst the very communities most affected by these events, you risk exacerbating these problems.

Second, your visit is going to hurt the autonomous actions of the Baltimore grassroots. With all due respect, only we can heal ourselves, and while we welcome those who seek to build and empower indigenous institutions, the cavalcade of celebrity cameos to Baltimore this week only distracts from the long term need to build independent institutions within oppressed communities so that the people there have the power to save themselves. An example of this is the massive action we have planned for Saturday, May 9th, Bmore Youth Rise.

Organizations from all over the city have chosen to have a series of events (murals, town halls, marches, and concerts) to unify and build West Baltimore. Unfortunately, many “over west”, as we say, will not be at your concert. They won’t be able to afford it, will need to sleep to prepare for work on Monday morning, or will be running the numerous religious, sports, or community programs people never hear about. We thus decided to bring these actions to them, planning a march directly through some of Baltimore’s most forgotten neighborhoods leading to a day of music and consciousness rising at Harlem Square Park all afternoon.

You might not be able to find it on Baltimore’s map, but if you can find time to get here early, and are comfortable being around the community, we’d love to have you. We could use help feeding the 2-10 thousand people we are expecting, and would also love for you to add your voice to the numerous local artists who will be performing.

I’m seeking confirmation on this, but I do believe there will even be basketball.

I’m writing this letter because, without this, I know how this is going to go. I’ve seen it before, when we hosted the Stop the Drug War Caravan for Peace, a massive community event for peace and unity, and no media showed up, and when we had a grassroots led town hall for mothers of victims of police brutality TWO YEARS before Freddie Gray, and though media was in room no story was written. You will come to town, do a few songs, and get the credit for bringing “peace” to Baltimore, flanked by politicians and business leaders who probably think Harlem Park is somewhere in Manhattan. The peacemakers in these Baltimore communities are the reason there was not a “real riot,” but the question is can they get a piece of the credit and media attention the outsiders are getting? After you leave, we will still have a city to rebuild, not from the riots, but from 50 years of structural neglect and institutional racism.

The Baltimore Grassroots need the resources to work with and the space to breathe, but instead we will get drowned in “purple rain.”

Sincerely,

Lawrence Grandpre

President of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS)

Member of the #BmoreUnited Coalition

Bmoreunited.org