In pursuit of our mission to provide bipartisan dialogue to the politically engaged, Divided We Fall aims to provide an inclusive platform for diverse voices. To that end, we are launching a “Voices of Black America” authorship series. Over the coming weeks, we will be highlighting black author’s experiences and opinions. This week, we are featuring Dawaun Davis, a community activist from Baltimore, Maryland.
If you would like to nominate someone to participate, please propose an article here.
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. The city was considered one of the most dangerous places in America, and my experience was typical of a young Black man in West Baltimore. By the time I was in 4th grade, I was labeled a “problem child,” and I fell into the street life not long afterward. My mom and dad separated, and many of the people in my neighborhood were involved in drug dealing. Growing up, I learned a lot; how to survive and how to eat when nobody is going to feed you. Most importantly, I learned about loyalty and respect.
However, I had the added inspiration from my mother, who is one of the hardest working people. She made me realize that it was essential to have a strong Black woman in your corner. Despite her efforts, I got more caught up in the street lifestyle. After high school, I realized that “the real world” will eat you up if you cannot act or handle yourself in a certain way. I made a lot of decisions that got me in trouble, but worse, many of the guys in my neighborhood ended up in jail or dead. Eventually, I decided to use my story to inspire my younger brothers and sisters. Here are some of the lessons that I have learned throughout my years:
Poverty, Incarceration, and the Legal System
One of the essential lessons I learned through my experience is that the system favors people with money and influence. My friends in West Baltimore had to grind every day without the resources that many suburban people have. People sold drugs and engaged in illegal activities to provide for their families. If we got arrested, we did not get a second chance in the justice system. Poor black men are perceived as more dangerous, and we did not have politically connected family members or nice lawyers to speak for us. This isn’t just my experience. National investigations show that a young black man is eight times more likely to serve jail time for low-level drug offenses than a white man. Close to 50 percent of people that get arrested are rearrested, and that number is even higher if you go to jail without a high school diploma.
People from my neighborhood served the time, but they did not receive the redemption that the U.S. justice system claims to deliver. My friends and family have found it difficult to get jobs after getting out of jail. They feel like their only options are unemployment or grinding on the streets. I know people who were offered jobs, but the agreement was revoked after a criminal background check. It makes you wonder; how can someone ever get on the “straight and narrow” if their past keeps getting dragged up? How many years do I work after serving my time before I am no longer seen as a “criminal?”
I always tell my young cousins that they should focus on education. If they can do twenty-five years in jail, they can do four years in college. When my family members are in high school, I try to get them to read things like PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America by Dr. Claud Anderson. Books like this have taught me a lot about the “disconnect from the system” faced by people in areas like mine. These black professors get kicked out of universities for being too radical. Lisa Durden was fired from Essex County College because she defended Black-only events and Black Lives Matter on Fox News. The system treats these people as scary because their ideas empower Black people. They did the same thing with the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm X.
Black educators and activists can teach Black children to be self-sufficient so they can set up companies. The system does not help kids from West Baltimore get into the business. The legalization of marijuana is the perfect example. People argued that legalizing drugs would keep Black people off the streets. They said it would empower Black people to create their own businesses. Colorado legalized marijuana, and the Black community did not benefit. Black kids who were selling marijuana on the streets were not getting small business loans. The big companies saw that they could profit, and the states realized they got their tax money, so they helped each other again. The lobbyists campaign for marijuana to be legalized across the country, but Black people do not see that money. The guys I grew up with will never see that money. I am not saying they could not do it, but I do not think they would have been allowed to succeed. Banks would have stopped them from getting loans, and states would have created some red tape on the paperwork. I want our young people to realize that they have to take care of our community from within by getting our own businesses and politicians. If we don’t do that, Black America will be stuck dealing with companies and political parties which only profit from them.
Protests and Resistance
Unlike the second chances that people like Mel Gibson or Robert Downey Jr are given, black stars who commit crimes or speak about race are often exiled. I am a Patriots fan, but I always think of Colin Kaepernick’s protest on racism and how he cannot get a contract in the NFL right now. Years after his protest, Drew Brees and others are still using his decision to kneel during the national anthem to condemn black people and black movements. People say kneeling was disrespectful to the military, but that misses the message: Kaepernick was protesting against racism. I think that statements about disrespect to the flag and the military are manufactured to distract from the legitimate claims that black people have about racism. There has never been a war in American history that did not involve Black soldiers. A Black man named Crispus Attucks was the first causality of the American Revolution. How can you call Black people disrespectful when the first person to die for this nation was a Black man? He made that sacrifice, but people are still fighting for fundamental rights two hundred years later. The opposition is trying to move the conversation to something else because they know people are mad.
The media and government never portray Black outrage positively. If Black people protest peacefully, the government and media say that it is not respectful. Yet, the people in power also complain if Black people get violent in the streets. They move the goalposts, so no form of protest can ever meet their criteria. The government makes protests about “violence” or “disrespect” because it distracts from the fact that people in Baltimore are dying every day. This is why I often tell people in my community that we should request a tangible change instead of letting them move the goalposts.
In 1993, I was around seven years old, and the city I loved had its highest murder rate ever at 353 deaths. Last year, Baltimore had the highest homicide rate in the country at ten times the national average. Black people continue to die through police brutality, violent crime, or gang conflicts. On May 30, 2020, Alajanaye Davis, a sixteen-year-old girl, and Jared Hill, a twenty-two-year-old man, were killed in two separate shootings. Unfortunately, this has been too common in my life. I am tired of using hashtags to remember the fallen soldiers. I want to help educate young people and focus on unity. We have to organize the community by creating communal recreational centers, supporting Black businesses, grabbing the political system, and teaching the children. I want to help the young people in our city “wake up” so they can become activists. My friends and I wish we could have before we got caught in the system. I hope that the current protests are not a one-off demonstration of outrage. People should see this as an opportunity to bring meaningful change to our communities. I am going to try to help by being involved in activism in my community.
I’m not a political scientist, but I am learning a little from books I read about Black Americans. I am 34 years old, and I voted in the last two elections. I voted for Obama because I thought getting a black man elected was symbolic. Nobody really taught us about how politics worked back then, so my family, friends, and I probably put too high of expectations on Obama. I learned from that experience that symbolism is not as important as putting food on the table. Black people have voted for the Democrats for 50 years in local and national elections, but we are still lagging behind. Rowhouses across Baltimore city are abandoned, police brutality continues to dominate our lives, and community centers for young people get shut down throughout the state.
We had a black mayor from the Democratic Party and a black police commissioner when Freddie Gray was murdered in 2015. In the aftermath of Gray’s death, many of the people I knew took to the streets because we were angry that another black man was killed by police without any justice. The police had a significant presence at the protests, and they basically incited riots. Instead of siding with us, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, declared a state of emergency and activated the national guard.
Even now, Joe Biden is going to be the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Biden wrote the Crime Bill alongside Bill Clinton in 1994; the Crime Bill, which imposed mandatory minimum sentencing on people with three or more convictions, increased the death penalty, and expanded the school-to-prison pipeline for young people. But the Republicans are not a better alternative. President Trump has a long history of racism. He ruined innocent lives with his campaign against the Central Park Five. Some of the Central Park Five spent between six and thirteen years in prison on charges that were based on coerced confessions. Trump argued that those innocent children should get a death sentence. Neither party truly values Black lives, so I encourage young people to vote based on tangible change, not loyalty to a political party or symbolism.
I often tell members of our community that black people have to take the political system into their own hands. We should be actively building our politicians from the beginning. The game is rigged, and the rich people create their politicians from a young age. We have to do the same thing. You get somebody at the city council level and push them to state. You cultivate their career and make them push your issues.
We need to educate our communities on the people behind the scenes in the political arena. When I was growing up in West Baltimore, nobody ever explained how lobby groups worked for specific political agendas. Multimillionaires and billionaires push their plans through SuperPACs or lobbyists, but people on the ground have no chance. We need more lobbyists from and for black people and impoverished communities to change the political system.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for close to nine minutes. The death sparked outrage and protests across the country. Since then, I have seen a lot of debate about the future of Black America.
My white friends and co-workers are interested in helping out, and I think it is essential to have conversations with them about the best methods. They can help by giving black people a platform to get their voices out there. They can help by holding the companies and politicians that listen to them accountable for their actions. We need them to help change laws because their voices are heard louder in the system. It is vital to engage in social media campaigns and in-person protests, but I wonder if white people need to be on the streets engaging in violence? If you are white and you go out to riot, you should think, “how will this help the cause?” At the end of the day, white people often get to riot or protest, but they can go home to live their lives. Black people and organizations like Black Lives Matter get blamed for it. Instead, I think white people can take the lead from Black groups or use their platform to promote Black voices.
Black people need to use our voices to make the political parties change the system. We should be pushing political parties to make policy changes like reparations, Medicare For All, and better public-school systems. As I said, we need to demand tangible change. We also need to follow Dr. Anderson’s advice on self-sufficiency. We have to organize the community by creating communal recreational centers, supporting black businesses, grabbing the political system, and teaching the children.
In the future, I want to help my community and show the young people in our city how to “wake up” so they can become activists. I have watched multiple friends and family members die for the streets, but I am trying to learn about the world so that I can pass it on to the young ones. I am not here to preach to young kids coming up, but I was there. There is more to live for than the four corners. I promised my cousin on my life that his kids would not go through what he did. My cousin was murdered in the streeets, but I got the little guy’s back because I want the community to get better. In building our community, I want to give those young ones a better life and make friends and family, like Bling and my grandma, proud.
Dawaun Davis is an activist and political writer from Baltimore, MD. Davis is a proud Foundational Black American, and he hopes to use his growing platform to help young Black people with their struggles.