The Concert for Fair Development at Benjamin Franklin High School in Curtis Bay.

The Concert for Fair Development at Benjamin Franklin High School in Curtis Bay.

Several weeks ago I was asked by United Workers to perform at a concert celebrating a recent victory. A high school group called Free Your Voice successfully convinced the public school system to cancel its contract with a company that planned to build a trash-burning incinerator less than a mile from their school--in a neighborhood already inundated by industrial pollutants. I'm really inspired by what they've achieved.

Their effort is part of a larger campaign that is pointing out how the city gives big tax breaks to developers who promise to enlarge the local economy by building luxury condos, casinos, hotels, etc--but in the end these tax dollars don't end up benefiting the people most in need. Many of the jobs created don't pay a living wage. In the case of the incinerator, sometimes the development actively hurts people by poisoning the air.  United Workers and others are instead calling for a fair development model -- working towards an economy designed to meet the needs of people who live here.  Instead of an incinerator, pursue clean, renewable energy, for instance.  We can shape our future instead of setting ourselves up for more inequality.

Here is the song that I wrote for their campaign. I wrote it before Freddie Gray's death so it's obviously not in response to it, but it still seems relevant.

(The words in this admittedly rough i-phone recording are slightly different from the final ones, below).


This is a tale, a tale of two cities
One fiddles while the other one burns
Though I've played the same tune since the day I was born
To fight fire, I'm trying to learn

You know what they say where there's fire there's smoke
And this smoke has become a disease
The air is so thick, it makes people sick
And you know our neighbors can't breathe

From their towers, they would watch all their ships coming in
And down by the harbor, the people watch 'em leave empty again
We're no angels, we're all sitting on some sort of fence
But pick one battle in the war against indifference

They come and make deals that the taxpayers feel
With the promise of a rising tide
But all that we get is deeper in debt
Left stranded up here high and dry

Don't need no casinos or luxury condos
What glitters is not often gold
Well all that I want is a home and a job
And a place where my babies grow old


You know we're in luck, cause we've got the sun 
and the wind who will lend us their power
The plan's underway, it pays living wage,
It becomes more real every hour

Oh say can you see away 'cross the sea
The sails on the horizon
A new world's on her way, she's due in today
We will welcome her in with a song

Free your voice
Let it ring
Let it sing

There is a lot that I'd like to say about Freddie Gray's death and the protests that have followed, but I think one of the most fundamental steps for us all to take is to listen.

For those who are feeling frustrated by the protests, or shaking heads at the windows smashed or the sports fans bothered downtown -- take some time to read about the incredible abuses that people have been experiencing at the hands of the police, like the 87 year old grandmother with a broken shoulder. Look at how long people have been trying to expose and to stop this, and how little has changed. Sandtown/Winchester, the neighborhood Freddie Gray was from, faces so many other simultaneous oppressions that feed into the dynamic between the police and the community. As a white person who grew up in places like Roland Park, Towson, and Lutherville--and even since I've lived in more diverse neighborhoods as an adult--I know that it's very easy to live a life mostly unaffected (or rather, not directly affected) and uninvolved in these struggles. That's the default setting that our segregated society has handed to us--but we can choose not to be indifferent to the pain of our neighbors. I'm still learning how to do this; really, it's the work of a lifetime. is one good place to start listening.

One could say that protesters should be more strategic in how their response to brutality--but if a person has been actively oppressed by our system for his whole life it's easy to understand how he wouldn't be interested in trying to patiently seek change within it. And it's not at all clear how to do that in the first place. Because of my privilege I've never experienced mistreatment by the police myself, but for others in our city this literally is a matter of life and death.  


It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.