A blow to head reminds friend he's an outsider

Arthur Cohen

Sun Special Report: 40 Years Later

April 02, 2008|By JULIE SCHARPER

Since the Thursday evening he learned of King's assassination, Arthur Cohen had felt a certain tension growing in the city.

"There was a calm, but it was the calm before a storm," says Cohen, who was then a 31-year-old lawyer working for Legal Aid. "Something was brewing."

Cohen was returning from a memorial service for the slain civil rights leader Saturday afternoon when he saw smoke rising above East Baltimore. As he drove closer, he noticed a group of young people watching a building burn.

An amateur photographer, Cohen picked up his camera and started snapping pictures through the open car window. The group turned and rushed toward him. A man yelled for him to put his camera away.

"But I'm a friend," Cohen recalls saying. "I work at Legal Aid."

In a flash, he was struck. A broken golf club flew in the open window, slicing the skin above his left eye.

He drove to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors sewed the gash shut with five stitches. Others injured in the first waves of violence filled the emergency room.

Cohen, a graduate of Yale Law School, had moved to Baltimore less than a year before to work for Legal Aid. A white man, he served mostly black clients and lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, on Broadway just south of North Avenue. On Thursday nights, he ferried a group of local kids to movies and bowling alleys.

He didn't consider the effect that his appearance - with a camera, no less - might have on the group watching the blaze.

"It was my fault. I was where I shouldn't have been," says Cohen, sitting in his Mount Washington dining room, a faint scar still visible beneath his white eyebrow. "It took that blow to remind me that I was an outsider."

The next day, his head still throbbing, Cohen was at work early. Even though it was Sunday, there were hundreds of people at District Court who needed to be represented.

For five days, along with about 40 other young lawyers, Cohen worked nearly around the clock trying to get people out of jail and back home as quickly as possible.

Some had been arrested for arson or looting, but most had been picked up by the police simply for violating the curfew that had been imposed as part of martial law. "People were being herded around and arrested basically because they were black," he says.

After the fires burned out, Cohen found that his life had changed. He never moved back to his old house because he felt uncomfortable in the neighborhood. He stayed with a friend for a month and then moved to predominantly white Charles Village. He no longer saw the kids who used to ask him for rides to the movies. He felt that his black friends and co-workers were staying away.

Cohen tried to educate other whites about the harsh realities of black urban life. He tried to explain why the riots happened. "As fearsome as it was, people needed to express their feelings of anger and frustration and grief," he says.

Cohen, who went on to work in public health until his retirement in 2004, has often gone over his memories of 1968. In addition to giving an oral history, he wrote a story based on his experiences for Passager, a literary journal published by the University of Baltimore.

"I'm not a person who likes to look back," says Cohen, 71. "But we are the sum of everything we experience, and this was a profound experience."

He still has a print of the photo he snapped just before he was struck. It shows a group of young people - many of them with the soft, open faces of children - walking toward the camera, smoke flaring in the distance. A man at the front of the group steps forward, eyes blazing, mouth open as he shouts his urgent message.

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