Surreal scenes playing out on the city's streets

Jewell Chambers

Sun Special Report: 40 Years Later

April 02, 2008|By JULIE SCHARPER

On Palm Sunday, the second day of rioting, Jewell Chambers drove through West Baltimore looking for smoke.

The 25-year-old had worked as a reporter for The Afro-American for just a few months. Her assignment on this day was to document the fires and looting that raged in the city.

She pulled over near the intersection of Thomas Avenue and Baker Street and walked into a ransacked grocery store, her feet crunching over crackers and cereal that had been scattered across the floor.

Inside the store was one other person - an elderly woman gathering groceries amid the shattered glass and broken shelves.

"She was only picking out what she needed. You could tell she had a list in her mind," Chambers says. "And there was no other place to get food in the neighborhood."

On the opposite corner, a man stood in the doorway of a looted liquor store, pleading with a mob not to set it on fire because he lived upstairs.

The neighborhood was familiar to Chambers, who grew up in West Baltimore, but the scenes playing out on the streets were surreal. She watched people heave sides of beef from a basement freezer into a waiting Cadillac.

At one point, a National Guardsman - also in his early 20s - stopped her blue 1964 Mustang and demanded to see her press pass. As she reached to get it from her back pocket, he stuck a bayonet through the car window.

"I said, `Get that damn blade out of my face,'" Chambers recalls with a laugh as she sits at the kitchen table of her West Baltimore home.

The next evening, Chambers rode in a Jeep with several paratroopers, passing block after block of rowhouses that had lights on only in the third story. As they traveled through the dark streets, the soldiers confided to her that they didn't want to be in Baltimore but would rather be here than in Vietnam. Chambers remembers a voice calling to her from a window: "Sister, are you all right?"

When she answered that she was just showing the soldiers where to go, the voice replied, "Well, if I told them where to go, I'd tell them to go to hell."

About a month later, Chambers left journalism to take a job with the U.S. Department of Education. She says her experiences covering the city left her with an awareness of the power of a mob.

"I couldn't figure out for the longest time how much of it was pure anger and how much of it was take advantage of the moment," she says. "I think a whole lot of it was take advantage of the moment."

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