The camera never blinks, but we do

Trials show parts of city we normally ignore

February 05, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

There's no verdict yet in the trial of the pit bull that came to be known as Phoenix, but I say: guilty.

No, not Travers and Tremayne Johnson, the 18-year-old twins accused of torching the dog on a West Baltimore street in 2009. She was burned so horribly that she had to be put down several days later.

I have no idea if the Johnson brothers did it, or, rather, whether the prosecutors sufficiently proved their case or fell short, as the defense contends. Anyone who has been a juror knows how hard it can be to come up with a verdict in that jury room — much harder than coming up with an opinion out here in the peanut gallery. So far be it from me to render a ruling before the jurors do.

But I'm ready to find someone, or more likely, more than one someone, guilty for something beyond animal cruelty.

Let me explain. During the first day of the trial, jurors were shown a snippet of video from a police camera that hovers over the area where the crime took place. While other portions of the video shown later in the trial showed clearer images on the street, this one pretty much panned around your basic "Wire"-era Baltimore streetscape — the desolate streets, the crumbling rowhouses, the sense of foreboding that nothing good can come out the weedy alleys and vacant lots.

I've driven past or through countless neighborhoods like this so often, I think I've stopped seeing them. What should be outrageous — People live here! Children even! — doesn't even register after a while. In fact, I was driving back from another assignment this week when I noticed the street signs and realized, huh, this is near where Phoenix was burned.

But here's the thing: It could have been any number of other crimes, any number of other neighborhoods. These police-cam videos invariably show much the same backdrop — the decaying housing, the grinding poverty, the inevitable lurking criminality that the cameras were designed to capture.

Somehow, I feel It's come to this: The rest of us turn our backs on these neighborhoods, and the blue-light camera is the only one still looking.

This is not an argument that urban blight, that terrible surroundings killed Phoenix. People — maybe the defendants, maybe not — burned that poor animal.

But nothing happens in a vacuum. Somehow, entire swaths of the city have fallen into netherworlds of poverty and lawlessness, for reasons that are immensely complicated, not easily fixed and, sadly, all too easy to ignore.

Until a crime like this one grabs our attention.

Yes, I'm disturbed by Phoenix's suffering as well. She deserves our empathy and our horror. But it feels too easy to stop there, with the rush of outrage, the donations for a big reward to catch her tormentor, the vigilance with which the trial is being followed.

No similar urgency for justice swells up around most crimes in Baltimore, the largely anonymous shootings and other mayhem that afflict some neighborhoods on a near-daily basis. The reason, some will say, is because Phoenix was totally innocent and so often the human victims aren't. There is some truth there, but it is a sad one: That we will mete out concern on the basis of judging where the victim falls on our personal scale of innocence and guilt.

None of this, of course, is the jurors' concern. They can, and should, only deal with what's in front of them. But the judicial system — like the public schools, like the cops, like the emergency rooms — gets stuck dealing with results of so many larger, entrenched problems that the rest of us have turned our backs on.

Somehow, and I count myself among the guilty, we've managed to share a city and yet live in a different world.

    Baltimore Sun Articles
    Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.