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[Review] Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City

September 23, 2020

Cover_five_daysFive years ago, antipoverty activist and nonprofit CEO Wes Moore found himself in Baltimore for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young man from the "wrong side" of the city who had made eye contact with a Baltimore police officer on a bicycle and decided to run. The officer gave chase and, with two other officers, eventually caught Gray, searched him, and found a pocketknife in one of his pockets. The officers arrested Gray and, as Moore writes in the Prologue to his new book, Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City, "when he couldn't, or wouldn't walk, to their transport van, they dragged him along the sidewalk. What happened next was a matter of dispute, but when Freddie Gray died a week later, from a severed spine, much of Baltimore believed the police had killed him."

The day of Gray's funeral, thousands of people converged on New Shiloh Baptist Church, which Moore had attended while he was a student at Johns Hopkins University. Filing into pews in T-shirts and mourning black were men and women, rich and poor, young and old, and a who's who of Baltimore's political class. But the funeral of Freddie Gray was no celebratory homecoming for Moore, who couldn’t shake the feeling as he sat among the mourners that but for a few lucky breaks and a mother who wouldn’t take no for an answer, his road through life could’ve been much like the one traveled by Gray: born addicted to heroin, exposed to harmful concentrations of lead in public housing as a child, and, before his last encounter, involved in multiple altercations with the police. Reflecting on that day later, Moore was overwhelmed by frustration and a feeling of "intolerance for the system that had ended a young man's life."

Established in opposition to unaccountable authority, the United States is a country with protest and dissent embedded in its DNA. From the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights movement, Americans have been a people willing to fight for their rights — and to extend those rights beyond just white men of property. And yet progress toward a more perfect union often has been elusive and insufficient. There is no formula for how to create real social change, no model for how to mobilize the support needed to cause people to sit up and pay attention. The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked protests and outrage around the globe — and caught many by surprise. There are many theories as to why Floyd's death was such a catalyst: the slow economic recovery from the Great Recession and the growing wealth inequality it spawned, the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on BIPOC individuals more likely to work in high-risk jobs deemed essential, and, thanks to COVID-related shelter-in-place orders, a global community on pause from the day-to-day noise of life and more willing to pay attention to suffering and injustice. Although not written in response to COVID-19 or the killing of Floyd, Moore’s timely account asks us to consider as well the burdens that systemic racism and income inequality place on people of color and goes a step further, asking the reader to think about how we are all connected to each other.

Written with New York Times journalist Erica L. Green, Five Days is structured as a series of vignettes based on the lived reality of eight Baltimoreans in April 2015. Three, of them — Tawanda, Anthony, and Greg — are African American and found themselves on the front lines of the civil unrest that followed Gray’s death. John Angelos, executive vice president of Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles franchise, was pulled into Gray's story in a way that forced him to face his own white privilege and power. And the others — Nick, Jenny, Marc, and Billy — function as representatives of a system forced to answer for the death, under questionable circumstances, of another young Black man. Moore himself, a native of Baltimore who was raised by his mother and grandparents and later graduated from Yale, personifies the struggle to rise above the systemic racism that traps so many people in lives of desperation, even as he makes a point of not minimizing the experiences lived by his book's Black protagonists, writing that the "sound of a siren strikes a different pitch depending on which neighborhood hears it." To read Five Days is to begin to know their stories — and, without necessarily becoming familiar with the specifics, to understand how a collective tragedy can bring people together. And yet… In the weeks and months after Gray's death, all the people whose stories Moore recounts did what they could to prevent what happened to Freddie Gray from happening elsewhere — with decidedly mixed results.

Beyond the stories of the eight individuals Moore and Green recount, Five Days is a conversation about how American society treats its economically vulnerable. When poverty is treated as something that Americans raised on the myth of "equal opportunity for all" fall into because of their own missteps and/or not trying hard enough, the conversation becomes about who deserves, or doesn't, assistance, rather than what can be done to create mechanisms and opportunities that actually lift people out of poverty. But with the 2019 Poverty and Inequality Report from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality suggesting that millennials could be the first American generation to experience as much downward as upward mobility, fully 49 percent of Americans born in the late 1980s ending up in a lower-paying job than those held by their parents, and poverty itself becoming all-too easy to correlate with ZIP code, race, and educational level, America has a problem; indeed, that is the core message of the book.

The kaleidoscopic structure of Five Days interlaces stories of loss and humanity with anecdotes from the social sector and a conversation about the limits of philanthropy. Moore, the CEO of Robin Hood, a New York City-based anti-poverty nonprofit that works with more than two hundred and fifty nonprofit partners to provide food, housing, education, legal, and workforce development programs and services to New Yorkers living in poverty, notes that nearly $700 billion is given to charitable and philanthropic causes every year. Take out endowment and capital gifts to private foundations, hospitals, and institutions of higher education, and about $175 billion is left to address every social (and environmental) issue under the sun. Philanthropy can be a powerful vehicle for driving change and doing good, and we should not underestimate its potential to do so. But if we fail to acknowledge the performative nature of much of the philanthropy one sees in the United States and the fact that philanthropy, both individual and institutional, all too often perpetuates negative power dynamics that impede rather than advance well-intentioned efforts, we will never see the kind of systemic change America needs.

In closing, Moore tries to give voice to a protagonist we never hear from in the book: Freddie Gray. "Loving your country means fighting for the institutionalization of its core goodness," he writes. "Loving your country does not mean lying about its past." For this reader, Moore's narrative demands we not lie about its present, either. Wealth inequality and lack of opportunity are not an abstractions; wealth inequality and lack of opportunity are five days in Baltimore where the frenetic actions of protestors, police, and politicians were galvanized by the death of a young man whose tragic end was inextricably linked to his ZIP code and our collective acquiescence in vilifying those deemed to be "undeserving" of help.

Headshot_Emilia CharnoEmilia Charno, a former intern with the Global Partnerships team at Candid, is studying for a BA in International Relations and Spanish at Tufts University.    

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