(*the names included in this piece are all fictional to protect confidentiality*)
Carla’s anger was boiling over because her mother was supposed to come visit and she cancelled for the 2nd time in a row. Carla had been excited all day. She was even on her best behavior so not to get any sanctions (as we would call it if the kids were “bad”). I loved watching her light up with joy at the thought that she would have a visit from the person she loved the most. Carla was sort of, the ring leader on our unit of 10 girls, all between the ages of 13 and 18. It was a large residential treatment facility with dozens of units, housing young people who were compartmentalized by their offenses. This unit, in particular, was for teenage girls with severe emotional difficulties. When the phone call came that Carla’s mother wasn’t coming, I knew we were in for quite the response. At first she just cried. She screamed to her mother on the phone, “Why would you do this again?!” When she hung up, she went to her room quiet. She probably stayed in there about 10 minutes until we started hearing things begin to slam to the ground. Two of us walked over and Carla was throwing anything she could get her hands on, against the walls and on the floor. My heart ached for this young girl, but as a staff member, I still had to follow protocol. I was angry that she would use her anger to destroy her own room. I knew she was upset but that was no excuse. One warning, then another warning, then I make a phone call to the nurse, then if that didn’t work we call a code and restrain her. I really didn’t want it to get that far.
“If you come near me, I’m going to f*** you up. Don’t come near me.”
When some of the other girls on the unit saw what was happening while we were trying to get Carla to stop, they too began to act out. Tanya, another resident, went to grab the garbage can in the common room and threw it at me.
“F*** you Ms. Khristi!”
Jordan, another young resident took all her clothes off and started running through the unit screaming and laughing. One of my co-workers went after her. This was a psychotic episode. Jordan would usually reflect whatever behavior was going on around her. Jessica, another resident went to her room and started crying uncontrollably. She began to start to pull her hair out in clumps. Myself and another nurse had to restrain her. Then one by one, each of the girls began acting out. They cussed us out, they threw things at us, ran around the unit naked, they physically harmed themselves and that went on for a few hours.
I was so confused. As a young woman fresh out of college with little work experience, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. This was only my 2nd month working there. Within ½ hour of that phone call from Carla’s mother, the entire unit was in complete chaos. Other staff from other units came to assist. There were multiple takedowns, interventions and sanctions that took place that night. The reality was these young girls were out of control. It all started with Carla’s reaction and it was like a domino effect of chaos. Nothing specific happened to the other girls for them to behave that way in my mind…
…or was it much deeper than that?
That night at the end of my shift, I naturally had to put in overtime. Not only to restore order to the unit, but I had to go and log in each of their charts, what had taken place, how it was resolved and what the plan for reintegration would be. That was the first time that I had an opportunity to read all of their charts thoroughly, which included not only their behavioral history, but their upbringing. I read for hours.
“Beaten with baseball bat by parental unit.”
“Mother addicted to cocaine at time of conception. Child born addicted to cocaine.”
“Sexually abused by teenage cousin at 5 years old.”
And the list went on and on and on. My heart broke for those babies that night. Here they were one step before juvenile detention, locked in a small petri-dish of a unit, with very few chances to get out and see the sun. Their family structures were broken down, their education was limited to a few classes during the day (just to sort of say they were getting an education) with teachers that were mainly afraid to be there, but really just needed a job. Their lives were the result of being tragically born into brokenness and structures of cruelty.
And that particular day, that chaos boiled over.
That particular day, their rage boiled over.
That particular day, their sadness boiled over.
This is somewhat how I see the rage boiling over in Baltimore. Especially the rage among the young people and the destruction they can’t seem to help but enact. I cannot begin to understand Baltimore. I can’t pretend that seeing a few seasons of “The Wire” makes me a Baltimore expert. I cannot pretend that the few dozen times I’ve driven through Baltimore, or stopped at the Blacks in Wax Museum, or visited the harbor gives me any kind of right to comment on what is happening there. But what I can say is that from what I’ve seen these past few days, chaos is boiling over. Their rage is boiling over. Their sadness, boiling over. I will not critique their anger. I will not quote Martin Luther King sayings about peace, as much as I didn’t stand in the middle of the unit that day as my girls were seething and say “Can’t we all just get along?” My girls had pain that was/is far deeper than I could ever imagine, and their expression of that pain, while I didn’t understand it, I had to take part in managing it. The majority of the time I was even on the unfortunate receiving end of it. And that sucked. I didn’t want garbage cans thrown at me as much as I strongly refute rocks being thrown at police officers. Furthermore I’m not illustrating this as a means of excusing destructive behavior. We must be equally as outraged about systemic injustice as we are compassionate in regards to the psychology of these young people. However I also remain pretty strongly opinionated in our need to focus on solutions and objectives for strengthening our people and communities. But, I refuse to judge this uprising. There is much more to it than the unfortunate burnings of cars and looting of stores.