Devin Allen Takes Us Inside Baltimore in “A Beautiful Ghetto”

The Constitution will not protect you from the government of the United States. Laws have no power when they are willfully disregarded on the streets, in the police stations, and in the courts. With each and every passing day, the evidence grows clear: we live in a police state that enforces the practice of slavery under the 13th Amendment.

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Every day, those sworn to uphold the law murder innocent men, women, and children—and they get away with it, as juries agree that extrajudicial assassination is rightfully warranted. At the same time, city and state treasuries payout wrongful death suits in the millions, acknowledging a crime has committed while protecting the criminals.

You can just about hear Marvin Gaye’s plaintive cry, “Make me wanna holler, throw up my hands” over and over again—but despite the pain, sadness, and rage, resignation is impossible. We know the truth about the government of the United States, from Thomas Jefferson, who kept his own children as slaves to Hillary Clinton, who proudly acknowledged in her book It Takes A Village that she and Bill had slaves in the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. Ain’t a damn thing changed.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. The practice of slavery has transformed from a chattel system to use of the prison industrial complex, hiding it away from the public view, so that all we see are the murders, day in and out. Invariably, it all becomes too much—there is only so much injustice people can stand before an uprising erupts.

This is the case of Baltimore, a city that went up in flames in 1968 after the United States government ordered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4. For more than one week, a rebellion took hold and did not relent until President Johnson sent in Federal troops to extinguish it. Under Nixon’s policies of “benign neglect,” the city was never properly rebuilt and the result was a place of generational impoverishment that became ripe for exploitation time and again.

Few know Baltimore outside Hollywood’s version of it. The reality of the city is far more nuanced and complex than The Wire portrayed it. As dirty as the cops were, they were heroicized. The truth is that Baltimore is policed by officers like those who beat 25-year-old Freddie Gray into a coma, severing his spine 80% at the neck on April 12, 2015.

In response, the people rose up once again, protesting the abuses of the police in protest. On the frontlines was local photographer Devin Allen, whose photograph of a young black man running from a squadron of police made the cover of TIME— only the third time an amateur photographer’s work has been appeared on the cover of the magazine.

His photographs of Baltimore tell the story of the city from the inside, from the perspective of one of the community who understands the complexities of poverty and the humanity of the people, crafting images that spark dialogue and engage people in open discussion.

Haymarket Books has just released A Beautiful Ghetto, Allen’s first book: a portrait of the city and its people before, during, and after the protest against Freddie Gray’s murder. Here, Allen reclaims the word “ghetto” from those who use it crassly.

“Ghetto,” he writes. “Most people use it to describe actions of a person. And it’s not positive. When you think about the word ‘ghetto,’ most people think about poverty, struggle, pain, violence, drugs, etc. all these things come to mind, there’s a negative stigma that sticks with the word ‘ghetto.’ But for me, the word ‘ghetto’ is so much more. When I look deep into my community, I see so many beautiful things that are overlooked….This book is to challenge that stigma, to show you the beautiful side of the ghetto, and hopefully inspire others to love, respect, and invest in these communities.”

Allen’s investment is being matched by those of like minds: Earlier this year, he was awarded the inaugural fellowship from the Gordon Parks Foundation to help support “Through Their Eyes,” a project that trains Baltimore students in underfunded public school in photography. The mission is to arm the youth of his city with cameras, not guns, and to show them how to spread “hope and love through art.”

As we live in a world increasingly informed by visual evidence, where photographs and video become a central part of the historical record, the ability for insiders to document their world is more than self-expression: it is a political act. It has been said that “Silence Equals Death” and we know this to be so, for as Zora Neale Hurston understood too well, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

A Beautiful Ghetto is a story of Baltimore liberated from the constructs of Hollywood or the Fourth Estate and the corporate masters they serve.

All photos: © Devin Allen, courtesy of Haymarket Books.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.