Dispatches from The African American Recruitment Festival

Dispatches from The African American Recruitment Festival

LBS

Baltimore's biggest black festival served as a militarized tool to recruit soldiers for the armed forces and voters for the mayor.

I came to this year’s African American Festival (known almost universally in Black Baltimore as “AFRAM”) not expecting much. I knew it was sponsored by the United States Armed Forces, I knew I was probably in ideological disagreement with that; but still I hoped that the festivities could provide something that would edify and strengthen the perennially lagging sense of city-pride and community. Unfortunately, what I found was more disturbing than I had anticipated, as thousands of visitors were effectively treated to a giant military recruitment fair.

After taking in all the normal festival sights, my eyes were drawn to an incredibly large contingent of police. This was one of the many subsequent moments, where the militarization of the festival would overwhelm my ability to enjoy it. A large police trailer served as a gathering spot for approximately 30 police who, to my dismay, were not part of the ceremonial pre-Fourth of July Parade, but rather were assigned to patrol and canvas the festival. This, they would proceed to do in one swoop. Thirty of them strode through the festival - a wave of blue splashed against a background of red, green, and black.

 

The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) beginning their morning patrol at AFRAM.

Toward noon, the formal parade began - bringing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; who would use this year's military theme to place her, and her re-election bid, into the spotlight. It was somewhat unnerving to see a political leader on the festival’s two big screen TV’s. She touted the event as proof of the city's advancement, conjuring up 1984-esque thoughts on political control through media exposure. Seeing her speak at the festival, with cadres of military personal surrounding her, I couldn’t help but feel that she was quite overtly, both waving the flag and using the time-tested “bread and circus” political technique- of giving the people fun distractions, in order to cement  proof of competent political leadership. To her credit, the mayor executed the technique to perfection; cutting ribbons with military personnel at her side, awarding citations to fallen soldiers, standing hand- over-heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, like the most enthusiastic of students. With electoral challengers: Jody Landers, Otis Rolley, and representatives like Catherine Pugh - also in attendance, it remains to be seen whether her performance will win her any votes. However, her being on stage, while the other candidates were relegated to walking the crowd, is a powerful example of the benefits of incumbency. As well, as how these types of events are used - not only to serve the people, but also specific political interests.

Big Sister is Watching: The police's stare into the shot was not intentional. Yet, it functions well to show the connection between election year political interests and the increasing militarization/policing of public events.

After the mayor's festivities ended, I finally confronted the most dominant presence at the festival, that of the U.S. military and its recruiting booths. The award for the most savvy recruitment tool has to go to the U.S. Army. The van was tucked away in the east side of the festival. It made-up for its sub-prime location, by offering video games to those who came by. To be clear, these were not war games. They were auto-racing games, sufficient in luring in a young audience and thus the Army’s desired targets, their parents. This tactic mirrors the larger trend of the Army using video games as recruitment tools, as illustrated by their recent opening of a “recruitment arcade” outside of Philadelphia.

 

A child plays a “Daytona” racing game, at the U.S. Army’s AFRAM booth.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Air Force brought a walking-inflated-costumed-soldier-figure onto the main thoroughfare; a surreal sight, as upon initial view it was impossible to tell if it was a just an inflatable mascot or a person in an inflatable suit. Either way, the experience of seeing it, in-person, was somewhat surreal and illustrates the depth to which the military will go to draw people’s attention.

A back-shot of the Air Force’s inflatable-airman costume.

The most visible force at AFRAM was, however, the U.S. Marines, who had more booths in prime locations than any other branch of the Armed Forces. The giant, muscle-bound, inflatable Marines mascot dominated the landscape of the western wing of the festival; while various groups of soldiers, showed off their strength on chin-up bars set-up around the festival. Their invitations, for others to give it a try,  served as an opportunity for the Marines to start their recruitment pitch. To the recruiters' side, was a tricked-out Hummer, sporting the names of various military sites. The most prominently displayed name was that of Fallujah, the Iraqi city that was home to one of the most intense battles of the Iraq war. American pride in winning this battle, is matched only in Iraqi’s anger over the U.S. tactics during it. For the Pentagon has admitted to using the chemical-burning agent: white phosphorus during the battle. Many contend that this is in violation of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention ban on using chemical weapons against civilians.

The Marines' Hummer at AFRAM.

Marines challenging men to do chin-ups.

I left the festival as the bulk of the crowd came in to hear the evening's music line-up. Generally, I felt that it was quite appropriate, that due to legal issues, the festival has dropped the word “Heritage” from this year's title. There was very little of anything that could be called "Black Heritage" on display. The main thoroughfare, normally paced with small vendors selling African inspired jewelry, incense, and clothing, was reserved mostly for food vendors serving the traditional carnival/festival foods (funnel cake, chicken tenders, etc). One booth owner, who sells Afrocentric jewelry, commented on the difference between this year’s AFRAM and previous years. They noted that this year, most of those selling archetypically “AFRAM”-wears were given “crappy spots”, faraway from the majority of foot traffic and that they were bunched too tightly together.

“Many of us are selling similar things,” she said, noting that such bunching makes it harder for the venders, as sellers are forced to directly compete against one another.

When asked about the Armed Forces sponsoring the festival, she summed-up her thoughts by saying that AFRAM would be better used to promote local business. “Unless you’re getting signed-up for the military,” she said, “I don’t know what that does for you”.