With what’s going on in Baltimore, we’re beyond simple deja vu. What we’ve been witnessing is a sickeningly predictable process. Police beat the shit out of a black guy, and he dies. People get mad. Protests turn to violence. Everyone views the incidents through their own prisms, and assigns blame and praise as their worldview permits them. We have been repeating this process for some time, but in recent times it was the death of Michael Brown that instigated what has become a nationwide movement.
In order to fix the mess that’s currently being made, we need to see what got us here in the first place. Simply sticking our fingers in our collective ears while hauntingly saying “well, don’t riot!” is like someone whose answer to sexual assault is to tell men “well, don’t rape!”. It’s condescending and unhelpful. We need to investigate how we got to where we are, both in Baltimore and other communities such as Ferguson, MO.
Do the protesters have legitimate complaints?
Only a partisan fool would argue that the protesters in Baltimore don’t have legitimate reasons to be extremely angry.
The flash point for this community was the death of Freddie Gray, who was taken into police custody on April 12th and somehow came out of it with a broken spine the likes of which usually happen in car accidents. The incident sprung from Gray seeing a police officer and taking off running. It’s unknown exactly what happened inside the police van that he was taken into, which is different from the case of Walter Scott, who was taped being gunned down from behind by a police officer.
In addition, police brutality is a major issue in Baltimore, and with so many payouts – of taxpayer money, mind – for brutality cases, keeping in mind that these are just the ones that got caught, a reasonable person can draw one of two conclusions: either the Baltimore Police Department is so incompetent that they can’t even get away with one of the easiest things for an officer to get away with, or police brutality is so prevalent in the BPD that it’s skewing the numbers.
So it’s a race thing, right?
That’s not cut-and-dried. Baltimore’s a bit different in that they have a black mayor, a heavy black population within their police force, and their minority population is mixed race, with Latinos and other ethnic groups mixing in and creating an eclectic mix. This isn’t Ferguson, whose white police force regards their black population as walking ATMs.
But at the same time, race is heavily tied to class in all of the cases that have sprung up. This goes back to decades old debates on the poor economic straits of black people in America, owing to hundreds of years of slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws, enhanced by racist mindsets throughout America. Those are different articles altogether, but the economic plight of black people in America, on a bird’s eye level, contributes heavily to the crime rate, which causes police to react disproportionately, and perpetuates a never-ending cycle of distrust. The chicken vs. egg debate of which came first – the black inequality or black crime – is irrelevant to this context. What’s important, right now, is that in many cases, the police – even black cops, like the one who covered up for Michael Slager – have not helped, for years, due to outright profiling.
Wait a minute. You just said blacks commit more crimes. In fact, most of the people who have been killed had rap sheets as well! That kind of justifies at least some action, right?
Ever hear of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Because that’s what’s happening in most cases. Yes, in many cases, as reported by the press, the individuals who have been victimized recently had prior run-ins with police. Despite consternation by some that this is a ploy to prove that black people are all criminals, it would be irresponsible journalism to omit those facts.
But this issue isn’t just affecting poor blacks with a record. CNN’s LZ Granderson on Twitter yesterday pointed out the reality:
The first time an officer pulled a gun on me I was 12 carrying a gallon of milk home from the store. Notice I said "the first time".
— LZ Granderson (@Locs_n_Laughs) April 29, 2015
I had a 2-month stretch in which I was pulled over by police in my neighborhood 6 times in less than 2 months. This was after I "made it"
— LZ Granderson (@Locs_n_Laughs) April 29, 2015
There’s also New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who’s son was stopped at gunpoint at Yale University, where the son is a student. It was a black cop that detained that young man, but ultimately, it’s the colour blue that matters more. As Mr. Blow notes in his piece, all that matters is how you look.
So what does this have to do with someone that has a “rap sheet”? There’s a huge difference between LZ Granderson and some random guy in the projects, right? Well, let’s extrapolate this to its logical conclusion:
1) Man is stopped for superfluous reasons. There are provable statistics that show blacks are far more likely to be stopped than whites. This is often called “walking(talking) while black”.
2) Man is ticketed or arrested for a meaningless crime. This is partly the fault of overlegislation – chances are good that due to the addition of “regulatory” crimes, you are breaking the law while reading this – but it’s also a problem for black people, so often pulled over by officers needing to justify themselves, especially if there’s a financial impetus.
3) If that person is later the victim of brutality, reasonable doubt can be cast on the victim by referencing “previous run-ins” with police. This not only affects criminal and civil trials, it doubles as a character assassination.
4) The general public – still overwhelmingly white, mostly conservative, and educated with a strong belief in law, order and the police as a force of protection instead of oppression – are quick to label the action reasonably justified, unable – or unwilling – to personalize the problem. The spectre of police brutality is so foreign to most white people that even well meaning individuals simply cannot understand what it’s like to walk around with a constant fear of police reactions. It’s literally not in our realm of thinking.
My partner, who is white, did not know the siege some blacks live with until he saw me surrounded by police in my own driveway.
— LZ Granderson (@Locs_n_Laughs) April 29, 2015
Whatever, you bleeding heart liberal. So the police occasionally thump a guy too hard. But I don’t wanna hear this stuff about poor people! They have just as many chances as we do! Just look at others who made it! Look at guys like Herman Cain!
First off, if you’re poor, you don’t have as many chances as you think, as is easy enough to prove. I grew up poor, and it took an immense amount of work, four years of the military, and a lot of luck just to make it into the middle class, and if something goes wrong now, I’m largely screwed.
Now, go back to that Ferguson report, know that that report could be written for entirely too many communities – particularly in the South, where blacks are still fighting the ghosts of Jim Crow, slavery, and a significant number of people who feel the Confederacy was justified – and imagine how hard it would be to “come up” under those circumstances. It’s hard to climb the social ladder when it keeps getting kicked out from underfoot.
This is the major reason why so many communities are protesting, fighting, attacking, you name it. They see no way out of the hell they’ve been born into, and the people that are supposed to be protecting them are inflicting further injustice. The minutia of how we can get poor people out of their plight is a political debate for another time.
OK, maybe I understand that. But that doesn’t justify rioting! Looting isn’t helping! In fact, it’s taking away from that community!
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, looting and rioting are bad, m’kay? Looting is not protesting. It is naked theft, brought on by a simple-minded materialism that some could argue is a major reason why the poor are poor. And flies are said to be more attracted to honey than vinegar. This is all true.
But in light of everything that’s happened in the past two years, it’s hard to argue that the “nice” way of doing things has worked at all.
The above argument is the one that The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates made recently, stating that calls for order are only made with no other solutions in mind.
Now, tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question. To understand the question, it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray. An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
As for the stealing, it’s bad. It’s wrong. It hurts the moral standing of the protesters. But if we’re talking in terms of scale, it’s worth noting that the City of Baltimore has a bad history of using civil forfeiture as a form of revenue enhancement. If we put the scale of that in a bar graph next to some assholes stealing some kit from the electronics department, the first bar is going to be astronomically higher.
Well… I still think what they’re doing is wrong. Win some elections and make change the right way.
Actually, Ferguson did just that.
It’s OK if you don’t care about the protests, and their resulting riots. It’s OK if Freddie Gray is just one more name on the news. If you want to mention some white guy somewhere that didn’t get this kind of attention – here, I’ll even do the work1 for you – then sure, even if you’re kind of being a dick.
But to sit there and assume that this is a problem caused by those in the streets is irresponsible, insensitive, and flat-out wrong. The people out in the streets right now aren’t nobodies, doing this for fun; they are citizens who think they have been getting a raw deal for years, decades even, and the death of one of their own, unjustified, by the people tasked with their “protection”, was finally the straw that broke the camel’s back. This isn’t the inane ramblings of a “social justice warrior” claiming that all sex is rape or some other crap. There are cold, hard, verifiable statistics showing that the poor and the black – too often synonymous terms – get an extremely raw deal all over America, and if it doesn’t change, what we’re seeing now will continue to be the new normal.
Note: In the time between this piece being written and being edited for release, six police officers have been charged with crimes ranging from false imprisonment to murder.
1 – Before reading that WT link – if you can get past all those damn surveys – go back up and read that Census link from before.