Baltimore Riots: 50 Shades of (Freddie) Gray
So what do you want me to say? Should I say rioting is wrong and violence is not the answer? Should I say rioting is a symptom and we should address the causes? If I talk about the causes am I then slanting the narrative in a way that suits me?
Are the Baltimore riots a natural consequence of unjust actions? Do Black people have agency in their own reactions? Do police?
As I ask these questions I am confronted with the inescapable notion that race in America is the ultimate gray area. Beginning with the visibility of Trayvon Martin’s murder 3 years ago this has become the era of publicized police brutality. But even police brutality is a symptom of a system that routinely dehumanizes Black people and treats their lives as expendable.
I haven’t been a teenager in a long time, but I can try to put myself in the shoes of the teenagers and young Black people who are growing up in this era. I can see that America sold them a false bill of goods. When Barack Obama got elected in 2008, people said it was the beginning of a “postracial” era. Just like the “colorblind” or “multicultural” times before it, the postracial era was supposed to translate into the end of racism. Many young people bought that, they were taught that in schools, and our entertainment and news did a lot to promote the idea.
However, nothing was done to change the situation on the ground. The young people I know sincerely wanted to believe that racism is not a real thing that has real life consequences in their lives, but that idea has simply been discredited by reality. It continues to be a fact that America will not invest in its infrastructure, continues to bankroll a system that has bleak outcomes for poor minorities in particular, and then blames those people for an environment that is overtly hostile to their growth and development.
In the justice system, Blacks are treated as less than human by the authorities. All this is exacerbated by social media in which we can see that this is a national problem. Since the death of Mike Brown at the hands of a police officer, I don’t think there has been a week that has gone by where there is not footage of some (usually Black) man getting shot by the police or subjected to unnecessary brutality. This has led to a frustration in young people in particular, that society has lied to them and continues to lie to them. There have been calls for peaceful protest, but as I have already documented peaceful protest such as marching and the like is no longer an effective strategy for change. I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to say that people have noticed. In human affairs when communication breaks down, violence is often the result. Wars are started because the leaders of two different countries refuse to speak to each other. Riots happen when the government is not listening to an oppressed minority.
Riots also happen when people are not interested in the ritual of blowing off steam (as happens in a “peaceful protest”) but when people are genuinely enraged. These riots are happening for the same reason that riots occurred in Watts in 1965 and in Los Angeles in 1992. Black communities have been oppressed, disenfranchised, ignored, and over policed for too long and the people living in those communities are fed up. Riots occur when people do not believe in the ability of government officials to effect change or don’t believe that government officials are in the slightest bit interested in change for that matter. President Obama ran on a platform of “Change we can believe in.” Young minorities believed, but they haven’t seen any change. On the news I have seen many black politicians talk about the problem. But the real question isn’t whether or not you know what the problem is, the real question is what are you willing to sacrifice to try to change the situation? Have our politicians been brave enough to even broach the subject of race? Have they drafted any policies that would address income inequality? Will they even pay lip service to the gross injustices visited upon communities by gentrification? Will they look critically at the flaws in our education system and do more than advocate for charter schools? Will they stand up and fight for the renewal of the Voter Rights Act or Affirmative Action? Will they say institutional racism is real and take concrete actions to deal with it?
For the sake of democracy the police need to improve their actions and relations with the community even in the case of people who are doing actual crime. The police are representative of the enforcement power of the government. In effect, they are the law. If the police do not discharge their duties respectfully and honorably they diminish the power of the law. If people do not respect the law, then there is no way to keep order, and chaos ensues. When people attack the police it means that in the eyes of the community the police have lost their ability to legitimately act as representatives of the law. In effect, they are nothing but another street gang that just happens to have the biggest guns on the block. That is the dangerous clash that we have seen in Baltimore. Politicians need to make better laws and the police need to figure out more equitable ways to enforce the law.