A few thoughts on Baltimore

According to the media, Baltimore, Maryland is burning. According to a handful of people who are actually there, the ratio of peaceful demonstrations to violence and mayhem is actually skewed in favor of peace.

No matter the specifics, it is clear there is anger, fear, frustration, and a general feeling of unrest. While I personally can’t condone or advocate looting or violence, I would recommend that people consider WHY it’s occurring.

Here is what we know:

On April 19, 2015, Baltimore police arrested one Freddie Gray, a Baltimore resident. During his arrest, he ended up with a mostly severed spine, three fractured vertebrae, and an injured larynx. He died of his injuries. Unrest took hold after Freddie Gray’s death, especially without clear answers as to why Freddie, a small, young, unarmed (he possibly had a switchblade, but was fleeing, not fighting) man was so brutalized during what should have been an easy and routine arrest. After his funeral on the 27th, massive protests occurred in Baltimore, and eventually riots broke out. As of midday on the 28th, violence was still occurring.

It’s not just Baltimore, as we all know. There has been increasing attention to excessive force used by police (especially against minorities) within the last year. Incidents in Oklahoma, Washington state, Missouri, and New York punctuate a much larger list. In fact, for the history of the United States (indeed, the world), police have been used as tools of oppression as much, if not more than, as peacekeepers. It’s only been in the last couple centuries that civilian police forces are even routinely thought of as a force for good by many people. And certainly, much good has occurred thanks to police work. The 19th and 20th centuries revolutionized what police can do to investigate and even prevent crime. Many positive acts have happened thanks to police.


Yes, there’s always a “but.”

There is a long and ignoble history, even in this century, of police violence and malicious tactics. Targeting of minorities is sadly commonplace. And, the reactions to both police oppression and systemic oppression, has always been mixed. But, it has always included violence. This is an unfortunate truth. Sometimes collective anger boils over and is released in unpleasant ways. Within just the last 50 years, the list of riots and unrest in the US is enormous. Thanks to both police brutality as well as general dissatisfaction with the American racial and social status quo, almost every large city (as well as plenty of smaller ones) has dealt with some form of mass civil unrest.

The killing of high school student James Howell in 1964 triggered multiple race riots throughout the country, especially in New York and New Jersey. The Watts riots in 1965 were massive, and spurred on by multiple factors, including police treatment. Riots throughout the nation erupted in the summer of 1967 including in Buffalo, Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Tampa, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The assassination of Martin Luther King spurred on even worse riots in 1968, including in Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago, and Washington DC. Large-scale riots were somewhat reduced after the turbulent Sixties, but every few years something big popped up, including Kent State in 1970, the LA Riots in 1992, and now, the riots in Ferguson and in Baltimore.

So, none of this is new. We actually have an understanding of why the anger appears and explodes. The story is the same in Baltimore as it was in Ferguson, as it was in parts of New York and Los Angeles over the years. Areas with sizeable minority populations (often “majority minority” populations) are frequently policed by majority white cops. A sense of paranoia on the part of police can develop over time. Frequently, police mostly deal with the worst a community has to offer, and their overall measure of that community suffers for it. Tensions mount. A crime happens, an officer overreacts. Someone is hurt or killed. And then, the people react. When a large group of people feel marginalized and singled-out by the organization that is tasked with their safety, massive problems are all but guaranteed. Very often the police forces don’t (from a demographic standpoint) look a thing like the communities they watch over.

People feel like there’s a boot on their neck. Eventually, they’re going to fight to remove that boot.

Thanks to social media, mass spewing of opinions are now so prevalent, it’s almost become a joke: Facebook has become a great tool for figuring out which of your friends is racist and/or just ignorant. Opinions are flying, and I am a bit hesitant to include mine. I am not a resident of Baltimore, nor am I black (or Hispanic, Asian, gay, transgender, or any other minority with a history of abuse and oppression in America). I am a straight, white, relatively middle-class, American male. I already have all the advantages in life in America. So, I need to be careful in lecturing to others about topics like these.

However, I do have the ability to observe and comment. I also live in a city with a sizeable black population, and a long history of racial tensions. And I have to say, that from my somewhat (but not entirely) outside perspective, what is really lacking is an effort to understand the origins of the problem. People (mostly, but not entirely, white people) see a riot reported on television. They say, “Look, there’s angry black people breaking windows and burning cars! They’re just thugs destroying their own community! Why aren’t the police stopping this?”

Yeah, because an armed police response is just the thing to quell animosity toward police.

Not that I’m suggesting police should do nothing. But the whole point is that the people on Facebook complaining about “lawless behavior” and “thugs” are missing the point. They’re being reactionary. What I believe should happen is that police forces need to re-evaluate why these incidents happen in the first place. If thousands of people take to the streets, and cause hundreds of injuries, and millions in property damage – there’s a reason for it.

We know that many communities feel oppressed by police. Many police react to citizens by adopting a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude. Many police become hardened by years of dealing with the worst of a community to the point where they see everyone in the same light.

Perhaps more effort needs to be made toward neighborhood foot patrols.
Frequent community meetings with police representatives.
Efforts to recruit new police from within the community.
More non-lethal deterrence training.
More verbal communication training.

These are all preemptive measures. The root of the problem isn’t going to go away simply by reacting to a riot after it starts. We need to make an effort to understand why people become angry enough to riot.

Condemning rioters and civil disobedience is easy. It also isn’t productive. To all the social media pundits and commentators out there… If you’re disgusted by reports of violence and property damage, of rock throwing teenagers, and police barricades… then quit reacting. Get to the root of the problem. It takes effort, it takes research, it takes – most importantly – listening. Go find out what’s pissing communities off. You may discover the reasons are more valid than what appears on the surface.

Condemn violence, certainly. But understand why it happens. Maybe the problem isn’t the reaction, but something much deeper. I don’t have a specific answer to these problems. But I know we have them, and we need to listen to each other more before they’re going to get better.

A few more links to check out regarding this incident: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/the-mysterious-death-of-freddie-gray/391119/

About hbreck

Writer, debater, contrarian, storyteller, occasional troublemaker. I'm mostly just making things up as I go.
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One Response to A few thoughts on Baltimore

  1. Pingback: A Few Political Thoughts, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Iowa’s outsized influence on American politics. | A Skewed Perspective

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