Baltimore: same show, different venue
“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” —-Martin Luther King, Jr. , March 1968
I hate riots and I hate writing about riots. The fact that riots still go on over issues that haven’t been resolved is to our shame. Our response to riots is woefully predictable. Let me rephrase that. The nation’s response to black people rioting is woefully predictable. When mostly white crowds riot after their team loses a basketball game or during spring break, there isn’t nearly the media interest or the gallons of ink used to write about it.
First, to maintain any credibility writing about a subject like this I must say that I abhor any violence, vandalism, destruction and looting. It has never provided an answer and it never will. Looting and destroying businesses only lessens the chance of attracting more businesses to the area. And businesses are one of the solutions to these events.
When riots occur, the violence to property is quickly and roundly condemned. Seeing people gleefully looting raises our blood pressure. We have a stake in society progressing in an orderly fashion. So when a riot occurs, what we usually see is condemnation and solidarity with law enforcement. No surprises there.
When these riots happen, there are appeals to calm. And usually if it’s a black face doing the appealing, it gets a wide audience. For instance, a video from former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis blasting violence has gone viral. It’s good to have people speaking out. (But it doesn’t go unnoticed that Ray Lewis speaking out against violence is like Bill Cosby speaking out against rape. )
The video of a Baltimore mother slapping her son upside the head has gone viral. The mother has been championed in social media as #motheroftheyear. I applaud the mother for trying to save her son from his own foolishness. But what usually follows is the refrain, “I wish there were more mothers like her.” That makes me cringe because there are. There are lots of black parents who would’ve been corralling their sons if they knew their sons were involved in that outrage. Responsible black parents aren’t unicorns.
I don’t like writing about riots because it’s ironic that the same people who complain the loudest that videos of bad cops smear all police have no trouble labeling all protestors as rioters or equating rioters with all blacks. Condemning rioters is one thing, but sharing a viral photo of a white man burning a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in protest is bullshit.
Baltimore is 64 percent African-American. Over 400,000 of its 622,000 citizens are black and there weren’t nearly that many people rioting. We’re talking about less than 1 percent.
The conflating of protestors with rioters is dangerous because peaceably assembling to redress grievances is the pillar of the Bill of Rights. The criminals, the thugs destroying and looting, are a minority and that’s important to remember.
In light of the riots, many commentators have mentioned Martin Luther King, and social media is alive with photos of King peacefully leading marches in contrast to the riots. But in Memphis in March 1968, Dr. King led a peaceful march that turned violent because of some young people in the crowd. They vandalized, set over 150 fires and looted. Afterwards, newspaper editorials blamed King for the violence. Those commentators who blamed King were just as wrong as those who conflate protestors with rioters.
And this is ultimately the reason I hate writing about riots. They’re counterproductive and even writing about them hardens hearts. Before uttering the above quote King said, “I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.”
Two days after King was assassinated, Baltimore was one of 125 cities in the United States that went up in flames. The conditions that led to those riots are the same ones fueling today’s explosions of violence.
In addition to the Freddie Gray case and his mysterious death in police custody, there are many other problems in the Baltimore Police Department. The FBI busted 51 Baltimore police in a corruption scandal just a few years ago. And during the period of 2011 to 2014, the city paid out $5.7 million in police brutality cases. Over 100 people have successfully sued the city for excessive police violence, including an 87-year-old woman whose shoulder was broken by an officer.
When you have this kind of fear and animosity between police and the community, with a high unemployment and underemployment rate, the drug trade, substandard schools and crime, it’s simmering and waiting for a precipitating event to boil over. And within this cauldron, will always be some young people who will seize the moment to steal.
There is a multi-pronged problem here that needs to be addressed at the grassroots, by the public and private sectors, by intact and extended families and churches. The good people are there. They were the ones peacefully protesting, blocking stores from looters, and they were the ones sweeping the streets and cleaning looted stores.
I don’t like writing these stories because I’m not confident people want to deal with the array of problems beyond enforcement. And the saddest part about it is I can merely save this column and insert “Newark” or “Detroit” or some other American city in place of Baltimore next time.