What Is There to Say About the Baltimore Riots?

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Baltimore protests.Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

There is a great deal of commentary emerging in the wake of what’s happening in Baltimore. Responding to the crisis on his blog at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates worries that the calls for nonviolence from Baltimore’s authorities are not only hypocritical, but designed to suppress justifiable outrage:

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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. […]

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 rioters themselves.

Along similar lines, the Week’s Marc Ambinder warns against being too judgmental toward those committing acts of violence in Baltimore:

Not because we shouldn’t be able to see something wrong and say it’s wrong, but because those of us who aren’t there — those of us who didn’t grow up poor, or simply, black in Baltimore — offer nothing constructive when all we do is make the easy call, when we bemoan violence and decry rioting. We wield no power, and speak no truth. We just contribute stigma. We rehearse the lines that make us feel better about ourselves.

He adds:

The still-unexplained death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the state should give everyone who believes that justice is real, binding, and generative, another reason to look at the world through the eyes of people for whom justice is merely a word.

Over at Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown is similarly sympathetic to the rage in Baltimore:

Those rioting and perpetuating violence against Baltimore cops weren’t being imminently threatened. It’s easy to point fingers at them. It’s warranted on one level. But we all know that, right? We also know that in some cases, history forgives non-directly defensive violence. It’s a hyperbolic comparison, sure, but those boats full of British tea weren’t directly threatening anyone’s life or liberty.

All I’m really trying to say is there’s a binary in blame that’s both all too prevalent and all too unproductive. We needn’t endorse the means of desperate people to acknowledge their ends are worth fighting for, nor must imperfect acts of resistance prove the roots of this resistance unworthy. Condemning the counter-productiveness of such acts is fine, but it shouldn’t ignore the context these imperfect acts take place in. Sometimes people take to the streets not with well-planned political agendas or thoughts to how it will play out on Twitter but with a raw, terrified, excitable, and justified anger at an unjust state.

Elsewhere, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf emphasizes the less publicized violence and injustice perpetrated by Baltimore law enforcement:

[A] subset of Baltimore police officers has spent years engaged in lawbreaking every bit as flagrant as any teen jumping up and down on a squad car, however invisible it is to CNN. And their unpunished crimes have done more damage to Baltimore than Monday’s riots. Justice also requires that those cops be identified and charged, but few are demanding as much because their brutality mostly goes un-televised. Powerless folks are typically the only witnesses to their thuggery. For too long, the police have gotten away with assaults and even worse. The benefit of the doubt conferred by their uniforms is no longer defensible.

To any reader who sees Baltimore smoldering and believes that this isn’t the appropriate time to start focusing on police misbehavior, I’d have to agree: The right time to start would’ve been any time over the many years that it’s been epidemic. Last week, I wrote about the brutality of police culture in there, drawing on the Baltimore Sun and other news sources that documented cops beating an elderly grandmother, a pregnant woman, and scores of others, prompting almost $6 million in police brutality settlements in the course of a few years.

Another failure may be how Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has handled the situation. For his part, Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey blames the mayor for trying to have it both ways when it came to both respecting and controlling the protesters:

The Baltimore mayor may have misspoken when she said that she wanted to give some space to those who wished to “destroy,” when she almost certainly meant “demonstrate,” but in effect that is exactly what Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did. The police tried to take a more passive defense posture in a show of humility, but all that does is encourage provocateurs to enter the mix. We’ve seen it time after time, especially of late. When the violence first starts, the response has to be immediate and overwhelming, pour encourager les autres, to disincentivize the malefactors to the greatest extent possible. Pulling back and showing restraint is like waving a red cape in front of a bull in a potential riot situation.

There is a time for reaching out to call for unity and a look to the future. When a riot threatens, though, the message from the political structure of the community has to focus on the present, and make an impression that rioting will not be a no-risk venture. When the personal consequences of rioting rise high enough, rioting will stop becoming a normal method of social expression — and that goes especially for the nonsense sporting-event riots that we’ve insanely tolerated for years.

And then there is what may have happened to Freddie Gray in the back of that police van. David A. Graham reports on the troubling practice of police officers giving suspects deliberately dangerous rides in the back of their vehicles:

Critics argue that the reason a prisoner would be left unbuckled is not to protect officers but to dole out extrajudicial treatment. Baltimore juries have on occasion agreed. In 2004, a man named Jeffrey Alston won $39 million from Baltimore after he was paralyzed from the neck down during a police-van ride. The following year, Dondi Johnson Sr. won $7.4 million after a ride left him a paraplegic. In 2013, Johns Hopkins librarian Christine Abbott filed a suit against the department for a “rough ride” after a 2012 arrest that resulted from a noise complaint. Her lawyer alleges she was not buckled and an officer drove “maniacally” as she was taken in, throwing her around the unpadded van. (Abbott is white; Alston and Johnson, like Gray, are black.) Arrestees and advocates say drivers will jam to abrupt stops and take corners hard to toss riders around.

As one might expect, it’s hard to know how common this practice is, and there are no good tallies. There are multiple ways a suspect could be injured, including while being apprehended, and the accounts of police and suspects about what happened may vary. (The Bureau of Justice Statistics found about 688 arrest-related deaths per year from 2003 to 2009, with 60 percent ruled homicides.) The multiplicity of slang terms is one metric. “Bringing them up front” refers to jamming on the breaks so a prisoner flies forward. “Screen tests” are the same, so that a prisoner rams into the screen between the front seat and the passenger area of a van or cruiser.

Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb tries to place Baltimore in a larger context, specifically the seeming national invisibility of black communities and their problems:

One of the chief dividends of racism is the blithe sense of remove that much of America has from that reality. Protesters know it—it is one source of their outrage.

The protest on Saturday migrated south of City Hall, through the inner harbor, and west along Pratt Street toward Camden Yards Stadium, where the Orioles were scheduled to play the Boston Red Sox. At the corner of Pratt and Light Street a few dozen people held up traffic and staged a spontaneous die-in, sprawling themselves on the asphalt in poses straight from crime-scene photos. There was a comparatively light police presence along the route, but dozens of officers in riot gear blocked the crowd from getting near the stadium, which seemed to confirm the protesters’ most damning suspicions. A man near the front shouted, “They only care about the Orioles!”

The scene seemed like a neat summation of much that animated the protests in Baltimore and beyond. In Ferguson, on the night that the grand-jury decision declining to charge the officer who shot Brown was released, police were deployed largely on the main commercial strips. In the triage logic of municipal governance, it makes perfect sense to protect valuable real estate and businesses. But to people already infuriated by the self-protecting reflexes of bureaucracy, this was an additional insult—not because businesses don’t warrant police protection but because they could scarcely imagine the police deeming their own communities as worthy of protecting that way.

Those communities include the neighborhood Freddie Gray grew up in, Sandtown-Winchester. Leon Neyfakh takes a look at the disturbing statistics there, as published in a 2011 report by the Baltimore City Health Department:

Economically, Gray’s neighborhood and the adjacent Harlem Park were found to be a disaster zone, with an unemployment rate of one in five (nearly double that of Baltimore as a whole), almost a third of families living in poverty, and more than half of all households earning less than $25,000 a year. Abandoned lots and unsound housing conditions were exceedingly common, with almost a quarter of all the neighborhood’s buildings standing vacant (compared with 5 percent of buildings across all of Baltimore) and the rate of lead paint violations almost four times as high as it was citywide. (According to a lawsuit filed by the Gray family against their landlord, Gray and his two sisters were all found to have “damaging lead levels in their blood.”)

Neyfakh goes on to note that the mortality rate for 25-to-44-year-olds in the neighborhood is 44 percent higher than the rest of Baltimore. The Economist’s Daniel Knowles doubts the current unrest will lead to any lasting positive change for the city:

So far, however, the riots seem both enormous and minor. The scale of the destruction is tremendous. But while scores of people have been injured, and shots have been fired, so far, miraculously, nobody seems to have been killed. Baltimore will be damaged, and many of the businesses that have been burned will never reopen. The flow of people who have been moving back to this long-suffering city, gentrifying its more difficult corners, will surely grow thin. But as bleak as it all looks now, in a few years Baltimore, and this night of sudden lawlessness, will once again disappear from the national consciousness.

The bigger problem for Baltimore is that lawnessness is not limited to nights like tonight. As one young woman standing taking photos said to me, West Baltimore is “always like this. Well not like this, but you know, shootings”. This is a city where a young black man is killed almost every day—not by police officers, but by other young black men. The failure of the police in this city is that they cannot enforce the law even at the best of times. At their worst, as the death of Mr Gray seems to suggest, Baltimore’s police are simply another source of the lawlessness.

What about the historical precedent? In an interview with Slate, University of Baltimore professor Elizabeth M. Nix, who co-authored a book about the Baltimore riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, worries that the city will once again be tarnished:

The conclusion we came to after our study was that, in ’68, the physical damage was not irreversible. But the perception of Baltimore that outsiders had—that Baltimore was a dangerous place, that it was a place where you’d never want to live—that was an effect of the uprisings of 1968. And that, more than the physical damage, had a huge effect on Baltimore for decades. In the interim, we’ve had Homicide: Life on the Street, and we’ve had The Wire, and the way the world sees Baltimore is based in these violent images. Meanwhile, on the street, living in Baltimore—you know that Baltimore is a wonderful place, and it has so many positive things going for it, and there are so many people here who deeply love their city, and are just so sad tonight to see what’s happening to it. That’s what I’m nervous about—more violent images, more reasons for people to stereotype us.