As I watched the violence unfold and escalate yesterday and last night in Baltimore, it was met with typical responses. There were those supportive of the cause, who urged for calmness and peaceful protesters to take back their community. There were those who opposed the cause or at the very least wanted to belittle it, chalking up the violence to a bunch of kids, criminals, thugs and, of course, out-of-towners.
Then I saw a tweet that put things into perspective. Paraphrasing here, it said that people are saying that violence is not the answer, we need to allow the political process time to work. The person then said, I don’t know if violence is the answer, but I know that the politics is not.
I hearken to the movie “Mississippi Burning,” a fictionalized account of the slaying of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. There is a point in the movie where the two main FBI agents finally get a kid to testify in state court against a Klansman who burned down his family’s house. Ultimately, the judge let the man off with a suspended sentence, and the black section of town rioted, burning down homes in their own quarter.
Gene Hackman’s character said, “Well, at least we know who did this.” Willem Dafoe would respond, “Yeah, we did.”
That is how I feel now. As we noted this weekend, the death of Freddie Gray remains a mystery. He apparently suffered a spinal injury shortly after being arrested. The police have already admitted that he did not receive adequate care for his injuries leading to his death a week later.
The police report says that Mr. Gray was detained “without force or incident.” Mr. Gray was chased and arrested because he “fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence.” He was injured “during transport” and later taken to a hospital with one or more broken vertebrae. Several of the police officers involved have been suspended.
What remains a mystery is why Mr. Gray needed medical attention in the first place. However, on Friday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told the media at a news conferences that officers should have called for an ambulance immediately upon arrest, not 50 minutes later when he was at the police station.
“We know that police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner,” Mr. Batts said.
Mr. Batts also acknowledged that the officers had violated department procedure by not putting a seat belt on Mr. Gray while he was being transported.
“We know he was not buckled in the transportation wagon as he should have been,” Mr. Batts said. “No excuses for that. Period.”
But in a lot of ways, Mr. Gray becomes just the latest symbol in debate over the treatment of black men by police. It comes close on the heels of the shooting death of Walter Scott in South Carolina. Protests in Ferguson last year followed the death of Michael Brown, and also when authorities declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for his killing.
As one observer noted, Baltimore is somewhat different than cities like Ferguson and North Charleston, which had white-dominated governments. As a New York Times columnist noted, City Councilman Brandon Scott, an ally of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and a frequent critic of Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, said, “Unlike other places where incidents like this have happened, they understand what it means to be black in America.”
“They understand how something like this can get out of hand very quickly,” Mr. Scott said. “They understand the community’s frustration more than anyone else. But at the same time they also understand the opposite — they understand the need to have law enforcement in neighborhoods. So it puts them in a bind.”
There were also complaints that the media coverage overstated the extent of the violence while ignoring the long history that built up to this violence – the years of entrenched racism, and economic inequality in addition to a long history of police brutality and killings, mostly of African-American men.
As Rev. Graylan Hagler, a civil rights activist born in Baltimore and based in Washington, D.C., wrote on social media: “[The] media may call it rioting, but the confrontations are targeted against law enforcement. It is clear that law enforcement has created such animosity and anger among young Black males here in [Baltimore] that the killing of Freddie Gray was the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back. Also, [Baltimore] political leaders cannot speak with any moral authority because they have presided all these years over increasingly devastated neighborhoods, unemployment and despair.”
Perhaps some of the most powerful commentary came from an unlikely source, John Angelos, who is the chief operating officer of the Baltimore Orioles and the son of Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
Mr. Angelos was responding to criticism of the violence on Saturday that some said was negatively impacting the daily lives of fellow citizens, and led to fans being held inside Camden Yards where the Orioles play for their safety.
Mr. Angelos agreed with the “principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law,” arguing, “It is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.”
He then went on to say, however, “My greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
“The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importance of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards,” he continued.
He concluded, “We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.”
In a lot of ways people need to understand that what they are seeing is years of frustration passed down from generation to generation, boiling to the surface. The death of Mr. Gray is only the latest and will not be the last in these strings.
However, as I watched the conflagration on Monday night, I realized what Willem Dafoe’s character must have realized – we know exactly who did this – it was us. From our standing by for years without doing anything meaningful about inequality and despair, to us sitting by and watching idly as police continued to cause the deaths of black men, at some point it was going to come to a head and while we may be shocked and horrified as to what is happening in Baltimore, perhaps perspective is in order.
As Slate reporter Jamelle Bouie noted, “On Monday night, there were riots in Baltimore, but it’s hard to say Baltimore was rioting. This wasn’t 1968, when fires touched huge swaths of the city and thousands left their homes. Instead, in a few areas around the Inner Harbor and East and West Baltimore, scattered groups of looters smashed stores, set fires, and confronted police, with residents watching from stoops or out of windows.”
This was a long time coming, but things can get a whole lot worse. Baltimore is still just a warning.
—David M. Greenwald reporting