It’s only been a few short weeks since the agony of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter protests in New York, and here we are again. This time, the protests, marches and sporadic riots are happening in Baltimore, sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, a black teenager who was arrested after he ran from police patrolling his neighborhood – which, for the record, is not a crime – and suffered a fatal and so far unexplained spine injury while in the police van. (According to his family, he underwent surgery for three fractured neck vertebrae and a crushed voice box, which would’ve required “powerful blunt force” trauma.)
As in Ferguson and elsewhere, this one incident was just the spark on a heap of dry tinder. Baltimore’s police department has a long and awful history of brutality, exemplified by the sadistic practice of “rough rides“, where police throw a handcuffed prisoner into the unpadded back of a police van without buckling their seatbelt, then drive around at high speed, swerving around corners and coming to sharp stops, sending their helpless passenger slamming into the walls. At least two other people have been paralyzed by neck injuries from this practice. Although the city isn’t talking, it’s plausible that something like this is how Freddie Gray died as well (given that the police admit he wasn’t belted into his seat).
Once again, without condoning riots or violence, it’s not hard to understand that the outbursts of anger are the predictable result of decades of corrosive neglect, exploitation and poverty fueled by discrimination. Predatory lending, redlining and the mortgage bubble have devastated black communities in Baltimore. In Gray’s neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park, unemployment is over 50%, and one-third of homes are vacant or abandoned.
When communities are starved of education, of investment, of every reasonable opportunity to get ahead, of course people succumb to rage and nihilism. Of course they begin to believe that there’s no future for them. Of course they start to think that they have nothing to lose. Then, on top of this already toxic brew, add a culture of rampant and arbitrary violence by the police – and the only surprise is that the explosion didn’t happen sooner. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “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.” (That all being said, eyewitnesses also report that the police themselves played a role in provoking violence, as we also saw in Ferguson.)
John Angelos, COO of the Baltimore Orioles, summed it up brilliantly:
…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 only thing I wonder is why now. What is it about our cultural moment that’s triggering protests and riots on a scale unseen since the civil rights era?
Is it the economic destruction of the Great Recession that’s made conditions intolerable and pushed people over the edge? Has the election of a black president paradoxically thrown the racial inequalities of our society into even sharper relief? Or is it the more prosaic fact that ubiquitous camera phones have made it easier than ever to record and broadcast police misconduct?
Regardless of the reason, this is a conflict where humanists can’t remain silent. If we mean it when we say that we value empathy, if we mean it when we say that we stand for justice, then that empathy and that justice shouldn’t stop at the invisible boundary line around an impoverished neighborhood or the more visible boundary of a young man’s skin. We have a moral duty to oppose the invidious prejudice that’s kept whole communities downtrodden, whatever form it takes: whether it’s the politicians who echo the right slogans and resume their neglect once the cameras move on, the pious hypocrites who wag their fingers at violent protests but say nothing about all the violence that led up to them, or the racists who blame minorities for not overcoming every obstacle that society has heaped on them. As a nation, we owe these communities a very great debt, and it’s our responsibility to see that it doesn’t go another generation without being paid.