What is happening in my hometown
I'm from Columbia, Maryland -- a town which is often acurately described as "a satellite suburb of Baltimore". There's still a "Member of the Baltimore Aquarium" decal on the sliding-glass door to our back porch -- has been for fifteen years -- so this one hits incredibly close to home, if not literally in my backyard.
content warning: police brutality, institutional racism
epistemic status: angry. white. inevitably biased; unable to write dispassionately; unable to not write.
This is not what I had in mind.
This is not at all what I had in mind when I wrote, two weeks ago:
Just once, couldn't someone pitch a "controversy" slow and over the plate, so I can opine against [X]ism and for the way in which good people have chosen to oppose it?
...they're words which are stuck in my head.
A week ago, William Murphy, Jr., an attorney representing the surviving family of Freddie Gray, released the statement:
On last Sunday morning at about 8am, the police chased Freddie Gray, a 25 year old healthy man, without any evidence he had committed a crime. His take-down and arrest without probable cause occurred under a police video camera, which taped everything including the police dragging and throwing Freddy into a police vehicle while he screamed in pain. While in police custody, his spine was 80 percent severed at his neck. He lapsed into a coma, died, was resuscitated, stayed in a coma and on Monday, underwent extensive surgery at Shock Trauma to save his life. He clung to life for seven days and died today at approximately 7am. (excerpted)
On Friday, Newsweek reported on five days of "Peaceful Protests in Baltimore After Death Follows an Arrest" :
The mayor of Baltimore praised the citizens who organized five days of peaceful protests over the death of a black man in police custody and vowed after meeting with clergy leaders on Friday to find answers in the case...
Unlike in Ferguson[, Missouri], where weeks of peaceful protests were punctuated by several nights of rioting, arson and looting, the protests in Baltimore have seen only a handful of arrests and no major violence...
Unlike in Ferguson, where police quickly turned to paramilitary tactics, donning riot helmets and vests and rolling out armored vehicles to confront crowds of protesters, Baltimore police have taken a less confrontational approach, remaining in patrol uniforms and giving protesters a wide berth...
Police have also maintained barricades preventing protesters from approaching the domed City Hall, and the station house where Gray was taken has been fenced off by barriers.
Ken Jones, a police spokesman, said Baltimore police had taken lessons from the Ferguson unrest.
"We don't want to come off heavy-handed, yet," Jones said. "I don't think anyone is going to cause a riot." (...)
On Saturday, a 2,000-person peaceful protest was reported by the Baltimore Sun as "Peace, then Violence", though the vast majority of demonstrators were in the former category
At least 2,000 demonstrators attended the march to City Hall, the largest turnout since 25-year-old Freddie Gray died a week ago. As darkness fell, about 100 protesters splintered from the group and threw bottles, metal barricades and other objects at police officers and their cruisers, authorities said. (emphasis mine)
Oh, wait; that's from Aljazeera America, that bleeding-heart liberal shill. How about a slightly more mainstream liberal shill, like CNN?
The vast majority of protesters who took to Baltimore's streets late Saturday were peaceful, but the handful who weren't left behind shards, rubble and dents...
[S]ome protesters put themselves between police and enraged demonstrators to calm hot tempers. "Don't lose the message!" one of them called out again and again to the rowdier group.
Police Commissioner Anthony Batts thanked the peacemakers.
"Residents put themselves in between police officers and agitated crowd and asked for calm and asked for peace, which was very good to see," he said.
But a small group smashed store windows, police said.
Speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, who represents the area where the scuffles happened, blamed the violence on a few and said it could have been worse.
"At the end, there were a few people who said 'We're going to close this city down,' and the next thing you know, we had a few people, mainly from out of town, to come and to start beating up on police cars and throwing all types of projectiles," he said. (emphasis mine)
I'm not exactly sure how the violence broke out around 6 p.m. in front of Pickles Pub on Washington Boulevard and traveled up the street to The Bullpen, Sliders Bar & Grill, and Frank & Nic's West End Grille then down Howard Street. I know a small group of protesters and a small group of baseball fans started whipping bottles at one another and brawling.
When the protesters turned the corner onto Washington Boulevard from Camden Street chanting "black lives matter," some baseball fans applauded and a few angrily chanted back, "We don't care" -- someone who worked at The Bullpen confirmed this for me. He also said that some patrons chanted "run them over," and one yelled "go get them." Other protestors, including City Paper contributor D. Watkins and gang members interviewed on WBAL, recall bar patrons calling them "niggers," among other racist epithets.
I don't know who threw something first, but I heard a shift to jeers and boos from the people drinking and ran right over to it and saw beers being tossed from behind a gate that keeps Pickles drinkers from standing in the road and bottles being whipped back at the drinkers. Some people at Pickles stood up and moved toward the protesters though they were protected by the gate. Then, protesters pulled away the gate protecting Pickles customers from the street. Men from Pickles and elsewhere charged toward the protesters and the protesters charged the Pickles customers. It was at this point that I stopped being a journalist and became someone who was trying to help out. (...)
In the midst of the brawl, at least one photographer was beaten...
City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano was tackled and beaten by Baltimore City police outside of Western District headquarters last night while covering protests over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. (...)
...by the police. Another was detained and issued a citation.
...which brings us to Monday.
City police, acting on rumors of a violent protest beginning at 3pm, shut down the bus service near an area high school at 2pm, shortly before school lets out, and dispatch units in full riot gear -- and at least one tactical SWAT vehicle -- to the area, ready for when the students get out of school.
So, entirely predictably, students get out of school, can't go home, and so mill around for a while; eventually one teenager picks up a rock and throws it at the line of police standing right there with riot shields because OF COURSE WHAT WERE YOU EXPECTING TO HAPPEN WHEN YOU STOPPED THE KIDS FROM GOING HOME WHEN THIS WAS OBVIOUSLY GOING TO BE ON THEIR MINDS?
Police threw rocks back; it turned ugly. And now Maryland has mobilized the National Guard, Baltimore has declared a 10-to-5 general curfew, and we have multiple headlines calling the city a "war zone". I'm not saying that this is the fault of the police, but, well, very serious mistakes were made. If Saturday was any indication, it seems like it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Monday would have turned violent -- except that the police department's assumption that it would seems to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But I don't want to talk about riots. I'll defer on that issue to timeless words by King:
Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results.
But 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.
And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. (emphasis mine)
and more recent words by my classmate, Ore Babarinsa:
[T]he riots on the ground are understandable, and I'm not going to sit in my Harvard Ivory Tower and finger-wag at those involved. I'd likely an active participant if I were anywhere near Ferguson. This said, the long view of history, and wisdom show that riots won't get us anywhere our goals of racial equity, economic redistribution of wealth, or any sort of meaningful political or social gains. Neither will insipid, simple slogans, hashtags, or boisterous threats of violence towards the state or law enforcement. Change is hard, and fraught with disappointments and setbacks...
I encourage everyone not in the immediate area of [the city] to take a step back, come up with how you can personally change and grow such that you can better be the change you wish to see. What is your ideal of justice, and how you can live more in line with it? What skills do you have to contribute towards this mission? Where do you want to see the world by the time the next generation reaches adulthood? (...)
A man was put into a police van while screaming, was taken out with a broken neck, and is now dead.
And if I had no heart, and if I believed, as is often claimed in the wake of such tragedies, that the price of safety from crime in the United States of America in the twenty-first century is that one hundred unarmed black men are killed per year --
If I believed that a police force that is more careful will leave more people dead than the system we hve --
If I believed that a Maryland where the police kill where the state says it will not is the lesser of two tragedies --
If I didn't trust the moral voice that says this is evil, since I've never known any different; since I became politically aware in an America where civilian casualties at the hands of police officers are measured in the hundreds, not in the years between cases --
If I thought, as some actually do, that this was the horror we need to endure, because the alternative would be worse --
-- still I would believe that a civil society should have loud -- and not entirely controlled -- public outcry every time.
I can imagine a world where, in defense against greater violence, police violence against civilians is -- very, very rarely -- required. And, in a population of 300 million, such violence may, once every few years, result in accidental death, despite the best efforts of the officers involved to use impossible-to-be-lethal force.
But I choose not to be so pessimistic as to imagine a world where, when innocent women and men are killed by police officers, the public outrage is containable, where the polity is so lacking in empathy that such a death fails to spark protests numbering in the thousands and -- among populations systematically downtrodden for generations -- yes, pockets of violence.
A government may, in choosing the lesser of two tragedies, choose to license violence against its citizenry -- rarely, but perhaps more often than never.
But a state which goes on to require of its citizens apathy in defense of such violence is lost.
A police force which kills unarmed citizens is a police force which incites riots. A government which fails to stop its police force from killing unarmed citizens fails to stop its police force from inciting riots. Writes Fredrik deBoer:
Yes, I feel for people who have their businesses burnt down. I just know to send the invoice to the cops who killed Freddie Gray. (...)
And a polity which neglects to check the growth of institutional structures of racism is one that neglects to check the rise of the circumstances that form riots in the first place.
A populace which licenses a government which fails to stop its police force from brutalizing unarmed civilians allows that bones broken and lives lost and damage -- physical, social, and human -- done to a city in the aftermath of such deaths, is the price to be paid for safety from crime.
And a citizen of such a polity who believes that the actions of police against people 'not like me' are not his concern, but that the response of a small group of protesters to such actions is worthy of his condemnation -- is deluded. "Don't riot" is hardly a reasonable request for people systematically oppressed, kept in generations poverty almost without hope of escape, and confronted with riot squads assuming that violence is inevitable, even after days of peace.
You can claim that violence inflicted by the police is necessary for our collective security. But you can't simply balance security against bones broken and lives lost, and wash your hands of the events of the past few days, blaming them instead on those who've been packed into a powder keg for generations -- and had a match dropped on their head. The seeds of this week's events were sown by generations of racism and watered by a militarized police state, and the men, women, and children in the street are merely human, and unable to hold that built-up anger back -- though not, in most cases, for lack of trying.
next: Words for Baltimore