The Baltimore Riots

Many readers know that I live in the northern part of South Baltimore. We’re less than a mile away from the Inner Harbor, the downtown area and Camden Yards where the Orioles play. While many people watching the events unfolding here can do so as spectators, it’s a little more personal for us.

So far, everything has been quiet in our part of town; the unrest has largely happened in West Baltimore although the activity in Fells Point was not far from here (it’s on the northern side of the Inner Harbor).  That having been said, we’re keeping our eye on things and will be particularly attentive on Friday when we expect more details about the Freddie Gray case to be made public.

A few thoughts, not necessarily coherently connected…

First, I object to media reports about demonstrators turning violent. This is imprecise and misleading language. There have been demonstrations through the week with an especially large demonstration on Saturday; in our Adult Forum Sunday we got a full run-down of the events there as two of the women from our church—who are lawyers with the ACLU—were present, one as an official Legal Observer. Their observations were that the demonstrators were predominately local people demonstrating peacefully and only a small fraction were violdent. Too, they said that there was a very heavy police presence but that it was marked by restartaint. Even when they saw demonstrators throw water bottles or rocks at the police, the officers did not respond to the provocations.

What happened yesterday was not demonstrating turning violent. Rather, it was the deliberate creation of opportunistic chaos. Most of the violence I saw on TV and heard about was done by juveniles. In the footage—particularly the day-time footage of activity near Mondawmin Mall—notice the prevalence of light blue and orange shirts; in that section of the city, orange is the school uniform for middle schoolers, and light blue is for high schoolers (middle schoolers wear green in my neighborhood…)   This activity was not protest at an unjust system as much as opportunistic criminal behavior to loot local (local!) community businesses under the cover of a larger situation of unrest.

Second, I think the situation here can help us ask some important questions. Is there an unjust system in place here? Yes. There is a serious problem in the way that policing is carried out in Baltimore. However, where the Baltimore system is helpful and instructive is the way that it differs from some of the other locations where unrest has occurred and problems have surfaced. Baltimore gives us the opportunity to see some of the more complex and worrisome dynamics that were masked in other places.

The chief narrative here is race. The key slogan is “Black Lives Matter.” And I totally agree with that. After Mass on Sunday, we collectively left the nave and stood by the well-travelled Highway 40 holding signs saying “Black Lives Matter” which prompted at least one motorist to yell back, “All lives matter!” Driving home the girls and I unpacked this. My take is that yes, of course all lives matter, but at this time and place the specificity of “Black lives” helps us to better see the generality of “all lives.” Because “all lives” are not threatened in the particular and systemic ways that attention is showing that “Black lives” are.  Therefore the focus on “Black lives” is helpful and necessary to accomplish the goal of “all lives.”

That having been said, the topic of race is Baltimore is more complicated here than in other places. Our police commissioner is Black. Our mayor is Black. Of the fifteen members of the Baltimore City Council, seven—including the Council President—are Black. I would guess that roughly half of the Baltimore City Police that I see are people of color; Wikipedia says that in the O’Malley administration (2 mayors ago, now), 43% of the force was African-American. According to the 2010 census, 63.7% of the city inhabitants are African-American. All that having been said, recent investigations into police brutality by the Baltimore Sun don’t make easy reading and the city has paid out $5.7 million in compensation to victims of police brutality. (I don’t know how this compares to other cities, though—and without a decent basis for comparison, I’m not sure what this number means except that it sure looks big!)

What this says to me is that 1) it’s not just about which individuals are in the seats of power. Systemic injustice can be a reality despite the current composition of the local government.

Furthermore, 2) an overly-directed focus on race can obscure the role of class which I think is a very important part of this conversation. Race and class are inextricably tangled in the American social situation and I wouldn’t argue otherwise; white privilege and the legacy of an unjust system that allowed White America to build wealth and pass it down through inheritance (enabling the emergence of and solidifying the American middle class) in ways largely denied to Black America is an essential part of this mix. I think that the reality of pervasive injustice and brutality despite people of color in the highest levels of city governance reveals  the problem here is not just race alone. Rather, it’s about how authority can be and is abused by those in power.

I don’t know much about city politics. What little I do know appears to back up a rather widespread perception on the ground that the corruption is a huge issue in the city government.  Who has power, how they wield it, and who has oversight is a more complicated set of issues and are far harder to tweet about than race but are major factors in the persistent inequity here.

3) The inequity and crime and some of the issues around policing are directly connected to our heroin epidemic; to ignore it or to say otherwise is disingenuous and misleading. We can’t deal with the issues here without addressing the drug trade.

Third, what is particularly affecting to me is that the burning and looting did not occur in particularly privileged sections or even in “common areas” like downtown, but in the neighborhoods that are already economically depressed. It was a big deal for West Baltimore when the Target and Shoppers moved in. It requires a certain amount of trust on the part of the corporations.  One of the main areas of media attention was the looting and burning of a CVS at North & Pennsylvania. Do you think CVS will be eager to set up shop there again? Will major retailers be willing to invest in these neighborhoods? Yes, the consumers are there, but will that outweigh the risks?

Furthermore, a lot of the looting happened to locally-owned mom-and-pop stores. So—the very people in the community who were providing economic opportunities to the area are now—literally—paying for it.

There’s much more to say, but this’ll be it for now… Please pray for peace in Baltimore, and work for it where ever you happen to be.

2 Replies to “The Baltimore Riots”

  1. Dear Sir,

    I would like to thank you for your witness as regards what is going on in Baltimore. It does not surprise me that there is a difference between what the media are reporting and what is actually going on. Even back in the 1970s, when I was in college, I noted that journalism majors were pretty much at the bottom of the barrel when it came to grades and ability. That has not changed much since. As a result, I have noted that whenever the media deal with something that I actually have personal knowledge of, the media is always wrong.

    I also note that the media survive by being able to obtain ratings and advertising. Thus, in order to thrive in this modern equivalent of the old panes et circenses (i.e., pizza and TV), that news must be as sensational as possible. In short, if a crisis does not exist, then the media must create one.

    It is only when I indulge in what I call ‘creative paranoia’ that I wonder if the present administration is attempting to ‘manufacture consent’ (Noam Chomsky’s excellent phrase) to show that we need a Federal State Police (or Festapo) to overcome the inadequacies of local police, in the same way that the previous administration used 9/11 to create the DHS and the Patriot Act.

    The only way that I am able to overcome such thoughts is to remind myself of Napoleon’s maxim: “Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.”

  2. Thanks for a mostly thoughtful comment. I was struck by one comment (What happened yesterday was not demonstrating turning violent. Rather, it was the deliberate creation of opportunistic chaos.) For those mostly Black business people the result is the same whether their stores or property were destroyed by a demonstration turned violent or the deliberate creation of opportunistic chaos. Ultimately, changing the calculus of Baltimore means encouraging more people the opportunity to make a living – the riots have helped to reduce that possibility.

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