The Trouble with Baltimore
Baltimore, that vintage mini-metropolis on the Chesapeake, is a 17th-century city with serious 21st-century issues. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody on April 19, tragic as it was, is just the dot on the “i” in issues. But it was enough to trigger a one-night outburst that some observers described as an uprising.
You probably know the backstory, but here it is again, briefly: Gray, a 25-year-old black Baltimorean with a lengthy arrest record for mostly drug-related crimes, was arrested yet again under mysterious circumstances on April 12. (He was carrying a concealed switchblade, which the police had no way of knowing at the time, and he bolted to avoid arrest). Shackled and thrown into the back of a police van without a seat belt, he died just as mysteriously a week later from a nearly severed spinal cord and a crushed larynx.
Another son of the ghetto had met his doom at the hands of the police, and the news swept into the national headlines like so many other similar fatal encounters.
But here’s where the story took a disturbing twist. What started as a peaceful protest on the day of Gray’s funeral had, by nightfall, escalated into mayhem. Rampaging mobs in Gray’s mostly-black West Baltimore neighborhood ransacked a mall, looted and burned a CVS Pharmacy along with several mom-and-pop stores, and set multiple cars on fire. Across town, a nearly-completed senior housing center lovingly built by a black church erupted in flames and was reduced to smoking ruins.
The destruction seemed so wanton, random and irrational that it struck me as urban suicide — the final, desperate gesture of a community with nothing left to lose. These people were burning the last vestiges of enterprise from their own blighted neighborhoods. In a matter of hours, they were destroying what had taken generations to build — and to maintain against the deadly encroachment of urban decay.
Where would the local folk go to buy necessities and have their prescriptions filled? Who in their right mind would launch new businesses there now? The rioters had signed the death warrant for their community, and — consciously or not — maybe that’s exactly what they wanted.
Meanwhile, the police simply stood guard while the fires and the people raged. No warning shots fired, no tear gas, no tanks, no army of occupation.
Just as the cops had overreacted to the demonstrators in Ferguson last summer, they seemed to be consciously underreacting here. Even black-friendly CNN was browbeating them for being too passive in the face of chaos.
I could see the oblique wisdom of their reticence: they didn’t want to come across as enemies of the people — even at the cost of lost property. Baltimore was suffering enough without adding police brutality to the mix.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who took heat for a misinterpreted statement about giving “space to those who wished to destroy,” refused to impose a curfew until the next evening. So the city burned for one night, and the neighborhoods would be more desolate than ever. But nobody else would die.
Are there any lessons to be learned from the Baltimore riot that we haven’t already learned? Was the night of fire and rage a template for race wars to come?
This much is clear: what happened in Baltimore could have happened — could still happen — in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles or any other American city with a significant population of impoverished black people. Police brutality is just the match that lights the powder keg. And let’s face it: our inner cities have turned into powder kegs.
Why are so many black neighborhoods so poor, so troubled, so violent, so devoid of hope? Racism? A legacy of slavery and institutionalized oppression? The demoralizing effect of white privilege? These left-wing pieties, based on half-truths taught in collegiate seminars, fail to explain the day-to-day realities behind the decay of black communities.
We could round up the usual suspects noted by conservative pundits: laziness, unfettered reproduction, dependence on government handouts. These unkind stereotypes don’t cut it, either.
Finally, we could cite the depressing preponderance of absentee fathers, substance abuse, academic underachievement, sky-high dropout rates, and — based on all of the above — a swaggering male street culture that glorifies gangsterism and crime.
The crime. There’s simply no denying the crime. When only white-on-black violence makes national news, we tend to forget that nearly 95% of black crime victims are victimized by blacks in black neighborhoods. Excessive crime naturally leads to excessive police surveillance, which creates a war-zone atmosphere and ships alarming numbers of black men off to prison or premature death.
Crime also drives out businesses, which eventually tire of the robberies and perpetual vigilance. When businesses disappear, so do local jobs. When jobs disappear, unemployment obviously soars. Unemployed and underemployed people have trouble securing mortgages and other loans, not to mention paying their bills. Homes are abandoned. Property values drop. Healthcare suffers. People languish in joblessness and poverty.
The predictable result: more crime… which sends more people to prison and drives out more businesses… which eliminates more jobs… and on and on until there’s virtually nothing left except a lot of hopeless, angry, alienated black people. It’s a brutal cycle with no visible means of escape.
So what can we do to break the cycle and improve the lot of black communities? For one, stop incarcerating young blacks — or anyone else, for that matter — based on petty drug offenses like possession of pot. We can’t keep shuffling these otherwise blameless men in and out of the prison system and expect black neighborhoods to prosper. (Ex-convicts have a funny way of being denied employment when they’re released.)
Police urgently need to establish better relations with the community, and the community needs to reciprocate by trusting the police. We should all look forward to the day when black people can honestly view their local cops as protectors rather than oppressors.
We need to be fearless in smashing taboos that keep us from uncovering the sometimes unpalatable truths behind black poverty. We might have to conclude, for example, that ordinary garden-variety capitalism doesn’t work in poor black neighborhoods. Or that traditional teaching methods don’t reach the majority of kids in those neighborhoods. Or even that race isn’t an artificial construct after all, but a genetic heritage that — at least to some extent — colors the way we interact with the world.
I was impressed by the character of the ordinary citizens interviewed on TV during the crisis in Baltimore. The gallant minister whose senior housing project burned to the ground — still hopeful, intelligently reflective and free of bitterness. The grizzled veteran who stood with the young demonstrators at night to keep them in line. The famously irate mom who slapped her wayward son upside the head (a little too hard, perhaps, but with the fierce devotion of a parent who cares).
It was reassuring to see that kind of inspiring, dogma-free moral leadership at the grassroots level. Maybe character can prevail over despair and aimlessness. Maybe it can break the insidious cycle of poverty, crime and decay. And then — just maybe — the future of black America won’t seem so bleak after all.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.