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A Disconnected Narrative in Baltimore


A Disconnected Narrative in Baltimore

Thomas Whitley

The activities in Baltimore yesterday sparked a national outcry. Just about everyone is calling for calm and peace. Leaders are speaking out against the violence and looting that took place yesterday. (There are conflicting stories, but the riots yesterday seem to have come about as a result of a few factors: social media organization, schools being let out early, and public transportation in the area being shut down, leaving people no way to get out.)

My Twitter and Facebook feeds have been quite full with those who don't understand why people would riot in such a situation. Others have posted about the numerous times white people have rioted, often over sporting events. Ta-Nehisi Coates summed it up beautifully on Twitter last night:

It is an expression of anger. Some humans riot because their school lost the big game. Others because the State can’t stop killing them.

The juxtaposition should cause us to pause. The burning of cars, smashing of windows, and general lawlessness barely gets a mention on the news when white people engage in these activities after a sporting event. Chris Hayes did an excellent job demonstrating this double standard with a satirical segment back in 2013.

More than I can remember from past events like this, I've heard leaders not only condemning the violence, but also speaking to the larger systemic issues that are at the root. Staggering unemployment, blight, regular and violent encounters with police are the norm for many communities like West Baltimore. I have been pleasantly surprised by this, though it may simply be that I have paid more attention to this part of the narrative this time around.

But another portion of the narrative seems wholly disconnected. The national guard was activated by the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, at the request of the Mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Hogan then, in a statement last night, said that violence "will not be tolerated." This will likely come as news to residents of Baltimore that have lived on the receiving end of State-sanctioned violence for years. Last fall the Baltimore Sun published a scathing piece cataloguing just a few of the many issues with the Baltimore Police Department.

Baltimore has paid $5.7 million since January 2011 for settlements and court judgments in lawsuits accusing city police officers of false arrests, false imprisonment and excessive force. Virtually all of the people who won large awards were cleared from criminal charges.

The city of Baltimore is paying millions of dollars to victims of police brutality and they have just continued to increase the part of their budget concerned with legal fees, judgments, and lawsuits. The residents of Baltimore are paying for the cops that are beating up their citizens, taking them along "rough rides," and harassing them, all while also paying for the Police Department to shield and defend these officers.

The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody is merely the latest in a long string of State-sanctioned violence against the black community. In case you're unfamiliar with the details of the case, here's what we know so far. Freddie Gray ran from the police, apparently after only making eye contact with a cop. He was taken into custody by officers. Video of the incident shows Gray screaming in apparent pain, legs limp, and being loaded into a police van. We now know that police did not properly secure Gray in the transport vehicle, against their own policies and procedures. We also know that police did not seek medical attention for Gray in a timely manner, multiple times, after he requested. Freddie Gray's spinal cord was severed apparently at some point during his encounter with police. He died a week later.

The protests in Baltimore were peaceful for some time, until yesterday's events. And now some are asking why people are rioting. Politicians and law enforcement officials are calling for non-violent protests, invoking the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. to make their point. Yet, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, calls for non-violence ring hollow and are a form of control through compliance.

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. 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. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

Our narratives matter. When black people loot and burn property in response to State violence, they are called "thugs." When Egyptians did the same, we called them "revolutionaries."

Indeed, it is in the interest of the State to call for nonviolence when property is being damaged and their officers are being pelted by rocks. It is, apparently, not in their interest to call for nonviolence when their officers are brutally beating up and maiming their citizens. Russell McCutcheon asked the question appropriately on Twitter this morning:

You learn all you need to know about our society when we call up the national guard for damage to property not people, no? #BaltimoreRiots

Calls for nonviolence seem to have become the necessary antecedent to any substantive comments, but we cannot with a clear conscience call for the ending of riots and looting if do not also call for the ending of the killing of our brothers and sisters at the hands of State actors.

We cannot fail to see that those who are disrespecting the law do so because the law has never respected them. 

We cannot allow the State to continue its campaign of violence on black bodies and then reprimand the black community for responding with anger and rage. 

*This post has been updated to clarify that the National Guard was activated by the governor at the request of Mayor Rawlings-Blake.

Image via Wikimedia