A small section of Baltimore, no more than 4-6 blocks on the city’s west side, experienced looting and property destruction after the funeral of Freddie Gray, the young man whose spine was mysteriously crushed after being taken into police custody. Gray would later die from his injuries and ‘Charm City’ has been in a meltdown ever since. The anger over Gray’s death should come as no surprise in a city that has had a history of questionable police tactics and where jobs and opportunity are foreign concepts for the masses of the city’s Black majority.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake chose to call the looters ‘thugs’ on Monday evening; a conscious choice of words meant to label as criminals those involved in property destruction. During the weekend protesters who lashed out violently were called ‘outside agitators.’ News reports on Monday suggested new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch intends on making improved relations between the Justice Department and law enforcement a priority. As I watched the wretched reporting of Wolf Blitzer on CNN, the Can’t get it right News Network, it became clear to me that this will not be the last flash point because justice is now a commodity only available to the highest bidder or the politically connected. America is broken.
As I survey social media and see and hear on-air commentary on the eruption in Baltimore what stands out is the rush to condemn the looters without any context. There is more concern expressed over the loss of property, most of it that should be insured, than the decades-old economic deprivation that has wiped out generations of Black Baltimoreans. America knows the Baltimore of the Inner Harbor, Fort McHenry, Camden Yards, and the world renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital. It does not know the Baltimore that exists on the corner of North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue where most of the property destruction took place. The nation doesn’t have a clue about Whitelock Street, in the west Baltimore neighborhood where I lived for almost three years or the gritty neighborhoods of East Baltimore or Cherry Hill. It is the Baltimore made famous by the gritty HBO series “The Wire” that is on edge. For many, Baltimore is just a star spangled tourist destination and its Black majority invisible…until this weekend.
Those aren’t thugs you see on television. They are what social science researchers define as ‘disconnected youth.’ They are not ‘outside agitators.’ They are Baltimore youth, some teenagers and some young adults. They are the children of a city that has for some time now provided an inadequate education, offered little by way of employment and, like so many other cities, used the criminal justice system to corral youth engaged in the commerce of last resort but easy entry – crime. It is beyond disappointing to hear a Black mayor call Black children thugs but offer little programmatically to give youth confidence that their futures will not be as bleak as their present.
What is more striking to me than seeing a CVS burning is the attempt to induce ‘calm’ by elected officials and the suggestion that a police force that is the source of much of the anger unleashed can somehow now be trusted to restore order. Can we have a moment of silence for the truth? There has been an absolute failure in political leadership in cities like Baltimore that has resulted in little or no effort to drive substantive change. Mayors, City Council members, governors and state legislators come and go, and the problems persist. And the people continue to suffer. There is a moral failure among those who now suggest that a population it has written off and has suddenly awakened to the dreadfulness of their condition should now have faith in ‘the system.’ Sadly, many of these young people don’t even know why they are angry; they just know they are and their only recourse is to act out in a way we can’t understand.
What I read on social media in reference to the looting is that ‘this is not the way’ or ‘they should vote’ or ‘they need to seek justice’ and criticism that ‘they’ are burning down their own neighborhood. Let’s get one thing straight, the system has failed Black people, and particularly Black youth, time and time again. We saw videotape of a Black man being strangled to death by a police officer. No justice. We saw videotape of a Black teenager shot to death in the streets of Ferguson Missouri. No justice. We see an unarmed Black man shot in the back while running away from the police. We see a Black teenager hauled into a police van and when he is taken out of the vehicle his spine is severed. This ‘other way’ never seems to yield justice; just more excuses.
And speaking of voting and politics; the irony of the Freddie Gray case is that his family’s lawyer, esteemed criminal defense attorney Billy Murphy, ran for mayor of Baltimore in 1983 and social justice was a huge part of his platform. I know because when I was a college senior I interned for Murphy when he was a Circuit Court judge and was his assistant when he ran for mayor. He lost to wildly popular incumbent, William Donald Schaefer, who put more emphasis on the Inner Harbor and the development of a new baseball stadium, than on the needs of the city’s most vulnerable. One of Billy’s campaign brochures used the statement “Why hire a Mayor who wouldn’t hire you?’ to emphasize the lack of opportunity for Baltimore’s Black majority. Since that 1983 campaign the city has had three Black mayors and Blacks are still mired in joblessness, many living in substandard housing, youth entangled in the criminal justice system, the school system in shambles, and neighborhoods ravaged by violence. Votes matter but they seem to matter little in terms of the delivery of justice.
We fix this by addressing poverty, long-term joblessness and equitable access to capital and gender equity. If our neighborhoods can be devastated by the loss of a CVS store and a check cashing establishment it shows just how little we possess in the local economy. The dearth of small business ownership is ironic given that the late Rep. Parren Mitchell, a Baltimore legend, was a champion of small business development. We fix this by ending the nonsensical theoretical debates on public education and incessant experimentation, driven by market forces, and start educating our children. When we push Black children out of schools by disproportionately disciplining them for similar offenses committed by their white peers, and then use their suspension or expulsion as a proxy for a criminal record, should we really be surprised by the looting? We fix this by ending the prison pipeline that is fed by the assault on civil liberties, the targeting of Black youth, and the elevation of minor offenses into criminal charges that leads to an endless cycle of incarceration, release and incarceration. What is more thuggish than systemically destroying a people?
If Black political leadership would place concern for the people over allegiance to a party and their next campaign, and exercise real power instead of ’15 minutes of lame’ on the evening news, this will be fixed. What we need right now is some truth and honesty, and a collective commitment to enlarge the sphere of justice to include Black and brown people.
All of the above is my way of expressing my dismay over the ease by which we throw Black youth overboard. Despite all of the reporting on campus riots after sporting events have I yet to hear the mostly white youthful rioters labeled ‘thugs’ or news media summarily dismiss them as criminals. Sometimes survival is common sense, particularly when it has clearly been communicated to you in school, in your neighborhood and on the street that your life has no value. I believe that Black lives do matter and that Black youth matter; even when they commit acts of anti-social aggression that defy our definition of common sense.