America’s ongoing crisis of race and democracy witnessed a tragic new chapter in Baltimore, MD on Monday night. Weeks of peaceful demonstrations, protests, and rallies to protest the killing of 25-year old black man, Freddie Gray, inspired hope that Baltimore might escape the looting and violence that gripped Ferguson, MO last year. Instead, on the same day of Gray’s funeral and despite his family’s pleas for calm, hundreds of people descended on parts of northwest section of the city and engaged in acts of looting and arson.
Dramatic calls for peace ignore the fact that police-community relations have devolved into an ongoing war, one wherein black men and women, teenagers, and even children have been casualties around the nation.
What President Obama characterized as “slow-rolling crisis” is actually the culmination of decades of political neglect and policy choicesthat have increased racial segregation, poverty, inequality, and violence not only in urban cities but in marginalized communities of color around the nation.
Even as new attorney general Loretta Lynch denounces Baltimore’s violence, Maryland’s governor declares a state of emergency, and the mayor imposes a city- wide curfew, the crisis of mass incarceration, failing public schools, unemployment, and racial segregation and stigma continue to flourish.
Baltimore’s, as well as our nation’s, true state of emergency lies in the institutional, political, and policy violence routinely deployed against our most vulnerable, predominantly black and brown, citizens.
The young people who are being criticized for looting and burning their own communities recognize the unfortunate fact that racial inequality has become so normalized in American society that the only time racially impoverished and economically segregated neighborhood receive any kind of political attention is in the aftermath of political rebellion.
Imagine if the president, attorney general, governors, and mayors across the nation mobilized the kind of resources being directed toward Baltimore before rioting erupted and police killed yet another young black man?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a “revolution of values” during the civil rights era, including a rejection of “materialism, militarism, and racism,” that threatened humanity’s very future.
In the 21st century this revolution would mean that, rather than decry violence in Baltimore and Ferguson, as inexcusable, political leaders, elected officials, and citizens would agree that the killing of young black men, racial poverty, police misconduct, and mass incarceration are equally unacceptable.
The timing of Baltimore’s violence is especially instructive, as it comes during a year that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Watts uprising in Los Angeles. The 1968 Kerner Commission, which investigated hundreds of civil disturbances, traced urban violence directly to institutional racism, structural inequality, and white racial attitudes that allowed discrimination and segregation to not simply exist, but to thrive.
Media coverage of Baltimore’s riot has obscured three important phenomena. The first is that the overwhelming numbers of residents who have participated in demonstrations and protests have been peaceful, including young people who can be seen reading books, chanting songs, and gaining valuable experience in being part of a social protest movement.
The second is that these protests go far beyond Freddie Gray’s death and criminal justice reform. America’s criminal justice system is a gateway to racial and economic oppression for millions of citizens. African Americans as young as elementary school age children are frequently caught in the juvenile justice system, there first taste of a lifelong relationship with the penal system. The nation’s sprawling prison systems have turned many poor black neighborhoods into resource starved ghettoes, devoid of decent schools, housing, supermarkets, playgrounds, parks, and access to mental and physical healthcare.
There will never be enough police officers, National Guard troops, state of emergency orders, and curfews to fill up hungry bellies, inspire students to learn, and create a sense of safety, love, and community in economically devastated and racially segregated parts of the nation.
We should not let the violence of a few wayward youth and citizens overwhelm the heroic organizing, peaceful protests, and creatively disruptive movements we have seen in Baltimore and among #BlackLivesMatter protests nationwide. Nor should we, as President Obama and Mayor Stephanie Rawlins-Blake have both done, characterize rioters as “thugs.” This is a term better reserved for the largely white criminals who illegally profited by almost bankrupting the nation’s financial system during the Great Recession than young black boys and girls in bandanas and masks. Racial justice in Baltimore and nationally would mean treating these young people with the same respect afforded to college students who burn and destroy private and public property in the aftermath of raucous celebrations and defeats. Criminalizing blackness by normalizing the abuse, abandonment, and exploitation of generations of African Americans is how we got into this mess. Further calls for revenge and punitive action doubles down on an approach that, as we can all witness, has been a spectacular failure.
Peniel E. Joseph is Professor of History and Founding Director, Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Tufts University. His most recent book, Stokely: A Life, was widely reviewed in the New York Times, Washington, Post, Boston Globe, NPR, and other outlets. He is a frequent national commentator on issues of civil rights, race, and democracy. He can be followed on Twitter at PenielJoseph.