There’s nothing like a massive riot in a major city to grab the nation’s attention, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? There’s no point in destroying your own neighborhood, but there has to be a way to express your despair and anger, and the unremitting hopelessness of an intolerable situation with its daily casual and deadly injustice. Scholarly social and economic studies aren’t going to cut it. No one reads those. Exposés in the local press, even if they win a Pulitzer Prize, aren’t going to cut it either. The local press is, after all, local. The government isn’t going to help either. Lobbyists cost money. You don’t have any money. In short, no one is going to listen to you. A massive riot will solve that problem. Someone will notice. That’s not to say anyone will fix anything – but they will notice.
That’s why the Baltimore riots, on the second day, as the second night began, didn’t quite end. They simmered:
Armored vehicles lined this battered city’s main thoroughfares and thousands of law enforcement officers and National Guard troops poured in to maintain order here on Tuesday, while residents toting brooms and trash bags turned out in droves to help keep the peace and clear broken glass and debris from a night of rioting and arson.
As a citywide curfew went into effect at 10 p.m., hundreds of people remained in the streets of Northwest Baltimore as religious leaders urged crowds to go home. There were scattered reports of arrests; a group hurled rocks and bricks at the police. The mood seemed tense, and many people, upset over the curfew, did not want to go home.
The Baltimore police, 17 minutes after the curfew began, said on Twitter that demonstrators in the city’s northwest quadrant were “becoming aggressive and throwing items at police officers.”
“Our officers are going to use common sense to enforce the curfew,” Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, the Baltimore police spokesman, said. “What this is about is preserving the public peace.”
The day was fine – people in the streets cleaning up, a marching band, everyone seeming to agree that burning the place down had been a stunningly stupid idea – but that was a daytime thing and still tense:
Throughout the day, people of all ages and races – growing to a crowd of more than 500 people – converged at the intersection of Pennsylvania and West North Avenues in blighted West Baltimore, where a CVS drugstore had been looted and burned. As rifle-toting officers in riot gear blocked the street, a group of men formed a human chain, putting themselves between officers and some angry young people.
At one point, the crowd sang “Amazing Grace.” But tensions did flare briefly, when someone in the crowd threw bottles at the line of police officers.
“It’s sad, this don’t make no sense,” said Clarence Cobb, 48, one of many neighborhood residents who, describing themselves as brokenhearted, came out to survey the wreckage and clean up. “It comes to a point where you just got to take pride in your own neighborhood. This makes us look real bad as a city.”
And the assessments began:
Some said the police had exacerbated tensions by sending 200 to 300 officers to the Mondawmin Mall as school let out. “Having the cops showing up in riot gear just inflamed the situation,” said Melech Thomas, 27, a minister who works with youth in West Baltimore.
Policing experts said [Baltimore Mayor] Ms. Rawlings-Blake was walking a delicate line, and some said they would much rather see a city take Baltimore’s cautious approach than react with the kind of militarized police presence used by Ferguson. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a research group based in Washington, said, “It’s better to go in low key and build up if necessary.”
Norman H. Stamper, the Seattle police chief who oversaw a harsh response to vandalism and demonstrations when the World Trade Organization met in that city in 1999, and who later disavowed those tactics, agreed.
“There is a sense of damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said. “I’m not saying Baltimore did everything right, but generally, when you get criticized for exercising restraint, that’s preferable to sort of a wanton, aggressive response.”
Throughout Tuesday, state troopers in riot gear and National Guards members patrolled the Inner Harbor tourist district and around downtown Baltimore hotels.
At least they protected the rich white folks, but some say it all as academic:
Near the burned-out CVS, Robert Wilson, a college student who went to high school in Baltimore, said: “With the riots, we’re not trying to act like animals or thugs. We’re just angry at the surroundings, like this is all that is given to us, and we’re tired of this, like nobody wants to wake up and see broken-down buildings. They take away the community centers, they take away our fathers, and now we have traffic lights that don’t work, we have houses that are crumbling, falling down.”
Mr. Wilson said he had seen someone on television say, “This doesn’t feel like America.”
“And I’m like, ‘This is America! They just don’t want you to know!'”
There may be something to that, but none of those currently running for president, or “exploring” the possibility, had much to say about any of this. It was too hard to calibrate a response. Come down too hard on those in desperate circumstance and you’ll never get a minority vote again, and there are more and more of those minorities voting each election cycle. Come down too hard on the police and the system and you’ll never get another angry white vote again, and those folks always vote. It was best to mumble a few ambiguous things and quickly change the subject. Only one of these people jumped in:
Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) weighed in on the turmoil in Baltimore on Tuesday, standing with police and blaming the violence on a lack of morals in America.
“I came through the train on Baltimore [sic] last night, I’m glad the train didn’t stop,” he said, laughing, during an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.
He decided to keep it light and playful, until he got serious. He blamed the riots in part on “the breakdown of the family structure” and “the lack of fathers” in those neighborhoods. This was a family-values moral issue, really, not so much a social or economic issue. If these folks were more like us white folks… No, he didn’t go there. Or maybe he did.
Calibration was difficult. That cute little CNN anchor, the one that CNN snagged from CNBC, the sweet young thing who used to work at Goldman Sachs and is now married to a top Manhattan investment banker, did have a problem with that:
Baltimore City Council member Carl Stokes clashed with CNN’s Erin Burnett on Tuesday when she argued in favor of calling rioters in the city “thugs.”
“Isn’t it the right word?” Burnett asked.
“No, it’s not the right word to call our children ‘thugs,'” Stokes said. “These are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us.”
“But how does that justify what they did?” Burnett countered. “That’s a sense of right and wrong. They know it’s wrong to steal and burn down a CVS and an old persons’ home. I mean, come on.”
“Come on? Just call them niggers. Just call them niggers,” Stokes told her. “No, we don’t have to call them by names such as that. We don’t have to do that. That is exactly what we’ve sent them to. When you say, ‘Come on,’ come on what? You wouldn’t call your child a thug if they should do something that would not be what you expect them to do.”
Erin Burnett would not, however, back down. This didn’t go well, but CNN seems to be doing its “those people” thing:
On Tuesday, Burnett attempted to get Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-MD) to weigh in on the topic, only for Mfume to describe it as a derailing.
“It’s important that we not shift the focus into something that has absolutely nothing to do with poverty, despair, hunger, homelessness and the sense of not belonging,” Mfume said.
The exchange between Burnett and Stokes came hours after her colleague, Wolf Blitzer, was called out by activist DeRay McKesson for also downplaying the use of lethal force by authorities.
That didn’t go well either – “Are you suggesting broken windows are worse than broken spines?” Blitzer was flustered. Fox News is supposed to rant about the young black thugs. CNN isn’t very good at this sort of thing.
President Obama, however, had to say something, and he tried to be fair:
President Obama responded with passion and frustration on Tuesday to the violence that has rocked Baltimore and other cities after the deaths of young black men in confrontations with the police, calling for a period of soul-searching about what he said had become a near-weekly cycle of tragedy.
Speaking from the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Obama condemned the chaos unfolding just 40 miles north of the White House and called for “full transparency and accountability” in a Department of Justice investigation into the death of Freddie Gray, the young black man who died of a spinal cord injury suffered while in police custody.
He said that his thoughts were also with the police officers injured in Monday night’s unrest in Baltimore, which he said “underscores that that’s a tough job, and we have to keep that in mind.”
But in a carefully planned 14-minute statement during a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Mr. Obama made clear that he was deeply dismayed not only by the recent unrest in several cities but also by the longstanding yet little-discussed racial and societal forces that have fed it.
He wanted to have it both ways:
“We have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions,” Mr. Obama said. “This has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.”
He spoke as Loretta E. Lynch, the new attorney general, dispatched two of her top deputies to Baltimore to handle the fallout: Vanita Gupta, her civil rights chief, and Ronald L. Davis, her community-policing director. The unrest there and the epidemic Mr. Obama described of troubled relations between white police officers and black citizens have consumed Ms. Lynch’s first two days on the job and could define her time in office.
They have also raised difficult and familiar questions for Mr. Obama about whether he and his administration are doing enough to confront the problem, questions made all the more poignant because he is the first African-American to occupy the White House.
This is difficult stuff:
The president struggled for balance in his remarks. He pushed back against critics who have said he should be more aggressive in his response to questionable practices by the police, saying: “I can’t federalize every police department in the country and force them to retrain.”
Mr. Obama also made clear that he had no sympathy for people rioting in the streets, calling them “a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes,” who should “be treated as criminals.”
And he said that law enforcement officials and organizations that represent them must also admit that “there are some police who aren’t doing the right thing.”
But he emphasized that the problem went far beyond the police, who he said are too often deployed to “do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise” in broken urban communities where fathers are absent, drugs dominate and education, jobs and opportunities are nonexistent.
Of course that will satisfy no one. He said things weren’t a simple as they seem at the moment. He’s always saying that. It drives people crazy, because it’s always true.
As for the actual situation in Baltimore, Michael Fletcher offers this:
In the more than three decades I have called this city home, Baltimore has been a combustible mix of poverty, crime, and hopelessness, uncomfortably juxtaposed against rich history, friendly people, venerable institutions and pockets of old-money affluence.
The two Baltimores have mostly gone unreconciled. The violence that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral Monday, with roaming gangs looting stores and igniting fires, demands that something be done.
That’s easier said than done:
Baltimore is not Ferguson and its primary problems are not racial. The mayor, city council president, police chief, top prosecutor, and many other city leaders are black, as is half of Baltimore’s 3,000-person police force. The city has many prominent black churches and a line of black civic leadership extending back to Frederick Douglass.
Yet, the gaping disparities separating the haves and the have nots in Baltimore are as large as they are anywhere. And, as the boys on the street will tell you, black cops can be hell on them, too.
So we have the situation we have:
Freddie Gray’s life and death say much about the difficult problems that roil Baltimore. As a child, he was found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood from peeling lead paint in his home, leading to a raft of medical and educational problems, his family charged in a lawsuit. His friends remember him as a smiling, friendly guy who liked nice clothes and deplored violence. His criminal record says he operated on the periphery of the drug game. He did a short stint in prison, and according to news reports, his mother used heroin.
None of that is unusual in the West Baltimore community where he grew up – nor are they unusual in many of Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods. The federal government has said that Baltimore has the highest concentration of heroin addicts in the nation. Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, once home to Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway, has more recently distinguished itself as the place that has sent the highest number of people to prison in the state of Maryland.
It does not stop there, despite ambitious city efforts to build new housing and focus social services in Sandtown. More than half of the neighborhood’s households earned less than $25,000 a year, according to a 2011 Baltimore Health Department report, and more than one in five adults were out of work – double the citywide average. One in five middle school students in the neighborhood missed more than 20 days of school, as did 45 percent of the neighborhood’s high schoolers.
But that’s not Baltimore:
Most of these problems are confined to the pockmarked neighborhoods of narrow row homes and public housing projects on the city’s east and west sides. They exist in the lives of the other Baltimore of renovated waterfront homes, tree-lined streets, sparkling waterfront views, rollicking bars and ethnic restaurants mainly through news reports. The two worlds bump up against one another only on occasion.
But they do bump up against one another:
When I moved to Baltimore after growing up in New York City, I was surprised at how often I would be forced to squeeze my car over to the side of the road as a police car, lights flashing and siren blaring, roared by. During my 13 years as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, I heard many people complain that when the police got where they were going, they sometimes exacted their own brand of justice.
Baltimore police have faced a series of corruption allegations through the years. They have been accused of planting evidence on suspects, being too quick to resort to deadly force and, long before Gray’s suspicious death, of beating suspects. Like police everywhere, they have been accused of routinely pulling up black youth. When he was a teenager, my own son was pulled over while driving his old Honda Civic on several occasions. It has gone on for decades.
Not long after I moved to Baltimore, my wife’s car was stolen in front of our house, which then was just four or five blocks from North and Pennsylvania avenues, the epicenter of Monday’s disturbance. The police came and asked the usual questions before my wife piped up, “What do you guys do to find stolen cars?”
One of the cops responded that the cars usually turn up a few days later when the joyriders run out of gas. Then, without irony or, seemingly, malicious intent, he looked at us – a young black couple – and said: “If we see a group of young black guys in a car, we pull them over.” We were speechless. Several days later, we were chagrined when my wife’s car turned up out of gas less than a mile from our home.
Now all of the pent up anger and bitterness has boiled over into the kind of rioting Baltimore has not seen since the 1968 uprising that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And David Graham sees no way out:
This is the paradox at the heart of rioting in Baltimore. Protestors have been in the streets of Charm City for a week to demonstrate against violence by police officers. But when matters started to spin out of control Monday afternoon, the group dispatched to solve the problem was the police. …
It’s the police who are investigating the Gray’s death—even though he was in a police van, visible to only officers of the law, when he sustained the spinal injuries that killed him. The police may also have mishandled protests on Monday, allowing them to escalate and turn into looting and rioting. Nor did other traditional sources of power and influence acquit themselves especially well: The mayor seemed unprepared and beleaguered, the media often missed or obscured what was happening, and traditional community leaders seemed to have little sway. In a situation like this, when there’s no authority with credibility and influence, who can the population turn to?
That’s a good question:
Much of the discussion over Ferguson has focused on what happens when a poor, disenfranchised black population is divided from a white power structure. As any scholar of systemic racism might have predicted, Baltimore is showing that simply having African Americans in top jobs – including mayor and the police commissioner – is not enough. In the early days of protests, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seemed to be winning praise for sympathetically listening to protestors and staying above the fray. By Monday night, she seemed to have become just another politician, subject to criticism from people on all sides of the drama. First, there was her widely debated statement on Sunday that police had created space for destruction – she says she was misunderstood, and was only making the point that bad actors could take advantage of circumstances. Then on Monday night, she referred to protestors as “thugs,” an often racialized term that, when used by white authorities in Ferguson and elsewhere, keyed strong reactions. Her linguistic slips, the fact that the city seemed largely unready even though protests were a week old, and the fact that there’s still almost no information about what happened to Gray, have eroded her sway. As Rawlings-Blake balances the need to criticize police brutality against her support for Baltimore’s police force, she has to contend with the precedent of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. He faced a serious backlash and a work stoppage from police after the death of Eric Garner and the murder of two officers. An uneasy truce seems to have prevailed there, but given the tension in Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake wouldn’t want to risk the same sort of break with her own department.
And then there’s the media:
For most Americans, television provided the main look at what was going on, while the eagerness of people in the streets (of all opinions) to speak to reporters showed an understanding of the power of the media. Reporters flooded into Baltimore from around the country, and in particular from D.C. But most of the reporters in the city don’t have much background in Baltimore or a particularly rich understanding of race relations there or elsewhere. As a result, they transmitted a necessarily patchy and incomplete picture of what was happening. Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox succinctly criticized the parachute press corps in a tweet: “CNN guy reporting from one corner declares Baltimore is ‘a city out of control.’ I guess since he knows everybody, he must be right.”
The problem with taking news reports at face value became apparent as the night wore on, when a senior home across the city in East Baltimore caught on fire. Initially, it was believed to be connected to the unrest – reporters even spoke with residents who were aghast that the violence had moved to their neighborhood. Yet the fire department later told The Washington Post the fire was not related to protests and seemed to be an unfortunately timed construction mishap.
No good will come of this:
Those images could be misleading. Sometimes it looked as though authorities were entirely absent, only for the camera to pan out and show a phalanx of riot police nearby.
But the national press also undermined its authority in subtler ways. First, there was the unquestioned assumption that more force is better. Hence CNN’s Wolf Blitzer grilled the Baltimore Police Department’s spokesman on live television, questioning whether there were more officers on the way and demanding to know whether BPD needed backup from the National Guard or Washington, D.C., police, as though he himself might order them in. The appeal to force is particular tone-deaf in the context of clashes set off by what everyone seems to agree was an excessive use of force by police against Freddie Gray. It also points to an additional problem with the media’s authority in a riot situation: A camera is very effective at capturing acute scenes of destruction, from fires to thrown bricks to looting. But it’s not good at capturing the invisible forces that are more important in explaining what’s happening – chronic, hidden things like a long history of police brutality or poverty entrenched by government policy choices.
So, no one’s got it right, while no one’s in charge, and someone has to step in:
Local community leaders have already played a key role in peaceful protests, and they were out in the streets during the violence, prevailing upon demonstrators to remain calm and peaceful – and often doing so with more poise and effect than other actors on the scene. Pastor Jamal Bryant, the local minister who delivered Gray’s eulogy and has been instrumental in protests over his death, headed out into the streets in an attempt to tamp down violence. In an instantly viral moment, a mother who saw her son throwing rocks delivered a thunderous physical scolding.
The volunteers, the people who show up when the cameras are off and get to the work of cleaning West Baltimore up, will naturally earn some respect in the neighborhood. With so many failed authorities around them, and so many deep structural challenges remaining, they’ll have plenty of work.
That will help – no one else seems to have a clue about what to do right now – but it won’t fix Baltimore, and it won’t fix America. What did that young fellow say? This is America. They just don’t want you to know.
The rioting continued for a second night, by the way.