Baltimore: Dissecting the Riotous Behavior

It’s time to Break It Down!

A friend of mine characterized himself as “conflicted” over the Baltimore riots. Another, a Baltimore native, described himself as “DISGUSTED!” The all caps were his. And yet another who reads my blog, added, “I’m looking forward to your take on the events today in Baltimore.” All three made their remarks Monday, long before I decided what I would write about in today’s post. Ultimately, the sequence of events made the choice for me. To that end, let’s do this.

Ta Nehisi Coates, a son of Baltimore, himself, who wrote a nearly 16,000 word, 10 Chapter essay on “The Case for Reparations,” featured in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, has weighed in with, as you might expect, a nontraditional view of the matter. Mr. Coates essay was a powerful instrument for initiating, and in some cases, provoking, discussion about a subject Americans often find difficult to broach. In an effort to leverage the national discussion that ensued, I blogged about the topic myself in my June 4, 2014 post, entitled, “Why Reparations?” For your convenience, both Mr. Coates essay and my blog post are included in separate links below.

All that taken aside, my reference to Mr. Coates relates not to his views on reparations, but to his reaction to Monday’s Baltimore Riots. On Monday, Mr. Coates penned another piece that appeared in The Atlantic, this one entitled “Nonviolence as Compliance.” In this piece, Mr. Coates opines, “Officials calling for calm can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death, and so they appeal for order.”

While he said much more than that, those words right there; one sentence, eighteen simple words synthesize and crystallize the catalyst for why Baltimore was at least temporarily beset by rioting. You could reduce Coates’ articulate phrasing to a shorter, but perhaps more powerful, and much more familiar meme: “No justice, no peace.”

Let me say straight away, there is no simple secret sauce coding that explains what unfolded in B’more on Monday. Yes, there was rioting, looting, threats, and rumors of all that and more. Numerous individuals engaged in criminal behavior; much of it captured on video. These acts included violence, and a substantial amount of property damage, some to vehicles, but most to businesses that served the community in which the riots occurred, and in which many of the rioters live.

Those operatives who call for peace in instances such as this are often called collaborators, and are considered to have betrayed the cause and/or the community. Conversely, individuals who fan the flames of dissent, often leading to progressively escalating confrontational behavior are frequently referred to as instigators, and are frequently considered to be intent on fomenting violence and disorder.

In most instances, by the time a situation devolves and deteriorates to one in which there is this level and degree of yin-yang, the balance has tipped and events such as those occurring Monday evening are all but inevitable. By the time crowd members had attacked police officers by hurling rocks and debris, and surely by the time business were looted or burned, Freddie Gray was long since no longer the issue.

These were acts of anger, spiked by a longstanding seething over past slights and sins against African Americans. It is easy enough to submit that two wrongs do not make a right. That is not just easy to say, but also a fact. However, another fact that too often gets lost in the high intensity media frenzied translation that accompanies occurrences such as this in the digital age/24-hour news cycle, is Freddie Gray’s demise was not the first, or the twenty-first, of the fifty-first of it’s kind. It was just the next…in a long and tragic litany of black lives lost to violence perpetrated by law enforcement officialdom.

Given the myriad of dynamics, moving parts, related to just the actions in Baltimore this week, I can appreciate why one of my friends would feel “conflicted.” His sense of personal resentment, no doubt fueled by the recognition that, as the Baltimore Sun reported results from a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

  • At least 109 people have died after encounters with police in Maryland between 2010 and 2014
  • Nearly 70 percent of those who died were black, and more than 40 percent of the people were unarmed
  • Blacks make up 29 percent of Maryland’s population
  • Of the 109 cases studied, less than 2 percent of the officers involved in the deaths were criminally charged

There is a deep level of food for thought integrated in those findings; at least, there should be.

I can also understand the sentiment of the friend and Baltimore native, whom declared himself “DISGUSTED,” by the events of Monday evening. His mother still lives on the Westside of Baltimore, less than 10 minutes away form where much of the action went down. In his words, it “Makes ABSOLUTELY ZERO SENSE to tear up/burn up your own stuff…the few businesses that are bold enough to come to and stay in your community. I’m DISGUSTED tonight!!!”

Moreover, I can see very well why a third friend would say, “I’m looking forward to your take on the events today in Baltimore.” At this point, it is imperative to emphasize, the issues on the ground in Baltimore are complex and historically entrenched. However, they are also not just present in Baltimore, Maryland. As I have noted in other posts, they are evident in locales as far afield as:

  1. Stanford Florida (I know Zimmerman was not a police officer, but as a neighborhood watch captain, he took the law into his own hands),
  2. Staten Island, New York,
  3. Ferguson, Missouri,
  4. Cleveland, Ohio,
  5. Beavercreek, Ohio,
  6. North Charleston, South Carolina,
  7. Charlotte, North Carolina (my hometown)

I have written about troubling and related events in each and every one of the communities listed above.

Back to B’more, as I’ve have already stated, the looting, burning, and violence that took hold in parts of Baltimore is criminal. Authorities there are justified in calling it such, and in seeking to bring offenders to justice.

But let us not pretend it is fair, courageous, or even minimally acceptable to suggest that an individual who was apparently healthy during the police’s pursuit of him, in great pain and discomfort as he was arrested (captured on audio/video), and dead from a nearly severed spine 2 hours later, was taken into custody “without excess force.” It is this unfathomable narrative that ultimately served as the fuel for the rioting. The Mayor, the Police Commissioner, and any other official who has in effect chosen to say “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” bears a considerable share of the onus for the ugly events we now contemplate and review.

I pray for the Baltimore community. I sincerely hope that state/local officials and disaffected citizens resolve their issues without addition mayhem. If there is a lesson to be learned from this community dysfunction, it is that the days of grin, bear it, and suffer in silence are behind us. We are barely a month into spring, but, frankly, this blowup foretells a long, hot American summer, if police officers continue to flagrantly African Americans, unabated. There you have it; my take on “Baltimore: Dissecting the Riotous Behavior!”

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2 thoughts on “Baltimore: Dissecting the Riotous Behavior

  1. There’s no doubt there are significant problems with roots in the ongoing economic segregation in today’s society. Answers are not easy, and I certainly don’t have them. I’m an old communications guy, so my comments are about messaging (for lack of a better term).

    It’s unfortunate some chose to morph demonstrations into an opportunity to plunder. Makes one appreciate the discipline of the sit-in movement in the South that began with the Greensboro Woolworth’s. Clearly those brave young people and civil rights leaders in the 60’s understood the power of images. The images of police dogs threatening marchers, citizens being fire hosed, and burned out churches ultimately altered the course of the nation. Baltimore demonstrators were robbed of the opportunity to create similarly powerful images with the violent turn.

    The inexperienced mayor also had a bad PR week. Too many missteps to outline here.

    I also have to acknowledge I’d assumed the six officers were white when, in fact, three are black. Will that affect the ongoing narrative? We’ll see.


    • Brian:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I believe your insight is balanced and largely on point. I’m particularly pleasd you used the sit-ins, and the nonviolence movement as a point of reference.

      There are a couple of notions that I would like to add here. First, Dr. King was quoted as sayng, “A riot is the voice of the unheard.” He was certainly committed to nonviolence, and gave his life for the movement, yet, he understood that if you keep filling a baloon with air, without letting any of it out, it will explode at some point. I do not condone violence in general, and I’m disappointed that conditions in Baltimore deteriorated, and ultimately erupted, as they did, in particular. Moreover, while I believe there were intigators in B’more, I think the Freddie Gray incident may have served to catalyze the unheard.

      Second, though Dr. King, was a disciple of nonviolence, he wrote a book entitled, “Why We Can’t Wait.” It was largely an extrapolation of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The larger point of the book was an explantion of why the movement needed to surge ahead in Birmingham at that particular time, rather than linger on a continual back burner. The essence of what occurred in Baltimore a week ago is akin to saying, we need to deal forthrightly with this “right now.”

      I’m not conflating Birmingham and Baltimore or the movement then with the challenges today with any degree of exactitude. However, it seems to me, the forces behind the status quo always prefer that change, if it must occur, proceeds slower, rather than faster. I am simply not certain the unheard will permit that to be the perpetual option of choice.



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