“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” — MLK, Jr
I posted the above on my FB page, and honestly, I’ll admit it was a cowardly move. It was said by someone who is, to most, above reproach and a paragon of understanding and virtue, a champion of peaceful resistance in the face of extreme racism. Of course, I used this quote in the context of the Baltimore riots, hoping not to incite the type of vitriolic debate several of my friends were forced to encounter on their own pages. Reminding people that we must not only condemn the riots but also the conditions that created them is, after all, fairly innocuous, right? Don’t most people see the gray in this? Sigh. Of course not. It’s Facebook – what was I expecting?
Besides those who posted blatantly false reports of what was happening in Baltimore based on totally incredible news sources, there was a good question raised. Before I get to that: seriously, people? This is not the first time this week that people (on their own walls) have propagated and spread “news” reports that were totally untrue, and with very little research effort on my part I was able to determine this (note: “news” not related to Baltimore). Blogs are not valid news sources. If you cannot tell whether a headline is intended to be sensationalist click-bait, or if a site is biased, please sign up for a journalism class at a local community college. It’s really, really not that hard to find three or four reputable sources – and yes, I know that some of our major media outlets are politically motivated, so it may help to watch or listen to those as well, to ensure you’re getting all sides of the story. BUT BLOGS ARE NOT MEDIA OUTLETS. They have no obligations to report facts. They are not subject to any journalistic integrity. Please do at least a modicum of looking at other sources before posting things on FB and further inciting sensationalism and propaganda. You are contributing to the problem.
Breathe. Okay. So to the reasonable question, though it rather baffles my mind because to me the answer, while complex, has been reported on ad nauseum since the Michael Brown case. That said, it may help to cover it again, so here goes.
First, a start off comment from the same reader: “That doesn’t mean that violent protest is today’s answers.”
My response, again trying to deflect conflict (I don’t love confrontation, but I’m ready if need be. That said, I reverted back to MLK rather than going directly for Baltimore): “MLK isn’t saying violent protest is an answer. He’s saying that you can’t condemn the riots without also condemning the conditions and situations that led to them.”
The point: we must look at both sides. I believe this to be true. Riots are not the answer, but people do not riot for no reason. There must be a reason. We must, therefore, ask why people are rioting. It doesn’t excuse the rioters, or make amends for the damage done, but it’s a cop-out to simply call people “animals” and “thugs” and not at least make an attempt to understand what has brought about such a strong response. Scorning the rioters and dehumanizing them only contributes to the problem. It does not help. Rioters are not going to stop rioting because you call them names on Facebook.
The follow-up question:
“So what specifically are the conditions and situations that need to change so that young people don’t feel like the only recourse is to break in and loot businesses in their own communities? How do you convince young people to serve their communities as policeman, fireman, medical staff?”
Okay. This one’s tougher, and people smarter than I have been writing and speaking about this for years, decades even.
1. The conditions and situations that need to change
The primary problem in this and similar cases over the past few years is that many people in urban, predominantly Black communities do not trust the police force.
What the police do well
Being an urban police officer is a dangerous, difficult and stressful job. In many cases, officers have to make split-second decisions in the defense of their own or others’ lives. They have to walk beats in which they are unwelcome, and they can at times see the worst of humanity. I agree with my friend Erin here: “In defense of the riot police, I would pee my pants if I were standing out there as an officer. Probably multiple times. They have an incredibly hard job, and unfortunately most of them (especially those extra support officers coming in from other areas) are not the problem, yet they have to take the abuse for it.” The majority of officers are protecting people and neighborhoods, and many have literally saved lives. Being an officer can be a noble, selfless, and sometimes thankless occupation.
What the police don’t do well
However, in no occupation are all members paragons of virtue or not subject to scrutiny or legal repercussions for improper actions (not even the President). Police, like people in all other occupations, are a mix of all types. They may be united in their job duties, but they are as diverse a group as any other. Some make mistakes. Some are racist. Some are criminals. Some abuse their wives, children, and those they arrest. Some – like the looters themselves – are subject to mob mentality. “Remember that many of these incidents involved groups of officers, not individuals acting alone,” Erin reminds us. “Remember that there ARE great police officers and think about how comfortable they would feel standing up for what they believe is right when more senior officers are participating in what they believe is wrong.”
Unfortunately, in Baltimore, there has been an erosion of trust in the police force in the past few years. Why? Well, consider that “Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of [police] brutality and civil rights violations.” Taxpayer money has paid $5.7 million in settlement to the plaintiffs, and the city has paid an additional $5.8 million in legal fees. Baltimore has even had to increase their budget by over $4 million this year to cover additional payouts they expect to be ordered to pay by judge/jury. As the Baltimore Sun article linked to above notes, these “undue force” arrests “can poison relationships between police and the community, limiting cooperation in the fight against crime.” Viewed in this light, the Freddie Gray case is just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. To recap: “An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead.” Could Freddie Gray have committed a crime? It’s possible. In Maryland, it is legal to openly carry a switchblade, but not legal to concealed carry – presumably the arrest here was due to concealed carry. Did Freddie deserve to die for this, though? It’s clear he was not given the due process allowed him under the law. Instead, something happened in the back of that police van that was enough to nearly sever his spine. I think he would have won an undue force case.
Is it any wonder that for many Black teens and men, upon seeing a police officer, their reaction is “fight or flight?”
It’s important to note that criminals deserve to be caught and prosecuted. I am not trying to excuse those who break the law. I just happen to think that in this and similar cases, the police were acting in a way that was criminally negligent and also deserve prosecution.
I will note here, as the author of the above notes, that it is more than a little ironic that the police are calling for people to not respond to their undue force with, well, undue force. As they plead for peace and nonviolence, perhaps we can better understand why there are those who are viewing these requests as hypocritical and thus are ignoring them. Fortunately, there are many more people who, like MLK Jr., believe that responding to violence with violence just perpetuates a vicious cycle. There were more peaceful protesters than rioters in Baltimore, and it’s important to remember that. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to try to understand those who did not respond peacefully, and consider why the feel so “unheard” otherwise.
It’s also important to note that I have not even started to touch upon all the other newsworthy death of Black teens and men in that past few years. I have not mentioned racial profiling, disproportionate arrests and convictions, or the phenomenon of Driving While Black. If there is interest stemming from this post on a broader history of these issues, just let me know and I will address it next.
A secondary problem in this and similar cases over the past few years is systemic racism and bias.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: isn’t this bias justified? Don’t more crimes occur in poor, predominantly Black urban areas? Yes, in many cases they do, and the reasons for this are long-standing and well outside my ability to fix. But “there are huge problems with … attributing violent criminality to blackness—rather than particular conditions faced by some black people—and the injustice of treating all blacks as criminally suspect because of the actions of a small minority.” It is these “particular conditions” that are too numerous to get into in this already long post – but one of them is, in fact, racism.
Racism is still a problem, and not just for the police. I am racist. You are racist. Don’t believe me? Try the “skin-tone” test, which is one of the Implicit Association tests created by Harvard University. The trick isn’t not having bias. It’s recognizing that you are biased and making conscious choices to not act on those biases – which is understandably harder to do when you’re in a high-stress, high-possibility-of-danger situation. It’s no surprise that cops with more experience and technical training are less likely to react with undue force in such a situation. What can we do? Education about bias helps, especially when we teach our children from a young age not that race doesn’t exist, but that all people matter equally and deserve love, empathy and compassion, no matter what color they are. We teach the cops of tomorrow have empathy for both the victims of crime and the criminals themselves. Education, education, education. We can also help by working in our and nearby communities to help alleviate the circumstances that lead people to turn to a life of crime. (Not sure what these circumstances are? Let me know. A whole other post!)
So how do we convince young people to serve their communities as policemen, firemen and medical staff? Rebuilding trust in the police force will not be easy. Studies have shown that community policing efforts can help, especially when police are serving communities in other ways, such as through food banks (this goes to the “helping alleviate the circumstances that lead people to turn to a life of crime” situation). But it’s not a quick fix, and neither is the “education” plea above. Of course nothing about this is a quick fix. We will never be able to eradicate all the bad apples from the police force. We will never be able to stop all the rioters and looters.
What can we, individuals who do not even live in Baltimore, do today? Recognize our own biases, and work to overcome them. Do our research, and ensure we are listening to both sides of the story. Remember that both sides may be to blame; both parties may be complicit in wrongdoing. Ask yourself: are you just condemning the rioters and looters, or are you also criticizing the police actions that brought about such rage? If just the former, why? If just the latter, why?
I agree again with Erin: “I don’t know about you, but I would not want to be a cop in the city right now. But, I would also not want to be in a community where I felt targeted and unprotected and like a huge protest was the only way to enact any change.” I can’t say how I would feel if I were a cop, or if I were a Black Baltimorean. I’m neither of those things. “I’m just appalled at the amount of people looking in from the outside (on both groups!) and making incredibly insensitive comments, even making jokes, saying people should get a job, dehumanizing the very real people this tragic story affects. Not every human acts intelligently when put in a bad situation – even when in a great situation. I’m not saying any actions are smart/not or are logical/illogical. I’m just trying hard to have empathy for others, and to understand both sides of the story.”