A City in Flames -- What Did We Expect?

I spent Monday afternoon and evening captivated by television images from Baltimore. Switching to and from MSNBC and CNN, I watched bricks thrown, police cars aflame, a CVS store looted and set afire, and a shopping mall raid that, from a distance, looked like ants scurrying in and out of an unguarded picnic basket.

The commentary, then and since, has been sharply divided. Many folks rightly differentiated peaceful protest from chaotic violence. All voices, black and white, strident and conciliatory, regretted the futile self-destruction -- the further disintegration of a neighborhood with so little fabric left to rend. The beleaguered Baltimore mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, sagged with fatigue as she patiently endured accusations that she and her city had done too little ... or too much. In thousands of comments, self-righteous readers of America's newspapers called for law and order and described the looters as "animals," while paying little mind or modest lip service to the police brutality that started the turmoil.

I saw the looters, the projectiles, the flames, and a fire hose cut as CVS burned in the background. All of it was bemoaned by the representatives of Freddie Gray's family, who repeatedly reminded that this chaos was "the last thing" the family wanted to see on the day he was put to eternal rest. "What a stain on the city of Baltimore," claimed one talking head or another, perhaps forgetting the bloodstains on so many American streets, left by black bodies left untended and bleeding from wounds inflicted by their own country.

Pastors, politicians and pundits pleaded for calm, claiming that the quest for justice for Freddie Gray must be peaceful, that violence begets violence, that the frustrations evident in the community would be better directed toward political and social change. For hours these voices of reason, black and white, played against a visual backdrop of fire and rage.

Most folks saw a city gone mad, an urban Lord of the Flies, where notions of humanity and civility were betrayed by wilding sociopaths, capitalizing on a real tragedy to assault their own neighborhood for CVS candy or a bottle of cheap whiskey.

I saw something else.

I saw scores of teenagers exploding with long pent up rage. They hurled things at the police because they could. Evidence from every urban community of color in America reveals the usual intersection of black youth and the police; Stopped and frisked on little or no provocation; Profiled and followed by security guards in CVS and every other store in and out of their community; Knowing that asking a question is inviting arrest or a beating. They see a country where their schools are underfunded and crumbling and their fathers are in jail for minor offenses. They may not be able to cite the disproportionate sentences or institutional racism that led to mass incarceration, but they feel it every day. And in this ugly moment, the bricks thrown, the matches lit, the windows broken were a momentary catharsis. "FUCK YOU!" they said. "FUCK YOU!"

I saw poor women with garbage bags, grabbing household supplies that were beyond their welfare check, or a sugary drink that conservative prigs would deny them the right to buy with food stamps. I saw hundreds of men, for whom real employment is an impossibility, because of minor criminal records. I saw sad humans who live on the very edge of survival, who saw a chance to be noticed, to feel something -- get something -- for just a moment.

Yes, I'm a bleeding heart liberal. Whose heart wouldn't bleed at the sight of what we've done to our country?

Late into the cable television night the looters and brick throwers were repeatedly characterized as thugs. Fair enough. Thugs they are. But thugs are made, not born.

Unless you believe that young black men are innately violent.

Unless you believe that black mothers and fathers love their children less.

Unless you believe that we live in a meritocracy where you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get.

I don't believe any of those things.

The deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Rumain Brisbon, Tamir Rice,
Akai Gurley, Kajieme Powell, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tyree Goodson
... I could go on ... are the tip of an iceberg. Too many young men of color in America's poorest neighborhoods feel the figurative, sometimes literal, boot of oppression. They know that any day, any time, their names might be added to that long and growing list. They know that they are utterly powerless. But in Baltimore, for this fleeting moment, they had power. They knew they were out of the reach of the police. And they behaved horribly. Power can do that. Watch the police.

Not all police, of course. I also have great empathy for hundreds of decent Baltimore police officers who are, in a very different way, victims too. Most of them are no more responsible for the desperate circumstances in West Baltimore than are the boys throwing stones at them.

I can only imagine the angry responses this post will draw. I don't condone looting, dangerous projectiles or arson, but I understand. During the '60s, as a teenager, I tried to be an ally in the civil rights movement and watched with confusion and curiosity as parts of my city burned. My empathy often left me to wonder -- what would I do if I were poor and black, not white and privileged? I'm asking myself that question again, 50 years later.