The rioting in Baltimore is heartbreaking. This great and proud city has struggled for decades to overcome lost manufacturing jobs, decaying blocks and long neglected neighborhoods. All of these ingredients were in place for an explosion.
The unjustified death of Freddie Gray while in police custody was the catalyst that set off rioting and destruction. Many residents in Freddie Gray's neighborhood say that police harassment is constant. Just in the past four years, 100 people have won court judgments or settlements against the Baltimore police related to allegations of brutality or civil rights violations.
Half of the residents between 16 and 64 are unemployed, while the greater Baltimore area unemployment rate is much lower. More than 30 percent of the homes in Freddie Gray's neighborhood are vacant or abandoned, while the average for the city is about 8 percent. The median household income in the neighborhood is about $24,000, compared to about $42,000 for the city. Almost 35 percent of its residents do not have a high school diploma.
There is no excuse for the senseless violence that has broken out in Baltimore. But there are underlying causes that have been left for fester and now explode. The people, officials and business leaders of Baltimore know it.
For instance, Baltimore Orioles COO John Angelos vented his feelings Saturday in a series of Twitter replies to a local sportscaster. Angelos began by tweeting, "the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society." He added, "Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible."
But then he offered a defense. When edited together, his tweets read: "my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night's property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American's civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state."
Forty miles away, at the White House on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said there was no excuse for the violence in Baltimore, but he blamed it on economic inequality and police brutality. "This is not new. This has been going on for decades. And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, we also know if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty, they've got parents, often because of substance abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education, and themselves can't do right by their kids, if it's more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead than that they go to college, and communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men, communities where there's no investment, and manufacturing's been stripped away, and drugs have flooded the community and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a lot of folks, in those environments," the president said with great passion.
He concluded forcefully, "if we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without, as a nation, and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we're not going to solve this problem, and we'll go through this same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities, and the occasional riots in the streets and everybody will feign concern until it goes away and we just go about our business as usual."
Baltimore was once the home of the great abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass. Douglass famously said, "I would unite with anybody to do right and nobody to do wrong." Will this episode in Baltimore's storied history be a time when a nation unites to do right?