'Let's Go Home': The Power of Redemption

Demonstrators gather in the aftermath of rioting following Monday's funeral for Freddie Gray, who died in police custody, on
Demonstrators gather in the aftermath of rioting following Monday's funeral for Freddie Gray, who died in police custody, on Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. The streets were largely calm in the morning and into the afternoon, but authorities remained on edge against the possibility of another outbreak of looting, vandalism and arson. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

I watched CNN almost exclusively for the news about the first day of the Baltimore uprisings, knowing that the other channels would probably be worse. And on it came: the condemnation of the Mayor (who incidentally was black and female), suggesting how weak she was for holding back the police; the labeling of the young people in rebellion as "thugs"; the slightly veiled damnation of the black community for burning down its own neighborhood, with particular sympathy for the CVS store that was burned and looted.

I write not in defense of riots. They're awful, destructive, acts of hopeless people who don't think very much of their future. But I am writing to note that there were a lot more people out on the street at the height of the violence who were literally fighting with their neighbors and family members, telling them to "Go home" and "Stop burning down your own neighborhood!"

Slowly, by the second day, the cameras focused on some of these people: the mother who beat her child all the way home, and gave a brilliant interview of why she did it but also, what it's like to live in Baltimore. CNN focused on the young men who were trying to calm the streets, including breaking up a fight between two boys who were apparently from different gangs.

"There are longstanding beefs amongst the people, before the riot occurred", the newsman sympathetically explained. They interviewed a preacher who held his head up; a state senator who called for justice. They let us see some of parents, community workers and others who confronted the police and the rioters to control the crowds that day, and will do so tomorrow just as eagerly.

So despite the violence, which the Baltimore Police Department alone would not have been able to stop the first day because they were overwhelmed by the numbers of people on the rampage, and the widespread nature of the destruction, maybe it was a good idea that the mayor didn't turn loose the cops to beat heads as was done in so many cities recently, and in days of yore?

When CNN and other media outlets tells the narrative in a way that ignores these acts of redemptive non-violence, (including the action by the mayor) it justifies more violence by the police forces, who always have the preponderance of force on their side, and the authority to use it. When the narrative unfolds that way, it blocks the ugly truth about the American dream: it just doesn't apply to the residents in West Baltimore, and neighborhoods like it across the country.

On the Amy Goodman Pacifica news broadcast the morning after the riot, Rev. Jesse Jackson pointed out Baltimore has 18000 vacant homes, caused by the mortgage get-rich schemes that caused the Great Depression of 2008 and the loss of homes for thousands of residents. The unemployment rate is 30 percent amongst young blacks. There were 111 cases of police violence that led to court judgments or settlements between 2011 and 2014, alone. You just don't get this picture when you allow pundits and leaders to get on television and call the rioters "thugs"... which simply justifies more violence, more oppression and more responses based on rage.

Lost in that kind of single-minded blame analysis is the evidence of privilege and power that are held by some, and the abject poverty and powerlessness of others, which is the story that must be told if America is to ever back away from the precipice of death and destruction. Lost is the lesson of the historic role that black people have always played in times like these, when ordinary people do extraordinary things to keep the peace, thus backing off the agents of terror and destruction just by their sheer will to get the job done.

The little people of Baltimore -- the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers -- are the people who stopped a second night of terror from being unleashed on their neighborhoods, this time by the overwhelming superiority of force amassed by the police, locked and loaded for offense.

It is this homegrown leadership that was finally given the audience and appreciation it deserves by some news outlets on the second day. It was a message of hope that was beyond comprehension of some the young rioters, but that people made stick up on the wall just by their will power. These leaders now have a right to say, "We're doing our share, America. What about you?"

It is from this positioning on the moral high ground that longstanding Movements for social justice have been born and perpetuated in America, with particular reference to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Let us hope that the majority of the country will listen, and begins first to insist on curbing the indiscriminant power of the combined police forces in the country; and that racism and poverty begin to be alleviated by government created jobs, real school reform, and social services for the people like those in Baltimore.


Junius Williams is the author of the book, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power (www.randomhouse.com) and the Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute, Rutgers University Newark

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