To My Friends Who Call for Peace
As riots took hold of Baltimore on last week, my initial reaction, I assume like most people, was to first be shocked by the apparent senselessness of violence, to be appalled by images of students throwing rocks, police car windows being smashed, of burning buildings, and of riotous crowds with black faces walled off by police in riot gear. It is sad that this has become a common response to a tragically predictable cause, however it is no less upsetting to see. My knee-jerk reaction is to question the motives of such violence and to wish, as one does, for peaceful demonstrations. I think most people come to this conclusion: violence is not the solution, it solves nothing and destroys the rioters own community, hurts people and businesses who have nothing to do with the problem at hand and is perpetrated by opportunistic people who have no stake in the greater issue at hand. I certainly appreciate that perspective but I think it is what I called it: knee-jerk. It lacks critical understanding about the issues at play and ignores a bigger problem created by just calling for peace: peace serves the side of the issue most vested in the status quo.
Along with most of the nation, I heard the name Freddie Gray on Monday, April 27, although he was falsely arrested on for an unsubstantiated switchblade charge (the knife in his possession was legal) on April 12 and was severely injured while in police custody as the result of being shackled and handcuffed in the rear of a police a van without a seatbelt, which is against Baltimore PD policy. The practice of allowing detainees to be tossed about the back of a van as it corners, apparently known as a Rough Ride, has paralyzed and killed several people in Baltimore PD custody before and the city has paid out tens of millions of dollars in settlements for such actions by officers. Gray suffered a crushed trachea and his spinal cord was 80% severed. He lie in a coma for a week and died on April 19. On April 18, the day before Gray died, protests were organized to demand answers from a police force who had been silent on the issue. Peaceful protests continued in the city for nine days with no answers from the police, no charges for the officers involved, no national media coverage, no national outrage, no comment from the President, (no diatribes from verbose bloggers, sure) and no violence. That changed as high school students started pelting police with rocks during an event called The Purge inspired by the movie of the same name where an annual period of 24 hours of lawlessness helps maintain an orderly society. The Purge event was organized on social media to coincide with Gray's funeral.
Without a doubt I agree that the first kid to pick up a rock and throw it at the police shouldn't have done it. I, and everyone in this society, would say that kid was guilty of a crime. His or her disregard for the safety of whomever happened to be standing where that rock ended up is the very definition of the word "criminal." Every kid that followed suit is guilty of the same crime. Every person who set a fire, every person who smashed a window is a criminal as we define criminals and yet they did something that every peaceful protester failed to do the nine days preceding: they got our attention. The nation collectively turned our heads to see the violence, to do that thing where at first we are aghast and then we cast shame on the criminals and then, at least some, keep looking to understand the root of the violence. It seems to me, most simply condemn the criminal, call for peace, voice wholesale support for the nation's police and continue on their self-satisfied way. To only shame the criminals, the tip of the proverbial iceberg, is to deny the whole issue. To insist that this is a matter of kids not doing the right thing is to not see the larger issue of a nation not caring for its citizens. We can all agree that no one should commit a crime, but to only take that stance without a deeper understanding is to ignore the years of injustice suffered at the hands of an upper class, generations of poverty and zero economic opportunity for people trapped in large cities with no means to improve their situations and no remedy for those who suffer unjust treatment at the hands of police daily. In short, we can't stop at only calling for peace because peace is veiled support for a return to normalcy so we can continue ignoring these critical issues.
Just as familiar to the media consumer as the protests and riots of enraged citizens is the customary press conference of the police chief who calls for calm and order. The irony is palpable in these moments as the very same people who have committed or provided cover for the crimes that have inflamed the community switch roles to stand behind a podium and play the part of the upright citizen who calls for the community to show the kind of restraint and respect for law and order that the officers in his or her charge have failed to do. I wonder where those calls for order and restraint were as the culture of dominance and disregard for the safety and rights of those arrested developed permeated their department? Will that official address his or her ranks with the same stern manner and voice the same support for adherence to the letter of the law to root out the violations of rights and the disregard to policy that created these messes to begin with? Certainly a return to peace makes all of these issues much easier to deal with. It makes calls for department transparency easier to ignore. Peace means no reporters are camped out on the headquarters lawn waiting for answers. Peace means no federal investigations. Peace means no tense press conferences where the missteps of your department are inspected by the media's critical eye. Peace on the streets means you can stonewall the families of victims killed at the hands of your officers or settle with them quietly out of court. Peace means the status quo can stay right where it is.
Changing status quo sounds like something we can all get behind: Bad policy? Change it! Poor training? Fix it! Body Cameras? Get 'em! These are breezy aspirations everyone pays lip service to but the reality of these changes means real people losing their jobs and massive restructuring of budgets to pay for new training or the implementation of new procedures and technology like those body cameras. Institutional inertia is created by people understanding that to change the way a department works, or the way the law is enforced or how a policy is borne out usually means firing the bad actors or changing policy in a way that makes it untenable for many long-time employees to continue working effectively in their jobs. A lot of cops who have been working for a good long while with strong personal and professional ties to the rest of the department will have to go. It is a hard thing to ask an institution to sell out their stalwarts for lofty ideals that may have play on the national stage but little practical function in their day-to-day experiences. This is the reason, I think, why change is so difficult and slow. It's much easier to disperse the protesters, much easier to vilify rioters, much easier to leave status quo in place and manage the chaos it creates now and then, than to undertake an existential examination of your entire department that might lead to jettisoning many seemingly good cops that you have worked along side of for years, some of whom may have literally saved your life. Peace lets us duck that arduous task and neglect our responsibility to those lofty ideals one more time.
This kind of peace is one-sided. While the community on one side of the riot lines enjoys the return to calm, those in poverty still suffer, still lack jobs, still have no opportunities. Mothers send their kids out in the morning and sometimes they don't come back. Every one out of five of their fathers is incarcerated or will be. They are stopped more by police, searched more, arrested more, and beaten in custody more. Those on that side of the issue have a very different idea about what this is and "peaceful" is the farthest thing from it. People often accuse rioters of having no ties to the community, of being simple criminals taking advantage of a situation. I agree with this characterization however I don't assume that this unrelated to the problem at hand. What does it say of a community to have so many people who feel no obligations to their own neighborhood? What does it say about a city to have so many around who are desperate enough to loot? So many people with no families to be at home for? No jobs to go to? To be so desperate as to have little concern for the consequences of being arrested. To have so many people for whom the police do not conjure up an image of benign service but one of active aggression? This is a critical mass of people for whom the society has failed them at large. If you accept that an individual who commits a crime does so because their own need, be it food, money, drugs, etc. has outweighed the benefits offered by civil society, what does that say about a community to have thousands of people who have no regard for it? We all watched with pride and some amusement as Toya Graham slapped her teen son on live TV because she saw him participating in the rioting. We all approved, because we imagined what might happen if all the sons and daughters had such responsive (and deftly quick) parents who cared for them as much as Ms. Graham obviously loves her son. The sad truth is that many who have rioted don't have the same support and we can't fetishize her actions as some sort of solution for the huge social ills that have created this problem. This won't be solved by individuals acting alone, but can only be solved together. We need to see these disruptions of peace as a sign that we collectively aren't doing something right. We can chastise and arrest the individuals but just asking for peace does nothing to solve the core issues.
Of course, what the media covers in these circumstances certainly affects what we pay attention to. If the news camera show up when the violence breaks out, but not when the real work of building a community happens, we get a skewed view of what is really going on in the inner cities. Apologists for the media defend this by saying that they only report on what people care to see, and while that may be true to an extent, most viewers will know what the media chooses to report. Thus, a closed circle of escalating sensationalism plays out as the media, the self-appointed animus of the nation's interests, hunts only for stories that gets the nation's attention. An incredible scene played out as Baltimore resident Kwame Rose confronted Fox reporter Geraldo Rivera and told him to get out of Baltimore, "You aren't here for the death of Freddie Gray, you're here for the story." He continued, "I sat and watched the media set up their camps in front of boarded up homes ... while we were cleaning up the streets as one community, the cameras weren't rolling, nobody cared." If we are to avoid these outbreaks of violence, we need to give support to the people on the ground who live in and work to improve their community every day, like Rose. If we only ever turn our attention to these matters , as the media does, during outbreaks of titillating violence, we are virtually guaranteeing that it will happen again, and every call for peace is lighting the fuse for the next outbreak.
I am not endorsing violence and criminality. I think everyone should aspire to participate fully in civil society and conduct themselves in a responsible manner. I anticipate that everyone who disagrees with my point will send me carefully quote-mined Gandhi and Martin Luther King passages extolling the virtues of non-violence. While those perspectives are certainly part of the conversation, if you aren't familiar with their whole body of work and just want to try and shut down my uncomfortable assertion by replying with something pithy, keep it to yourself. (This will also ferret out those who didn't bother to read my entire post) Those incredible men certainly preached non-violence, but in no way were they men who shied away from unrest and disobedience. Look at the entire body of their work; they weren't asking for peace, they were asking for justice. I can simultaneously disagree with violence and yet understand that when it happens its because those who commit it have no other way of being heard.
In the particular case of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore PD, we get a chance to dissect this with the racial elephant in the room somewhat diminished, the mayor of Baltimore is Black, the police chief is Black, the police force is majority Black, and yet we still have the same issues, a dead man at the hands of police, and a department who refused to be transparent and a city who was denied answers so long that tensions have overflowed in a majority Black city created by decades-old Federal housing discrimination. What would have happened if the Baltimore PD addressed this on day one? Brought the family into the process, had a press conference, owned up to their mistakes? What if every officer who had ever violated the seatbelt policy was fired on the spot? What if departments had a culture of transparency, if they had the same zero- tolerance for violations for officers as they have for their citizens? If they cultivated a culture of compassion and cooperation with the community, how many of these issues would have resolved themselves? What if post-civil rights era Federal housing policy encouraged racial integration instead of de facto segregation after explicit segregation was outlawed? If we as a community, as a city, as a state and as a nation only ever respond to these issues during a crisis, if we only ever talk about helping people when there is blood on the street, we are culpable in fomenting that violence. I have learned in life if you address people's needs when they are asking calmly, you will never have to hear them shout. Once violence happens, it's too late to simply wish it wasn't happening. I think the only people with the moral high ground to call for peace at the moment of a crisis are those community organizers and leaders who have been busy the whole time since the last outbreak of violence working to prevent the next. Certainly we see those harried community leaders during these press conferences, but sadly this is usually the only time we see them.
Dogs and humans alike know that when someone points, you are supposed to look where they are pointing and not at their finger. I think this is an apt analogy for how we should see violence. If we want real solutions that last, we need to get in the habit of looking for the cause of unrest and crime in the streets. We need to see what that violence is pointing toward. Hoping the violence will end does nothing to solve the cause of it and we can be certain it will happen again. The next time you see violent riots on the news, if your knee-jerk reaction is to wish everyone would calm down and restore peace, consider what peace will offer to those who act out. Consider whether your wish for peace really solves anything for those who weren't served by status quo in the first place or if it just makes the ugly things on your TV go away and quells the uneasiness you feel when confronted by real questions of race and poverty. Those hopes for peace need to take the form of a steady stream of social support, opportunities, accountability, and justice in a way that has been lacking in our inner cities for decades. We need to take advantage of every opportunity we have to insist our officials are accountable to those they serve, and our police are undertaking the giant reforms required to ensure every citizen is treated with a respect that does not continue to marginalize them and that everyone is served with due process. And while we should take advantage of moments of intense media scrutiny to move the needle on these issues as far as we can, it's more important that we make a habit of it every day instead of only when there are riots in the street. We need to constantly participate in the conversation about rights, economic opportunity and ending poverty and racism ourselves, and this means voting in a way that supports accountability and provides actual dollars for social programs, technological solutions, economic opportunities and the thousands of other ways that a community builds itself up to create a good life and opportunity for its citizens. To every person who simply wants to tell rioters to go home, search your motivation and ask yourself if your voice joins the chorus of support for the side that wants to help them or silence them?