By the time the sun came up over Baltimore’s bruised and battered landscape Tuesday, a war-inspired narrative was being employed to characterize a night of burnings and mayhem. Its aggressors, as that narrative went, were the lawless, opportunistic thugs and looters out to destroy the city for no reason. The victims were the law enforcers, the property owners, the decent and law-abiding citizens of Baltimore who play by the rules.
There is, of course, no justification for the vandalism and violence that prompted right-wing commentator Matt Drudge to warn dramatically that America itself “could fall.” But it is inaccurate to suggest there was no reason for it. Even rioters have a reason for rioting, and unless officials try to understand it, no number of National Guard troops will effectively stop them. Yet Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan dismissed any association between the rioting and the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody and died later. Six police officers have been suspended while his death is investigated. “This is lawless gangs of thugs roaming the streets, causing damage to property and injuring innocent people,” insisted the governor. “And we’re not going to tolerate that.”
No, it can’t be tolerated, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also talked about “thugs who only want to incite violence and destroy our city.” But what might cause people to feel so alienated or hopeless that they’d want to destroy their city? The most thoughtful answer I’ve heard came, of all people, from the chief operating officer of the Baltimore Orioles, John Angelos. The team owner’s son connected the dots in a way most public officials have not.
“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,” said Angelos, responding to a sports radio broadcaster upset about earlier protests causing gate closures at Camden Yards. “It 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, hardworking 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.”
In West Baltimore, the poverty rate is one in three.
Angelos said what most of the presidential hopefuls coming through Iowa have lacked the guts, or perhaps the insight, to say. Few have linked growing impoverishment with trade policies that have made our workers redundant while enriching corporate coffers. Almost none of the presidential hopefuls — themselves backed by corporate patrons — even mentions poverty. So it’s doubtful they’ve considered the sense of hopelessness that chronic unemployment might cause, or the disenfranchisement a black man might experience when his very presence is treated as a problem. It might mean getting pulled over for doing nothing wrong, or being handcuffed on a walk home. Or ending up dead for selling cigarettes, or for having the nerve to look a police lieutenant in the eye, as Freddie Gray did.
For months, we have heard a host of prospective candidates denounce efforts to make health care affordable for lower-income people. We’ve heard refusals to consider a minimum-wage hike, and complaints about educational standards that were intended to ensure all Americans get a fighting chance. Instead of ideas to make college affordable, we’ve heard platitudes about religious piety that somehow manage to sidestep the commandments about elevating the lot of the poor and the suffering.
Even Martin O’Malley, Maryland’s former governor and Baltimore’s former mayor, who is positioning himself as a progressive Democratic alternative to Hillary Clinton, is blamed by community leaders for 15 years ago implementing a zero-tolerance policy for crime. That has disproportionately hurt young black men, according to Lawrence Bell, the former Baltimore City Council president. It has led to arrests for minor offenses such as loitering or littering, and helped fuel distrust of law enforcement. Having a record then makes it harder to get a job. After enough indignities and enough deprivations of rights and resources, you might start to believe the rules are different for you than for other people. You might come to see that as its own kind of warfare.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.