“We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us.”
— Malcolm X
All eyes are on Baltimore, Maryland in the wake of the controversial death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man from West Baltimore who died of spinal injuries while in police custody. Like in Ferguson, Missouri last year, violence is erupting in the streets, businesses are being looted and burned to the ground, and the hostilities between the citizenry and law enforcement are becoming more and more tense every hour. Maryland governor Larry Hogan has declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard. There is a mandatory 10 p.m. curfew. Kids are missing school because of the violence.
We’ve seen this before, and chances are, we’ll see it again.
The story is buzzing on, and was pushed into the public consciousness by, social media, much like the events in Ferguson were while the nation was busy mourning Robin Williams. Countless tweets, complete with the hashtags #BaltimoreRiots, #FreddieGray, (the returning) #BlackLivesMatter, and others, either condemn the rioting outright, apprehensively support it, or in the case of some, undermine the situation with casual racism.
I get it, though. I do not appreciate the usage of violence to make a point, but I get it.
Unfortunately, because of how quickly assumptions are made (hell, my wife made this assumption as well), I’m not saying I understand the plight of black men and women in this nation. I am a white man, born into a society that privileged me because of my Caucasian ethnicity. I don’t know what it’s like to be black in the United States. What I mean when I say “I get it” is that I understand why rioting is the mode of expression being conducted in Baltimore. The city, like many others, has had an issue with police brutality so stunning that it’s surprising no one saw it.
Beyond Freddie Gray’s questionable death at the hands of law enforcement earlier this month, the city has paid out $5.7 million to victims of brutality at the hands of Baltimore police from 2011 to 2014. One notable case is that of Venus Green, a retired teacher with a host of credentials who spent her retirement as a foster parent. In July 2009, Mrs. Green’s grandson, Tallie, was shot and wounded at a convenient store. However, a white Baltimore police officer became hostile, insisting Tallie was shot at Mrs. Green’s home — “You know you were shot inside that house. We ain’t going to help you because you’re lying.” — a claim Mrs. Green refuted. When the officer wanted to go into the basement, Mrs. Green refused to allow it, out of fear that Tallie’s dogs may attack the officer. The officer shoved Mrs. Green against the wall — “Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other black bitches I have locked up” — then proceeded to manhandle her through her dining room and place her in handcuffs. It wasn’t until another officer demanded the handcuffs be removed that they were.
Mrs. Venus Green was 87 years old at the time of the incident and suffered a broken shoulder during the incident, along with emotional distress. She was awarded $95,000 in an out-of-court settlement with the City of Baltimore. Consider that paltry sum compared to the $5.7 million the city has shelled out to victims over the last four years — one-sixtieth of the total.
It’s true that most cities and municipalities have instances when police overstep and commit heinous acts against members of the public. I’m pretty sure we can all agree on that. It’s also true that a disproportionate amount of those heinous acts are committed with African-Americans and Hispanics as the victims. While that is more heavily debated, the facts do not lie. It is true. Police departments around the country exist in a web of institutionalized racism. That, too, is debated, but again, the facts do not lie. So, I get it Baltimore, you’re pissed off. I am too.
While nonviolence is definitely the preferred choice, I do not believe it to be the only choice. I also believe that violence, because of its attention grabbing nature, can prove to be somewhat beneficial to those who are being oppressed. Hell, history makes that belief perfectly clear. This damn nation was established through violence, not peace and diplomacy. Would the colonists have achieved their independence from an oppressive king had it not been through violent provocation? I doubt it. Would slavery have been abolished without violent confrontation? I doubt it. Would the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century been as productive without Malcolm X to provide balance to Martin Luther King, Jr.? I doubt it. These are but three of numerous examples of how violence, essentially, contributed to solving problems in the United States. More recently, the violence in Ferguson, Missouri kept the eyes of the public glued on the town and are at least partially responsible for a Department of Justice probe into the precinct which, despite exonerating Michael Brown’s killer Darren Wilson, found systematic abuses of power and institutionalized racism within the department, and further, opened our mouths so we can have a discussion about police brutality and the use of deadly force. While the conversation has been polarizing and has incited anger among the citizenry, it’s a conversation I have always felt was necessary to have, and I do believe that part of the reason we are having that conversation is because of rioting.
Very few issues, if any, are so simple as to break them into two schools of thought. Even similar situations have a uniqueness upon themselves — while the events in Baltimore mirror the events in Ferguson (both in cause and in response), they are different environments with a different citizenry, a different police department, and in some ways, even a different response.
So, Baltimore, I apprehensively support your rioting. I don’t like it, but I can see why its happening. The system has failed you. I understand. I believe it is unreasonable to expect you to be nonviolent when your oppressor is not expected to be nonviolent.
“I think what motivates people is not great hate, but great love for other people.”
— Huey Newton