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One Man’s Riot

eye on the news

One Man’s Riot

Reflections on Baltimore April 28, 2015
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Consider the following scenarios. In Ferguson, Missouri, a young black man fights with a cop and ends up dead. In Cleveland, Ohio, cops approach a black 12- year-old with an Airsoft gun tucked in his waistband. The boy reaches for the pistol and ends up dead. In Staten Island, New York, a black man selling loose cigarettes on the street resists arrest and ends up dead. In North Charleston, South Carolina, a 50- year-old black man ends up dead after bolting from his car and allegedly attempting to take an officer’s Taser. In Baltimore, Maryland, a young black man with a switchblade in his pocket runs from the cops and ends up dead.

Each of these stories has a vital common element. Can you identify it?

If you said, “Cops all around the country are killing black men,” then you probably watched last night’s violence in Baltimore with a fair amount of sympathy for the rioters. To you, burning down your own city is a legitimate expression of rage against institutionalized racism and unrestrained police brutality. You understand why Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she wanted to give the rioters “space” to destroy property. To you, the indignities suffered by black men at the hands of the police have gone on too long. You nod your head in something like agreement when you hear Morehouse College professor Marc Lamont Hill tell CNN host Don Lemon: “We’ve been dying in the streets for months, years, decades, centuries. I think there can be resistance to oppression.” To you, the time for resistance has finally arrived.

If, however, you looked at these scenarios and said, “These deaths were the tragic result of poor choices on the part of the deceased,” then you probably watched last night’s violence in Baltimore with horror and revulsion. To you, the looting and stone-throwing is inexcusable lawlessness on the part of bullies and thugs. You think Mayor Rawlings-Blake is probably in over her head. You think Ivory Tower provocateurs like Hill are playing a dangerous and self-serving game. To you, most cops are honest and unbiased. You think the obvious best way to avoid a potentially deadly confrontation with the police is not to run and not to fight.

Who owns Baltimore’s rage? Some facts: Every member of the Baltimore City Council is a Democrat. Every mayor since 1967 has been a Democrat. Such political homogeneity invites corruption. If some element of the city’s police department is brutal and corrupt, it’s because no one in Baltimore has lifted a finger to stop them. Maybe that should be next on Marc Lamont Hill’s to-do list.

However you see things, you may share a sense that our cities are spiraling toward a destructive period of racial conflagration. Whether Democrat or Republican, you may wish to avoid this fate. What can be done? On whom does the burden of de-escalation fall? Stephanie Rawlings-Blake? Mark Lamont Hill? Bill Bratton? Rush Limbaugh? Barack Obama? Baltimore street gangs like the Black Guerilla Family?

How you answer says a lot about how you see the world. From where I stand, it’s hard to credit claims that a police force that is nearly 50 percent African-American is somehow hardwired to abuse residents of a majority black city. But if police corruption is a problem in Baltimore, and news reports suggest that it is, the solution to it cannot be running battles between cops and citizens. Rather, the clear solution is better governance. You say you want a revolution. How about electing a Republican or two to the Baltimore City Council? That would be truly radical.

In so much as anyone in Baltimore is angry at the “system,” they should direct their rage where it belongs—an unbroken, five-decade string of one-party rule in the city and a national War on Poverty that has systematically dismantled the black family.

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