Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Baltimore

The city of Baltimore is recovering after demonstrations and rioting this weekend.  The cause of them was the death of Freddie Gray
Authorities can't say if there was a particularly good reason why police arrested Gray. According to the city, an officer made eye contact with Gray, and he took off running, so they pursued him. Though he'd had scrapes with the law before, there's no indication he was wanted at the time. And though he was found with a switchblade, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “We know that having a knife is not necessarily a crime.”
The police say Gray didn't resist arrest and that officers didn't use force, which seems to be mostly corroborated by video shot by bystanders. Gray seems to shout in pain, and his leg seems injured as officers drag him to a police van. (Someone off camera shouts, "His leg broke and y'all dragging him like that!") Gray also had asthma and requested his inhaler, but didn't get it. Yet it's not the leg or the asthma that killed him. Instead, it was a grave injury to his spinal cord. Gray's family said he was treated for three fractured vertebrae and a crushed voice box, the sorts of injuries that doctors say are usually caused by serious car accidents. The van made at least two stops before reaching the police station, but there's no footage to say what happened during the journey or at those stops.
It's a baffling conundrum. "None of the officers describe any use of force," Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said. "None of the officers describe using any force against Mr. Gray." And yet somehow Gray was fatally hurt while in police custody.

This case has similarities to other recent and not so recent cases, where an unarmed (or allegedly unarmed) person dies either when arrested or in police custody.  The majority of these cases are about the deaths of black men and the usual way to package the issue is as one of police brutality and racism.

That may be convenient shorthand, as long as we remember that the racism might not necessarily be personal but institutional  and that the brutality might be at least partly defined as the increasing militarization of the police (where the population to be policed then becomes the enemy).

Freddie Gray died.  His funeral resulted in demonstrations which then resulted in riots.  The Maryland National Guard was called in, a state of emergency was declared.

How to interpret all that?

That depends on the interpreter's perch.  The conservative Rand Paul thinks the rioting is caused by lack of morals and fathers:*

As far as root causes, Paul listed some ideas of his own.
"There are so many things we can talk about," the senator said, "the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of a moral code in our society."

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

John Angelos, Chief Operating Officer of the Orioles, Baltimore’s major-league baseball franchise, notes the economic inequality and suffering:

That said, 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, but 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 US 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.  

Here's where the links to economic inequality and poverty matter.  Consider the area of the city of Baltimore which Freddie Gray called home.  These are the statistics applying to that area:

To understand why the demonstrations in Baltimore got out of hand we need to first understand what living in an area with those numbers means, what it does to you over time, and next relate all this to the history of the interactions between the Baltimore police and its black citizens.

None of that means that the riots would have been a "correct" response, as Coates observed in the above quote.  They are a bad response, like shooting at your own leg because the real target is far too high to reach. But so were the riots after the Joe Paterno resignation at Penn State.

The difference is that many others don't now regard all Penn State students as possible rioters whereas they make just that generalization when it comes to certain residents of Baltimore.

*In this context Rand Paul's own parenting skills do matter.