The media is now filled with images of the destruction that black youth have created in the inner-city of Baltimore. President Obama condemned the heinous actions of the protesters, who are destroying private property. Some cynics might suggest that this protest action will seal the fate of the impoverished community that sorely lacks the jobs, and now businesses will be even more deterred to come. The inflow of professionals with the purchasing power to buy various services will also soon leave the city. What are these kids protesting about anyway?
The immediate cause of the riot, which was put down by the governor’s use of the National Guard, and state troopers from other cities and states last Tuesday (April 28), was the police killing of Freddie Gray. He was apparently a healthy 25-year old African-American man, who was hand-cuffed by the police and then put on the backseat of the police van. He was not buckled in with a seat-belt, which violates proper procedure, and when the car got going, his body was banging against the walls of the car, leading to the a severe injury to his spinal chord and death. The local community became very upset when they got to know about it, and went on the street.
In today’s world of instant communication and cell phone videos it is very easy to capture police brutality and mistreatment and disseminate it over social networks, such that an entire town can know about it and mobilize instantly. That strategy had worked back in September 2011, when Adbusters made a call to occupy Wall Street, and within a few days, Zuccotti Park in New York City and many other spaces in hundreds of US cities were filled with anti-Wall Street protesters. The brutal crushing of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which I think would have had the momentum to go on for a longer while, had the mayors not sent in the police to remove the encampments, marked the temporary end for political activism, but the violence and the police brutality directed specifically against low-income and black communities has sparked a new opportunity for mass mobilization, but this time under more violent premises and with somewhat different goals.
In OWS there was a multi-racial coalition with the goal to attack income inequality and the bank bailouts by the government, while millions of people were losing their jobs and homes, and worked for significantly lower wages, belying any claims of an economic recovery. Some people from the middle class were also fairly sympathetic, and even agreed to attend some of the OWS events. It was principally peaceful. The black protests and some instances riots mobilize especially low-income black people, and maybe some sympathizers of other races, and much of the crowd first marches first peacefully in front of the police departments to demand justice for Freddie Gray and whoever else gets killed by (mostly white) police brutality. Justice means both to hold the police officers, who committed the killing, accountable via suspension and trial, and more broadly to reform police-community relations by reducing the level of tension between the police and the community. The goals of OWS and Baltimore protesters were different, but I would argue that they are related. But more below.
Unfortunately, the peaceful protests devolved into a violent confrontation, as some of the black youth then decided to attack the police, destroy the police cars, and then at the end destroy businesses and buildings. What was going through the minds of these young people, who commit these riots? Of course, it would not be wise to condone these actions, but what these riots really reveal is the despair of these youth rather than their “innate tendency” for violence, which is a crude misinterpretation of their real motives.
The principal despair is that of poverty. Black youth face an elevated rate of unemployment, 25% nationwide, and 50% where Freddie Gray and other peers resided in. Baltimore is a thoroughly deindustrialized city, and the few retail stores are not sufficient to create enough jobs. Johns Hopkins University is the largest employer in town, but they require surgeons and professors, and not nearly that many janitors and food service workers. If there are neither sufficient educational or job opportunities, it should not be surprising why there would be so many people out on the streets rioting and stirring trouble. There is no sustained daily activity that could help these kids stay away from the streets, so it is not surprising that they should find the time and energy to express their discontent in a violent fashion.
What certainly does not help is that we have police practices, which are still reminiscent of Wild Wild West days. One irony of having so many gun lovers in the US and strong 2nd amendment protections is that it is fairly easy for private people to own guns and firearms. That in turn forces police departments to also be armed with firearms to ensure that officers can protect themselves, and the stronger the weapons and the poorer the neighborhood, the more likely these guns will have to be used at some point. In Europe, for example, police in some cases do not carry any guns, but that is also because there are strict laws for private gun ownership, which ensures that only very few private individuals own guns. We need a significant restriction of firearm dissemination if we want to minimize deadly encounters.
But any kind of police reform will not deal with the question what we are going to do with the many unemployed youth that are hanging around on street corners, deal with drugs and go on rampages. To the extent that economic issues undergirded both Occupy Wall Street as well as the Baltimore protests/ riots, we have to acknowledge that only attacking the enormous amount of wealth and income inequality and creating real job and educational opportunities for young people of all races can effectively ameliorate the racial and social tensions that exist in our communities. It is sad to say that there are many more Freddie Gray’s in this country, many of which receive much less attention than him. In the Oligarchic States of America, we seem to have settled the question of what we are going to do with the surplus population of unemployed people by expanding the prison-police-industrial complex. I would find it much wiser for any future government to focus on the War on Poverty and War on Inequality instead.