Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Some thoughts on yesterday's riot-protests in Baltimore, which jumped off in the wake of Freddie Gray's "mysterious" and entirely unnecessary death in police custody:

It's heartbreaking to hear Gray's family pleading with protesters to remain peaceful. Naturally, they're mourning a loved one and don't want his memory tarnished by destruction and violence.

But, unfortunately, it's not up to them.

The protests are truly about Freddie Gray only to the extent that his death is yet another symbol of the ongoing repression of minority communities, black people in particular, by the police officers charged with protecting them. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown.

As our country racks up more and more of these incidents, it becomes increasingly difficult to directly ascribe protests, violent or nonviolent, to any one incident of brutal police treatment of black American men for minor crimes or no crime at all.    

The family has called for protests to remain peaceful. Obviously, those calls were not heeded. Now, as one-time student of peacebuilding, I struggle with the idea of nonviolence. It's an attractive term, and history is full of examples of successful nonviolent movements that brought about real change. India. Serbia. The American Civil Rights Movement of the 60s*.

But it's also an ideal that makes it too easy for observers to tune protesters out as soon as they turn violent. Police respond with force. Veteran civil rights leaders appear on the news and shake their heads sadly while pundits tut-tut. Twitter erupts with white people armchair-quarterbacking the whole thing, comparing the protesters unfavorably to Martin Luther King, Jr. and making thinly veiled suggestions that if you loot, it just proves that you're a criminal and don't deserve to be treated with dignity.

I don't support violence as a tool for change, but I'm forced to ask: how reasonable is it to expect a population that is repeatedly subjected to violence, both direct and structural, to remain peaceful, docile, and entirely nonviolent when another father, brother, or son has been violently taken from them? I think the answer is "not very reasonable." We should not be surprised when pockets of violence erupt, and we cannot use it as an excuse to ignore the anger, frustration, sadness, despair, and yes, rage, that the protesters are expressing. Structural violence and racism do not get a pass just because the victims react violently.

Ta-Nehisi Coates put it succinctly: "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, it reveals itself to be a con."

I don't believe that to be true in all cases, but it certainly seems to be the reality in Baltimore and the many similar cases we've seen over the past months and years.

Has anyone been able to confirm whether the "credible threat[s]" police received ahead of the protest regarding planned violence were indeed authentic? So far I've read that:

  • there was a flyer posted to "social media" and circulated at high schools advertising a period of widespread lawlessness in the style of The Purge, and,

Frankly, both of those things seem just a little too convenient for the Baltimore PD's narrative: brave officers defending the community against aggressive, violent pseudo-citizens**, and too well-tailored to hijack middle-class, suburban anxiety about urban crime.

The gangs, for their part, have denied having such a nefarious objective and cast themselves as the true protectors of the communities that law enforcement has repeatedly failed.

Three or four years ago I probably would have taken the police at their word, but not now. Call it naivete, call it white/male/cis/hetero/any other kind of privilege, call it whatever you like, I tended to trust the police because I never had a reason not to. But no American can truly ignore what's happening any longer. Too many lies have been told, and too many lives have been destroyed, seemingly for no reason.

Even if we discount the immense human cost of police violence (which I do not), we should all be concerned by how these events make policing on the whole less effective. If communities distrust and fear law enforcement, law enforcement cannot function effectively.

And that affects all of us, regardless of where we live.

Lastly, I'd be interested in hearing suggestions for a few reputable alternative news outlets that cover events like those in Baltimore. Too often, the police/official narrative dominates the airwaves, at least while the conflict is unfolding, and the other side of the story only appears much later, if at all. We're treated to running commentary of how many police officers have been inured, and how badly. Not how many citizens. How many storefronts have been looted, or cars torched. Not how many protesters DID stay peaceful and implored others to do the same. Those facts may come out later, but by then, far fewer people are listening.

And that's precisely what more of us need to be doing: listening.


*The ultimate success of the American Civil Rights Movement, it seems, we must increasingly question. It surely made strides, but there's still a long way to go.

** I say pseudo-citizens because these narratives always involve making an "other" out of suspects: a violent, unpredictable, virtually sub-human being who poses a grave threat to polite society and so must be dealt with swiftly and decisively.

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