We emphatically condemn the mayhem that began on Monday and hope that it will not be as disastrous for the city as the riots of 1968. For those too young to remember, in 1968 Baltimore joined other urban centers in rioting over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Those riots destroyed neighborhoods that have yet to recover, as many middle-class African-Americans joined the white citizens of Baltimore in an exodus to the suburbs that had been going on for nearly two decades. Although there are many causes for the urban decay that Baltimore and other industrialized cities have experienced in the past half century, the endless rows of vacant and boarded up row houses is a visible reminder of that tragedy – it literally sapped the vitality of some neighborhoods.
Baltimore was a de facto segregated city in 1968. Although there are some racially mixed neighborhoods now that did not exist then, sadly, we remain a largely segregated city today. In 1968, segregation was almost exclusively based upon race. Today, race still fuels the bus to segregated neighborhoods and schools, but class may now be a more important determinant. And class will continue to separate us with the gap between the rich and poor growing exponentially. As the rules that govern our economy continue to change and we devolve into a plutocracy, where the moneyed interest gain more and more power at the expense of the rest of us, the stacked deck of de facto racial segregation of 1968 has been replaced by a more subtle but equally insidious power grab by the elites who could care less about the inhabitants of this city. Surely, no one can believe that these riots will undermine the entrenched economic royalty, to quote President Franklin Roosevelt.
Rather, riots reinforce stereotypes and further isolate the neighborhoods that experience them. Of course the police have been brutal in their treatment of black men. The commentary in the April 28 Baltimore Sun by Shaun La, an African-American photographer who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in New York City, pointedly and poignantly describes the inhumane treatment– emotional, psychological, as well as physical– that is a daily fact of life for so many black men. La writes, “The physical brutality by their [the police] hands ran rampant in the 1990s, especially in the summer season. Lord knows what my uncles and [others] went through in the 1980s and 1970s, before mobile phone cameras and the Internet. Not to mention the verbal insults that you would hear from some of those cops smelling like aftershave and mouthwash: “Roaches!” “Junkie!” “[N-word!” “Dummy!” “Shut the [expletive] up! I will lock you up if you say one more word.”
The understandable rage that is fueled by such treatment can be channeled to make a difference despite terrible odds, which is what had been happening here until Monday night. Or it can dissipate in a conflagration of pathetic, destructive narcissism. It can be channeled into demanding that the police stop brutalizing the dignity and humanity of black men while also addressing the terrible slaughter of men of color by men of color. Or it can become another excuse for avoiding the issues of racial prejudice and distrust; another exercise in finger-pointing.
We know that the riots of 2015 are a disaster – they play into the hands of people of ill will. The question is how disastrous. Will the long-term consequences be a repeat of 1968 with the continued decline and isolation of the poor, as anyone and everyone who can leave, runs for cover. Or will the good will that was building the past two weeks with the peaceful marches regain the upper hand. We can only hope for the latter.
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