The Daily News recently reported, “50 years ago in Harlem, the kid, black, who died, was named James Powell, and the cop, white, who shot him dead was named Lt. Thomas Gilligan. That was what set off nights of rioting, not just in Harlem but in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, too. And the stories at the time were the same as they were in Baltimore this week, about attacks on police and looting and vandalism and the National Guard and parts of an American city on fire.”
The race riots that plagued U.S. cities between 1964 and 1967 and the rioting that followed the release of the Kerner Commission report in 1968 may have taken place 50 years ago, but the events in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore are demonstrative of the fact that nothing has really changed, at least not from the perspective of inner city black Americans. This past year, racial tensions have been exceedingly high as black men keep dying at the hands of white cops. Though the circumstances may be different in each situation, the end result is always the same and the belief that black lives don’t matter is perpetuated. As the Kerner report predicted, the racial divide in America has continued to grow.
The rioting came just a week after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody. On April 19, Gray was arrested for being in possession of a switchblade and, according to the New York Times, “suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside the B.P.D. wagon.” The officers never put a seatbelt on him and repeatedly left him face-down on the floor of the van with his hands behind his back. Gray pleaded to go to the hospital, but to no avail, even after officers found him unresponsive. It wasn’t until he was in full cardiac arrest and no longer breathing that the B.P.D. called for a medic. He died a week later as a result of his injuries. The six officers involved have all been charged with crimes ranging from false imprisonment to second-degree murder.
What took place this past week in Baltimore, however, had a decidedly different tone than the earlier protests in Ferguson, or even the related protests in New York City, Chicago and Oakland. Peaceful protests erupted into violence, black-owned businesses were destroyed and looted and even the only CVS, really the only place many can go to pick up a prescription, was burned. While some may see this as social activism, President Obama wisely pointed out that, “When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing. When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson. And they’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities.”
So why were the streets of Baltimore ablaze? Surely policy brutality is a contributing factor, but there is a more complex social problem at hand. The racism and inequality that exists in our country today can no longer be ignored and the devastation that pervades all aspects of inner city economies needs addressing.
According to the New York Times, “In Gray’s neighborhood, one-third of adults lack a high school degree. A majority of those aged 16 to 64 are unemployed. And Baltimore’s African-American residents have often encountered not only crime and insecurity but also law enforcement that is unjust and racist,” and that a “Baltimore jail was notorious for corruption and gang rule. A federal investigation found that one gang leader in the jail fathered five children by four female guards.” The economic structure is one that produces too few decent-paying jobs that only a handful of low-income workers have access to in the first place. Add to the mix brutal policing, highly addictive drugs like crack and heroin and a ubiquitous sense of hopelessness brought on by generations of poverty, oppression and being treated like second-class citizens and it becomes easier to understand why the events unfolded as they did.
That said, violence as a response to violence, or anger, or oppression, or anything for that matter, is not the answer. It will only beget more violence. Though many believe that protesting and rising up are the answer and the only way to effect change, we no longer live in a society that will allow for that. The National Guard gets called in and shuts it down and a curfew gets set (as was the case this past week). Instead, we end up stagnant, in a quagmire of inaction with a media focused on the aftermath instead of the problem that caused it.
The deaths of Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Freddie Rice should have each separately been enough to shock this country into unified action. Maybe we have finally reached the tipping point because it is hard to imagine what else has to happen for things to change. In response to the rioting in Baltimore, Mrs. Clinton gave a speech at Columbia University in which she spoke of instituting policy changes that deal directly with the criminal justice system and of repairing the broken communities of color. She went on to say, “Let’s take on the broader inequities in our society. You can’t separate out the unrest we see in the streets from the cycles of poverty and despair that hollow out those neighborhoods.”
Hopefully she is not paying political lip service and plans to follow through, because although Baltimore may be one city, its ghetto economy and related problems can be found in many of America’s older cities. We don’t live in one nation, under god with liberty and justice for all, but rather, for some.