photo by Sgt. 1st Class Thaddeus Harrington, Maryland National Guard Public Affairs Office,
courtesy the Maryland National Guard
Baltimore has an African-American mayor and an African-American police chief. Just 40 miles down Interstate 95, an African-American man presides over the White House, and an African-American woman has just succeeded another African-American man at the top of the U.S. Justice Department.
And still, the streets of majority-black Baltimore exploded in rock-throwing protest with scattered looting and arson following this week’s funeral for Freddie Gray, a young black man who emerged from a police van with his spine severed and his voice box crushed following an arrest for simply running away after making eye contact with an officer. (Officially, the grounds for arrest was a knife allegedly found in Gray’s pocket after officers caught him.)
If nothing else, it is obvious that merely changing the complexion of top elected officials does little or nothing to solve intractable social problems like police violence, inner-city crime, systemic poverty, and unemployment and alienation among youths.
Gray’s funeral arrived in the context of longstanding frustration with the perceived lack of accountability for police misconduct and brutality. Last fall, the federal Justice Department pledged a review of police force in the city, though the department did not offer the full-scale civil rights probe for which some residents called. While much has been made of the stark racial divide between the government and the population in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore proves that racially diverse leadership is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.
On Monday, some of the protests connected to Gray’s funeral flared into violence and property destruction in West Baltimore, prompting Gov. Larry Hogan to send in the National Guard at the request of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Schools were closed on Tuesday, and the city instituted a temporary curfew, which seemed to calm things the following day.
Much as Gray’s death became a flashpoint for wider frustration in Baltimore, the protest and unrest in Baltimore has itself become a fulcrum for larger conversations about police departments across the country. It is probably unsurprising, then, that there has been no shortage of bystanders ready to offer their opinion on Baltimore’s response, with some claiming it was too aggressive and others arguing that the response was too little or too late.
Some black leaders, notably including the Rev. Jesse Jackson (who chose to make an appearance in Baltimore), offer apologies and rationalizations for the destructive and self-defeating behavior that seeks to lay waste to troubled cities. This is a case of an old dog up to old tricks; we have been hearing the same excuses all the way back to the 1960s riots in Watts, Detroit and Newark, all places that have never fully recovered.
But more enlightened and responsible leaders are getting impatient and are speaking out. You can sense Rawlings-Blake’s exasperation when she decries the “thugs” who take advantage of legitimate community outrage to run wild and make off with stolen goods. President Obama, too, denounced the rioters, saying there is “no excuse” for violence.
How can you reform a police department and make it respectful of a community, when the community convulses itself and attacks those same police with rocks and debris? Lawlessness on the streets instead lends support to police arguments that, occasional excessive force notwithstanding, aggressive law enforcement is all that stands between normal civic life and the tyranny of the mob. Looting and violence make true police reform harder and slower, not the reverse.
Cops cannot enforce civil behavior on an entire community. Even the National Guard can’t do that, except for the temporary expedient of clearing the streets during the nightly curfew. Only the community can do it - one citizen, and one parent, at a time.
So it is heartening when we hear community leaders call on followers to discipline themselves. It is encouraging when we see parents go out on the street and bring their excitement-seeking adolescents home, to keep them and their neighborhoods out of harm’s way. I don’t usually condone a parent smacking her child around, but I’ll give a pass to the Baltimore mom who tried to rip the hood off her son’s head as she tore him away from the crowd he had joined. She was trying to save his life; I am not about to stand in judgment of her methods.
Thus is revealed, on the streets of Baltimore, the great irony of urban America at this moment: We need trustworthy police to defend against the criminals and the ne’er-do-wells who see no good future for themselves and feel justified in depriving their neighbors of one. But we can’t trust the police until we find a way to police the police. We can’t trust prosecutors until we start prosecuting prosecutors who abuse their positions.
Every time the streets explode in chaos caused by small percentage of hoodlums and nitwits, the needed improvements in the justice system get pushed off, no matter what skin color the officials seeking those improvements happen to wear.