The Baltimore Rebellion

April 29, 2015

Those denouncing protesters in Baltimore and calling for "nonviolence" ignore the far greater violence that the system inflicts every single day on Black communities.

IT TURNED out to be Baltimore.

Ever since the African American residents of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets for weeks and months of defiance, the question hasn't been whether their resistance would spread, but when it would, and where it would appear.

Ferguson cast a spotlight on the epidemic of racist police violence, committed with impunity, that plagues communities across the country. But the response from government officials in charge of keeping people safe--particularly from the women and men who are supposed to "serve and protect"--has been, at best, all talk and no action.

At worst, the response from the political and media elite has been scapegoating and demonization of the very people suffering the brunt of the abuse and violence.

There has been some talk in Congress about the absurd militarization of police departments that now deploy state-of-the-art military technology distributed from the Pentagon's massive arsenal--but no action to take the tanks away. Barack Obama's Justice Department issued a strongly worded report criticizing the Ferguson Police Department for its bias--but it couldn't be bothered to press charges against the cop who murdered Mike Brown.

Protesters in the streets of Baltimore to demand justice for Freddie Gray
Protesters in the streets of Baltimore to demand justice for Freddie Gray (Kenneth K. Lam | Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Thus, the only action to come from officials of the state has been the police--and we know what that has produced. Since the beginning of 2015, law enforcement officers have killed 381 people as of April 28--a horrifying rate of more than one murder every eight hours.

One of these murders was bound to produce the next social explosion--which, of course, was presented in the media as senseless "rioting."

There were signs in Madison, Wisconsin, where anti-racists responded within hours to the March killing of unarmed 19-year-old Tony Robinson in his friend's apartment--followed by days of demonstrations, often led by high school students after a walkout from classes. The pot continued to simmer a month later when the entire country watched a South Carolina officer fire eight bullets into the back of a fleeing Walter Scott.

And then the lid blew off in Baltimore after police chased and tackled Freddie Gray for a 21st century version of a Black Code violation: making eye contact with a cop and then running. Gray was "folded up like origami," in the gruesome words of one eyewitness, and by the time he emerged from a police van, he had a nearly severed spinal chord and crushed voice box.

THOUSANDS OF mostly Black people in Baltimore took to the streets during the week after Gray died. But it was the provocations of the Baltimore police that prodded protesters into physical confrontations that reportedly caused injuries to 15 police officers. (As for how many people the cops "reportedly" injured, we can't say because there is no "reporting" on that.)

The first major clashes started at Mondawmin Mall, the gathering point for a social media call for high school students to protest. The cops showed up in full Robo-cop riot gear, closed the local transit station so the students couldn't get home, and then confronting the youth with mace and Tasers. No surprise that rocks got thrown.

Now there is frantic talk in the national media about "violence" in Baltimore. That was missing for the past five years as Baltimore police killed 109 people, according to the ACLU.

Just in the last four years, the Baltimore Police Department paid out $5.7 million in brutality and civil rights settlements. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed an assault, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.

In this context, the media's frantic depictions of rock-throwing as an "outbreak of violence" in Baltimore can only be described as obscene. As Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates put it:

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 to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.

And yet Barack Obama, the first African American president in a country founded on slavery, presented himself as the con artist-in-chief when he denounced protesters as "criminals and thugs." "They're not making a statement. They are stealing," the president chided. "One burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and the thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way have been lost in the discussion."

For Obama to join the sanctimonious chorus condemning those who took to the streets in Baltimore is another slap in the face for a community facing the "heaps of violence." The president's words ignore the anger thousands of people who demonstrate in the supposed "right way"--yet still see unaccountable police unleashing violence against Black communities on a daily basis.

THE ERUPTION in Baltimore is not a repeat of the resistance in Ferguson. It represents an expansion of the struggle, and its evolution onto new terrain.

Baltimore is similar to Ferguson in that both have a majority Black population that suffers abuse and violence at the hands of police, while enduring increasing inequality. The Baltimore metropolitan area has the 19th largest economic output in the U.S., but a Johns Hopkins study found that youth in poor neighborhoods face conditions similar to their counterparts in Nigeria and India. As Dan Diamond wrote for Forbes:

Black infants in Baltimore are almost nine times more likely to die before age 1 than white infants. AIDS cases are nearly five times more common in the African American community..."Only six miles separate the Baltimore neighborhoods of Roland Park and Hollins Market," interim Hopkins provost Jonathan Bagger said last year. "[B]ut there is a 20-year difference in the average life expectancy."

That's how Baltimore is like Ferguson. It is unlike Ferguson in that it is a major urban center in the heart of the Northeast Corridor and an hour's drive from the nation's capital. It is run by a Black political establishment and is, as one contributor wrote on social media, "fully integrated into the post-civil rights landscape--a landscape that includes massive levels of segregation, intense concentrations of poverty and astounding brutality alongside a new Black middle class and political class."

Finally, thanks to shows like The Wire, Baltimore is probably second only to Detroit in its infamy as a city whose Black working class has been decimated by de-industrialization.

When Jacobin associate editor Shawn Gude described the scene in West Baltimore after a riot, he wrote: "[T]he most salient thing wasn't the destruction wrought by protesters--the cop car demolished, the payday loan store smashed up--but by capital: the decrepit, boarded-up row houses, hovels and vacants in a city full of them."

These conditions that form the backdrop to Freddie Gray's murder will force many activists in the Black Lives Matter movement to confront--as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both did in another era--the intersections of racism and capitalism.

As King said in a speech less than a month before he was assassinated in 1968--words that were repeated many times on social media over the past week:

I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the [Black] poor has worsened over the last 12 or 15 years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

Opponents of injustice today face the task of building on the bitter anger and the desire to fight for change demonstrated by the eruptions in Ferguson, Baltimore and beyond.

We need to challenge the hypocrisy and lies about what happened this week on the streets of Baltimore, to organize toward some measure of justice in the here and now--starting with the indictment of the cops who murdered Freddie Gray, just as surely as if they pulled a trigger--and to put forward the vision of a different world worth fighting for, built on solidarity, democracy and justice.

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