April 28, 2015—After Saturday’s full day of peaceful protests in Baltimore calling for justice for Freddie Gray—the 25-year-old who recently died of a spinal injury suffered while in police custody—some protesters opted Saturday evening and Sunday to pursue more hands-on expressions of frustration. On Monday, the day of Gray’s memorial service, public tensions led to rioting in West Baltimore that continued into the evening.
The media also ran riot. As of Saturday night, the protests were said to have turned “violent” and “destructive.” ABC News initially reported that protesters had simply “become rowdy” but quickly amended the headline to incorporate the V-word. Conservative news site Breitbart.com took full advantage of its lack of editorial constraints to proclaim, “War zone: Baltimore erupts into violence, chaos as #BlackLivesMatter riots rage.”
When crowds turned to rioting on Monday, CNN legal analyst and New Yorker contributor Jeffrey Toobin took the opportunity on Anderson Cooper 360 to denounce the city. “Protest is an honorable thing; looting and criminality are not,” he said. “Baltimore disgraced itself today.” For Toobin, it’s as if nothing disgraceful or criminal happened before Monday, as if the city’s long history of racist police violence weren’t disgrace enough to be worth comment. On the receiving end of that violence have been teenagers, pregnant women, and octogenarian grandmothers.
Finally, the media found, the protesters were behaving according to the script—the one that casts Black communities in America as powder kegs that can be contained only by the cops. Never mind that chucking hot dog buns and condiments at police and smashing up police vehicles and store windows is inherently less destructive, at least in terms of human life, than fatally severing a person’s spinal cord or shooting an unarmed man multiple times in the back. The latter two operations were performed under the sanction of U.S. law enforcement, whose behavior, no matter how outrageous, is still defended from public outrage by media and politicians alike.
And the state-sponsored lexicon invites plenty of irony. When Baltimore’s police union last week used the term “lynch mob” to describe what it acknowledged were peaceful protests on behalf of Gray, Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher urged the Twittersphere to “let that sink in for a second.”
The Gray family’s lawyer has described the motive for Gray’s arrest on April 12 as “running while Black.” According to reports, he ran from police unprovoked and was arrested and placed in a police van; somewhere along the way, his spine was compromised, and he ended up in a coma, dying a week later. A pocketknife of legal size was found on his person.
Although running from police hardly constitutes probable cause, the Supreme Court has ruled that such an act can nonetheless merit detention by cops when it takes place in a “high-crime area”—a conveniently ambiguous denomination.
I attended one of the protests for Gray this Saturday, which began in the same “high-crime area” where he was apprehended, at the intersection of Presbury and North Mount streets in West Baltimore. It then made its way to the Western District police station and on to City Hall downtown. At the starting point, Gray’s acquaintances were invited to the microphone to pay their respects. Among the speakers was a former neighbor with health problems who recalled Gray’s consistent concern for his well-being. Just recently, he said, he told Gray that he would go far in life because he “respect[ed] people.”
Baltimore-born pastor the Reverand Graylan Hagler also spoke about law enforcement’s long tradition of dehumanizing Blacks and cited ongoing advancements in the oppressive arts, thanks to training sessions in Israel for U.S. cops. Israel’s vast experience in the curtailment of civil liberties and human rights means it’s an ideal accomplice in the increasing militarization of police, one effect of which is that sections of the domestic population end up being seen as enemy combatants.
While much of the police’s racist violence is waged out of sight—such as when a mentally ill Black female prison inmate was shocked to death with a Taser in February while shackled—the landscape is sufficiently militarized to remind us we’re living in a war zone (albeit not of the variety envisioned by Breitbart.com). All day Saturday, police helicopters and drones circled overhead, giving the impression that “protesting while Black” might also be some sort of punishable offense.
And on Monday, when tensions boiled over and young Baltimoreans repeatedly threw rocks at police tanks and cruisers, the scene was eerily reminiscent of the Occupied Territories, which should surprise no one who has followed U.S. police militarization in accordance with the Israel Defense Forces model.
In his speech, Hagler urged the audience to forget the issue of Black versus white; the real problem, he said, is blue—the color of the police uniform. He’s right. Contemporary police behavior constitutes an affront to justice, enforcing a system of race- and class-based oppression in which Blacks disproportionately occupy the lower rungs of society.
Five days before Gray passed away, Dennis Parker, the director of the racial justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union, decried the “culture of police violence” in the U.S., as evidenced by the recent slew of slayings of unarmed Black men.
According to Parker, the situation is “perpetuated by the too common failure to hold accountable police who use excessive force against people of color.” A failure to “eliminate that culture,” he warned, will ensure that the “stories of police violence now filling the media will continue on a loop without end,” tearing apart families and communities.
We might be forgiven, then, for failing to see the supreme tragedy in tearing apart police vehicles and other emblems of state violence. The media’s hysteria over this just serves to distract from the real crime: maintaining the status quo.
Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.
—Common Dreams, April 28, 2015