As in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's remark that “What happened with the rioting and destruction of CVS [drugstore in West Baltimore] is senseless. It is destroying neighborhoods."
"Senseless" is the word of choice for many authorities and leaders and residents when they speak of fiery days of rage such as these, when people torch their own neighborhoods. It has been the chosen word for decades for riots and insurrections in Baltimore and Rochester and Los Angeles and Newark and anyplace else where poor people explode on the very streets on which they live -- and then must live with the rubble, the smoldering ruins, the loss, and the brokenness of the ensuing days and years.
But that is where the word "senseless" becomes code for a taboo: the rule that one must not speak of the unchanging realities that make an uprising such as that in Baltimore perfectly sensible. Because in fact the city's leadership has for decades presided over "destroying neighborhoods."
What the mayor and the police commissioner and the business leaders who lead the city's broken economy and broken politics refuse to face is that it is completely sensible for people in perpetually-ignored war-zone communities to finally act out their rage in the one way that will gain attention: burning houses and cars, trashing and emptying stores, and upending the city's oblivious sense of order. It is a perfectly logical response. True, it has not succeeded in the long run in lifting entire communities out of generations of poverty and violence, but then nothing else has, either, and that is a structural problem having to do with who pays for political policy and who is present (and who isn't) in the economic conversations that shape the city. Fact is, tragically, the one thing that will at least draw global media attention to a disastrously depressed black community, and that will push politicians and police to make at least a symbolic try at facing endemic poverty and abusive policing, is a horrific hellfire uprising that makes the long-running war between militarized police and poor communities of color officially visible along its battle lines. Complete with riot gear, tear gas, and the National Guard.
There is nothing "senseless" about people doing the one thing proven to work as a way to draw national notice to the particular form of economic and racial apartheid that has become routine in cities like Baltimore. It in fact makes tragically good sense. And when our society has the courage, if ever, to replace class/race apartheid with approaches that create fairness in education and job creation and law enforcement, the uprisings will cease.
For a glimpse of what the perennial prosperous/poor dichotomy of Baltimore looks like, and how the logic of black insurrection actually works outside the bubble of racial and class privilege, watch the following May 7 airing of PBS News Hour. The segment on Baltimore begins at 31:30. It includes this quote from a young black assistant minister at a large black church: "When they are at that boiling point and it comes to them lashing out -- What's the worst that can happen? [Our community] is already falling down around us."
point to questions about whether he was qualified to serve and whether the Baltimore Police Department enforced reasonable standards for who it allowed to patrol the streets of West Baltimore with a gun.
The Guardian first broke the story weeks ago of allegations and a protective order issued against Lt. Brian Rice, and followed up with a story yesterday that includes photocopies of the 10-page handwritten complaint in which the husband of Rice's former girlfriend details an armed Rice stalking and threatening him. In one reported episode, police from two departments responded to a 90-minute armed standoff that ended with Rice being allowed to leave. In another, Rice's threat to kill himself and fears that he would harm others resulted in his being taken by police to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. Rice's problems reportedly resulted in his being placed on administrative leave, disciplined, and twice having his police and personal weapons confiscated.
A person's struggling with mental health issues, in and of itself, is never a reason to stigmatize or punish them. But violent personal behavior, stalking, and armed threats are more than enough reason to suspend or revoke a person's authority to patrol the streets as a law enforcement officer. And the looming question underneath becomes: Just how stringent, or how lax, has the Baltimore Police Department been in its standards for who is fit to scrutinize, arrest, and occasionally shoot residents of mostly-black neighborhoods in West Baltimore? Is a cop with a clear record of violent mental disturbance somehow judged good enough to police a black community -- or any community?
This is not only an explosive policy question, but a colossal lawsuit waiting to roar into motion -- with Billy Murphy, arguably the most-feared attorney in Baltimore, already signed on as counsel for the family of Freddie Gray.
Eloquence can be like romance: in honest and loving hands it can ecstatically liberate, and in dishonest and selfish hands it can be the worst kind of betrayal. And you know what they say about believers scorned.
Malik Shabazz appears to be neither eloquent nor abominable enough to qualify for either extreme. As president of the Black Lawyers for Justice, he works and speaks for some causes that direly need and deserve support, including resistance toward racist policing. But as a man with an ego that seems the size of Nebraska and with an apparent tone-deafness to how repugnant it is to use events like the brutal deaths of black ctizens for his own self-promotion, he cannot help but tip his hand as someone whose leadership is suspect.
That is why, at Saturday's Baltimore rally following the filing of criminal charges against six police officers for the death of Freddie Gray, Shabazz, the keynote speaker, was roundly heckled by spectators. Some hecklers were organized, with agendas of their own, but many were clearly spontaneous: strangers in the crowd rolling their eyes at one another and yelling annoyed comments at this shameless guy who just couldn't seem to get enough of using the word "I." At one point after Shabazz bragged about how much of his own money he had spent to sponsor the event, scattered audience members began yelling at him, "It's not about you."
This matters. Not just because manipulative attention-hoggers are obnoxious, but, more importantly, because they are destructive. They give ammunition to the stale old rulers' story of how "outside agitators" are the source of trouble in cities afire, a tale that has been used for ages to try to dissuade well-behaved black folk from aligning with a man named King who led a bus boycott in Montgomery, or a woman named Tubman who led slaves through the woods to freedom.
To paraphrase what Lloyd Bentsen said to hopeless veep candidate Dan Quayle, Shabazz is no King and no Tubman. But the tepidly mixed reception Shabazz received at Saturday's rally with his blend of fiery advocacy and clichéd preening, while parent and advocate Erica Marks brought the crowd to a righteous frenzy when she took the stage and declared that she would spend no more of her afternoon listening to male patriarchy, said plenty. (I missed getting it on my video of her speech, but trust me, she said it and the crowd got it.) Powerfully received as well were the remarks by veteran national organizer Carl Dix, who drew his loudest cheers when he called for women to be treated as full human beings instead of as "sexual objects and punching bags" in the fight for a just society. I will post audio of Dix and others in the coming days.
Meanwhile, here are two videos from Saturday of keynote speaker Malik Shabazz revealing the limits of sheer sloganizing.
I will say only three things before I turn this post over to the faces and voices of the Baltimore rally I attended Saturday in front of City Hall, one day after State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced bringing criminal charges, including murder, against the six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray.
1.) Black Lawyers for Justice president Malik Shabazz, the rally's keynote speaker, was not only overshadowed by speeches by young people and mothers of those killed by Baltimore police, he was roundly heckled by audience members for his transparent egoism and microphone-hogging. He is just good enough a demagogue to shove himself into the limelight and just clumsy enough to be obvious about it. At one point, after he bragged about his family lineage and his having contributed $5,000 toward the day's event, audience members shouted back, "It's not about you!" I will have video up of him as soon as I can; it has gotten hung up at YouTube, thanks perhaps to unseen protocol or the ghost in the machine.
2.) I will follow up soon with audio recordings I made of Tawanda Jones (whose brother, Tyrone West, was killed by Baltimore Police Officers and who with her family has mounted a weekly protest for nearly two years), mothers of young people slain by police, longtime justice advocate Carl Dix, and others. Sadly, I missed recording the afternoon's most moving oration -- by young Tanara Collins, who looked to be in her teens and electrified the audience with her fierce run-down of the history of white policing from slavery to now -- when my phone ran out of data space. That'll teach me to squander precious recording time on the headliner. If I find her speech online I will pass it on to you.
3.) For the record, it appears, from photographs, that three of the six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death are black. As many of us have written for years, cops of color are not exempt from the racist militarized police culture that has dominated American policing from the War on Drugs forward.
In downtown Baltimore on Friday night before curfew, the whup-whup of helicopters is constant. Where I am, one circles overhead about a quarter-mile away over the tarred roofs of old brick buildings. From within it a megaphone voice utters something unintelligible to some human target below. Through the space between two buildings across the street from me, I see another helicopter hovering like a skinny-tailed bee maybe 200 feet up, its propeller throbbing over the sounds of traffic and human voices.
The good news tonight, and the bad news tonight, is that new Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby has filed criminal charges, ranging from assault to murder, against six police officers for the death in police custody of Freddie Gray. Her announcement is not mealy-mouthed or reluctant. Mosby, one day after receiving a report from the Baltimore Police Department about Gray's spinal injury and death after his being illegally thrown about without a seat belt in a moving police van after having been manhandled into custody by police from whom he had run after making eye contact, proclaimed to cheers in front of a microphone that she had heard the public cry for justice and that she would rise to the task.
This is good news because after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and thousands of unknown others in Baltimore and elsewhere killed by police, many before the era of cell phone video, a D.A. has waded into the fray of pressing charges for police murder. It is bad news because it reflects the pervasiveness, and the impunity, of murder and abuse by police here and in other communities. Whether you are on the inside or the outside of the walking/driving/running-while-black wall, who feels good about it?
Helicopters drumming overheard while you walk into a store. Unmarked police cars screaming down the street past people walking their dogs. People in bars arguing about whether or not black kids should have their asses kicked -- with plenty of black people taking the "yes" position.
And that is the easy part.
The hard part is that tonight, another night here under curfew enforced by riot cops and the National Guard, will likely be easier on folks who look like me than a normal night on which reporters and demonstrators and prosecutors are not on the lookout for black residents having the shit kicked out of them by police behind apartment buildings and in the backs of vans. The hard part is that outside of the circle of Camp Baltimore, suburbanite friends and coworkers of mine, black and white and brown, say good night to one another by lightheartedly calling out, "Stay away from Baltimore!" The hard part is that so many folks can, and do, opt out of knowing or caring what happens here as long as they are spared the experience.
Today's filing of charges gives Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake room to breathe. Even before the uprising over Gray's death she was an uninspiring presence, and her rote public recitations during the crisis have dug her leadership hole deeper. It has gotten to the point where people are comparing her unfavorably to her disgraced predecessor, Sheila Dixon, who resigned after conviction on corruption charges but at least gave a shit. The popular impression of Rawlings-Blake seems to be that her words are empty but her hair and makeup are perfect. As a downtown Baltimore friend told me in comparing Dixon's passion to Rawlings-Blake's blank affect, "If Sheila were mayor now, she would be out in the street in her house slippers." But with the city filing criminal charges against officers in the Freddie Gray case Rawlings-Blake looks a little more dispassionately efficient and a little less inert, at least for now.
There are questions of whether the charges will stick and whether officers of the Baltimore Police Department will reform or rebel. This is a police force, don't forget, where the union president had the hallucinogenic audacity to compare mere criticism of his notoriously brutal mostly-white department to a "lynch mob" before he backtracked under pressure. But today's charges in Baltimore have to embolden protestors nationwide who are shoving wider the jagged hole that cell-phone video has opened in white denial of what police do to black people.
We all know, after all, that the only thing that drew global attention to the decades-long patterns of the Baltimore Police Department was the spectacle of thousands of protestors disrupting public order. And seeing what works is the biggest incentive to try more of it.
Here are photos from a friend's sister who drove from Upstate New York to Washington, D.C. and back IN ONE DAY to stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in support of gay marriage, which the Court is now considering. She calls it her "Supreme Adventure."
As demonstrators 40 miles north in Baltimore stand up for the right to not be summarily beaten and killed by police, it all fits together.