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.
One of the twisted things about the two-days-and-counting Baltimore lockdown is that this city is now probably a safer place to be a black person than it is during a normal day. Reporters are everywhere, every incident brings another question for beleaguered Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and still-in-rehearsal Governor Larry Hogan, and angry citizens are marching, shouting, and issuing demands with the strength of numbers. Contrast that with any normal day, when being poor and black and beaten by Baltimore Police happens in the privacy of any given alley or squad car, and is newsworthy only to those to whom it happens.
The normal Baltimore Police routine of jacking up black folks with impunity and anonymity will have to wait until the media crowds go back home. Right now there is a script to be followed.
With that in mind, here are my margin notes on the first section of a Baltimore Sun story that ran online in the early hours of Thursday. The indented gray text is the Sun. The flush-left blue text is mine.
As masses of mostly peaceful demonstrators marched on City Hall, officials on Wednesday began their own offensive to prevent violence from flaring again Friday, when police are expected to turn their investigation into the death of Freddie Gray over to prosecutors.
This was PR damage control for the mayor's and police commissioner's powerlessness to stem the BPD's long-standing culture of brutality in poor black communities, which is what caused the uprising in the first place, and for the sheer ineptness of the mayor in trying to display both her own caring and the city's progress in the Freddie Gray case.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others tried to tamp down mistaken expectations that the public will be told Friday how Gray, 25, suffered a severed spinal cord and crushed voicebox while in police custody.
The city succeeded in letting us all know that an investigation would report its findings on Friday -- but not in making people aware that they might remain secret. There are good prosecutorial reasons for keeping such information under wraps. But my guess is that during the explosive onset of the uprising the city talked up the coming report to try to quell rage without thinking much about how secrecy might play out later.
On a relatively subdued day, when the Orioles resumed play but in an empty Camden Yards and police and National Guard troops remained in force on city streets, city officials and lawyers for Gray's family worked to explain what to expect in the coming days.
The absurdity of a major-league baseball contest played out in a completely empty stadium is like something from a dystopian novel about a post-apocalyptic city that has outlawed the word "irony."
They stressed that the police findings would not be released to the public, and State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby would not announce whether she would file criminal charges against the officers involved in the arrest.
Can't blame the State's Attorney for this one.
"People misunderstood [Friday] to mean something else," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said outside New Shiloh Baptist Church, where she met privately with Gray family lawyers and community leaders to discuss how to prepare for what Friday might bring.
"Misunderstood" is one word for it. What is saddest here is that the Gray family is caught in a public drama that goes against their wishes but that has become much bigger than their loved one.
Attorney Hassan Murphy said Gray's relatives are "all terribly concerned" that those expecting a major break in the case could allow their disappointment to explode in anger.
At this point, I doubt that even the family's heartbreak over these events will sway the public here. When the uprising subsides it will not be because the family requested it.
"We don't want a repeat of Monday," Murphy said, when gangs of mostly young people rioted, looted businesses and set fires.
Problem is, some people do, and the accrued community anger goes back decades.
For the rest of the Sun story, including what Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Hillary Clinton, and tone-deaf Maryland Governor Hogan had to say ("We want things to get back to normal"), go here.
is sitting in a booth in a suburban Baltimore restaurant holding forth to his white buddy about what the police should have done to nip the misbehavior of enraged Baltimore black folk in the bud on Monday.
It was about an hour before Tuesday's 10pm curfew was set to fall on the city. It was before the helmeted and shielded riot police, waddling like plastic-swathed insects, began firing smoke bombs and pepper bullets at the line of defiant protestors who refused to leave the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues, a corner a few blocks away from where I lived some years ago.
For about an hour there in the curfew-less suburbs, in the booth next to mine, the two 40-ish white guys, chilling out in business suits with their jackets off, chatted expertly about what black kids need: fathers at home to lay down the law, cops who will dare to stand up to them, a lesson in consequences.
It is hilarious, in a wrecking-ball sort of way, to listen to some white people declare what they know about black people. White people who have never been jacked up by cops for being white, who have never been followed by store security guards for being white, who have never been denied an apartment or a decent mortgage for being white, who have never stood a higher chance of conviction in court for being white, and who don't even need to think much about the fact that they are white unless they are around a bunch of people who are not.
The ironic thing is that alongside their cluelessness about the Baltimore Police Department's record with black people, these two shirtsleeve cocktail-hour experts hit on some obvious truths: black male kids in poor prison-siphoned neighborhoods do need male, as well as female, examples of power and self-love, and they need as much guidance and discipline as any kids do.
But what poor black kids need more than anything, which privilege-bubbled white guys are so well-shielded from seeing, is simply to not be treated as niggers.
I don't mean niggas in the cocky black (and in the white-playing-black) sense. I mean niggers. In the perennial Mississippi whipping-post sense. In the face-jammed-onto-a-cop-car-hood sense. In the move-your-black-ass-along-or-else sense. In the okay-fuck-it-I'll-be-the-fearsome-creature-who-you-expect-me-to-be sense.
White guys don't get served that dish in the cafeteria.
The two white fellows finished their meal and their talk and collected their suit jackets and left. Someone changed the channel on the TV up on the wall. A TV reporter was counting down the minutes to curfew while the camera held on the line of demonstrators at North and Pennsylvania. The protestors did not move. A young guy rode a bicycle in a repeating circle. A politician in a baseball cap said inaudible things to an interviewer. Then the countdown hit curfew. Then it was 10 minutes past curfew. Then 20.
Then, suddenly, smoke erupted from canisters fired by the line of police at the line of unyielding protestors. "Police enforce curfew," read bold letters on the screen. A reporter talked about pepper bullets. The smoke billowed, enveloped people and storefronts. Some civilians emerged from the white clouds clutching scarves and handkerchiefs and others seemed to just disappear without a trace.
In the suburban restaurant it fell quiet. The occasional hushed "Oh, my God" replaced the jocular small talk and the confident declarations about perps and fault. We all watched the screen as the first of what will be a solid week's curfews fell on our city -- if you are on the street after 10pm and not en route to work or an emergency room you are subject to arrest -- and we held our mouths quietly open, we handful of strangers whose looks have landed us on one side or another of the smoky divide..
Miles south of us at the corner of North and Pennsylvania, people were going to jail, were being sick in the smoke, were running, were not running, were going home, were going somewhere else. Soldiers and police were claiming stewardship of an entire city on our alleged behalf. Our technocrat mayor, corporate-smart but street-inept, was mouthing robotic instructions, trying to read from the manual, to hoots and jeers from all sides. Our state's new amateur governor, who won in November because he played a better fake populist Republican than his opponent's version of a fake passionate Democrat, was shrugging and blaming the inept technocrat mayor. The head of the Maryland National Guard assured reporters that what Baltimore is undergoing is not martial law because, she helpfully explained, the military is not officially in control. President Obama issued some of his trademark oral vapor, telling us, amid the militarized occupation of our city, that we as a nation need to do some "soul-searching." Well, thanks for that, Commander-in-Chief.
Tomorrow morning it will get light again, and as we walk or drive or bus through or past the police-and-soldier-patrolled city where as yet unspoken things will have happened entering Lockdown Day Two, a lot of us -- including any of us who pretend to know -- will be trying to figure out where we live.
Drive up normally-jammed Charles Street in downtown Baltimore on this first night of what will be called the 2015 Baltimore Riots, and there are a thousand open places to park and two shiny black police cars with flashing lights pulled beside each other in the middle of the street comparing notes.
"They live for this," a guy said to me tonight about Baltimore cops and mayhem. "This is what they want."
Some, no doubt. Their record in this city bears it out. And how many jobs are there in America where a high school graduate can lord it over a thousand people a day?
But whether Baltimore cops like it or loathe it, tonight they were on the receiving end of mayhem aplenty in the opposite of its routine direction. More than a dozen police injured, with broken bones of various kinds and least one cop "unresponsive," according to the Baltimore Sun. Lines of kids lofting every heavy object they could find at phalanxes of cops while the police, looking more vulnerable than I have ever seen them, scrambled backward ducking the fusillade. It gives the briefest glimpse of what the power of sheer human numbers might look like on some unknown day when, say, tens of millions of Americans decide that they have simply had enough.
So begins Curfew Week here in Charm City. Seven days, declares our city's mayor, of 5Am to 10PM allowed public movement. Along with, our governor reports, the activation of the National Guard.
This is now a national story. A shared trauma, a city's public disgrace, a spectacle of failure. It's hot. It's news. It's what matters this week.
But where was the national story, the shared trauma, the spectacular attention-grabbing disgrace, when we needed dedicated reporters rather than cell phone cameras to show a nation how one black kid at a time was trained to write himself off, to hunt for his daddy in a gang of kids strutting guns and streetcorner product, to hate the guts of the police, and to spitefully cooperate in marching off to the new mass plantation of for-profit prison to live out the assigned role of kamikaze outlaw? Where were the cameras over the years as tens of thousands of black boys and men, including me and countless others, got merely mistreated by cops if we were lucky and deposited six feet under if we weren't?
I am writing this to you, tonight, from a relatively safe place.
But for countless kids, some of whom you watched on television tonight daring riot-equipped cops to kill them, there is no such place. Not tonight or ever.
That is the real riot, the real carnage. And until it stops, the amply-televised loop of what we are seeing tonight will not.
Gil Scott-Heron told us about what gets televised and what doesn't. And it's still true.
that is not exactly the order in which things happened.
But I need to back up for a moment. What happened at the peaceful Freddie Gray protest in front of City Hall earlier yesterday (my photos below) was that thousands of us who gathered there understood that any one of us could have been Freddie Gray: dragged screaming with a trailing limp leg into a police van, taken on a Baltimore Police Department illegal "rough ride" without a seat belt, spine broken, making three stops in a 40-minute trip to the police station including, incredibly, one to pick up another prisoner, with no medical attention whatsoever, and ultimately dying days later of horrible injuries. All because of his making eye contact with a cop and running.
It could have happened to me the morning I was swarmed by a squad of Baltimore undercover narcs on my way to record a commercial in New York City for my ad agency. It could have happened to the young guy next to me in the crowd at the rally who was trying to keep hold of his toddler son. It could have happened to the heavy-set guy at the protest who climbed the cement base of the City Hall flagpole and yanked the ropes until the fluttering American flag came plummeting downward to throaty cheers. It could have been, and it could yet be, any one of us ending up on the coroner's slab at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department.
Race violence here in Charm City began long before crowds kicked in police cruiser windshields yesterday outside Camden Yards stadium during an Orioles game, and before Zero Tolerance policing targeted poor people of color on the street for harassment and arrest, and before the War on Drugs made militarized policing the norm in low-income communities of color, and even before Jim Crow and lynch law.
In fact, race violence in law enforcement began the first day that the first white lackey was paid a pittance to pursue and capture the first runaway black slave.
So things did not "turn" violent at Camden Yards yesterday after many of us gathered peacefully at City Hall. What happened was that decades of an arrogant, notoriously corrupt, racially-discriminatory occupying-army Baltimore police culture -- with which too many of we non-Caucasian citizens are far more intimate than we would like to be -- is, once again, boomeranging in the form of rebellion. We are talking about a police department and a police union so extreme that they pushed through legislation denying the police chief the authority to discipline officers. This is a city that has paid nearly $6 million in police brutality lawsuits since 2011. The contempt with which many Baltimoreans of color regard law enforcement is well-earned.
But this time there is a twist: As someone said to me a couple of months ago, the recent American avalanche of publicized police killings of unarmed black males does not reflect a sudden turn toward brutally violent and racist policing. It reflects, instead, the mere fact that millions of people now walk around carrying cell phones that can globally transmit incidents that have heretofore gone on with little or no public evidence. All of a sudden, police who kill with wanton and racist recklessness are now sometimes forced to do so on worldwide video.
This is a game-changer for the bubble of white privilege. It does not make it impossible for whites who have never actually seen such events before to continue to deny that they happen. But it makes it a lot harder. So we are now seeing a kind of rainbow movement for law enforcement justice that has not existed since the 1960s and 1970s.
And we are also seeing -- as is also true with the progress in LGBT rights -- a wicked backlash among those holdouts for privilege who cannot handle reality.
So what happens now?
The one thing we know for sure is that it is now much harder to avoid taking a position.
will depend on how people and powers choose to respond. And that leaves open a fearful range of possibilities.
As the worst terrorist attack on France since World War Two, at a moment when France and Europe are already torn between racist nationalism and more moderate forces, the shock of a massacre such as this could push things in any number of directions.
Like a tsunami that has yet to hit the shore, the massive crowds filling the streets in a "Je suis Charlie" outpouring of grief and outrage carry all of the clashing currents of current French political momentum: pent-up anti-immigrant fury, proud libertarianism, proto-fascist nationalism, progressive inclusionism, cynical racist populism, plain old dizzy fear. As with America's current battle between an entrenched and entitled police culture and the fight against police brutality, all kinds of things could happen.
What we must know, though, is that there is a huge amount at stake on either side of the Atlantic. Weimar Germany pivoted on traumatic national identity crises such as this. In France, the anti-immigrant National Front is already the third largest political party on the strength of widespread fear and anxiety about the economy, North African immigrants, and Muslims. Millions of scared voters in France – just as in the U.S. – are stumbling along the slippery edge of whatever-it-takes-to-protect-the-Homeland. These are times when armed soldiers on street corners can begin to feel ordinary, and when increasingly restricted rights for certain groups of people can start to feel okay. Or not. Time, and events, will tell.
But one of the gravest dangers is amnesia. Beneath the news coverage of the horrific Charlie Hebdo story, which begins with a series of satirical Muslim cartoons and culminates in 12 brutal murders, lies a much longer and unspoken history of rampages and massacres involving France, North Africa, and Muslims. This from a New York Times 2013 obituary containing the memoirs of famed French general Paul Aussaresses during France's 1954-62 attempt to crush rebellion against its colonial rule of Algeria:
He coolly recalled rounding up 1,500 unarmed prisoners — almost all of them Muslims — then selecting “the die-hards” and having them shot. He had the bodies taken to a Muslim cemetery and laid side by side facing Mecca in a 100-meter ditch that a backhoe had dug. Lime was shoveled onto the bodies to hasten decomposition.
He set up death squads, he said, and called them by that name. He ordered the assassinations of Algerian leaders and ordered the killings be disguised as suicides. When he got word Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the independence struggle and later Algeria’s first elected president, was aboard an airplane, he ordered it shot down, then changed his mind when he learned that the crew was French.
That history is just one stream in the current. Add to it the decades-old turmoil in France over the presence and underclass stature of waves of North African immigrants; the global inequities that fuel virulently anti-Western strands of fundamentalist Islam; and the recent French trends toward Islamophobia in dealing with religion.
Believe the dead French general when he suggests to us that this cataclysm is about much more than cartoons and freedom of speech.