Freddie Gray protest + riots
We are living in interesting times in Baltimore this week. On Sunday April 12th, six Baltimore police chased down and arrested Freddie Gray, who reportedly ran quickly through several housing complexes when he saw police, but was eventually caught. In photos you can see one of the officers put his knee into Gray’s back while handcuffing him. They then put him in the back of a police van, but did not buckle him into safety belts. The van stopped once so they could put leg irons on Gray, and stopped a second time to “deal with Gray.” The van stopped a third time to take on another prisoner, and an officer lifted Gray off the floor and into a seat. When the van arrived at Western District, police called for an ambulance. Gray had a broken spine. A week later he was dead.
Last week there were several weekday protests at Western District and City Hall. They chanted the, “No Peace – No Justice,” refrain familiar to anyone that followed the Occupy movement, and variants of, “March All Day for Freddie Gray.” A larger demonstration was planned for Saturday. I wanted to go, but I’ve been trying to shake a persistent chest cold, so I watched on TV. The protests went well until late afternoon when a small group of young men and boys began running quickly through the streets near Camden Yards (baseball’s Orioles home stadium), smashing some police car windows, some shop windows and getting in fights with white citizens.
Occupy Baltimore’s website claims that Red Sox fans in bars near the stadium shouted racist slurs at the protestors to start the trouble. So does CIty Paper. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that a Southie would say something, but the result was some misunderstood photos of whites and blacks fighting in the streets.
I frankly thought the situation would die down as everyone went back to work and school. On light rail Monday morning some black men near my age were shaking their heads, saying, “What were they thinking? Didn’t they realize their faces were on camera?” But late Monday a coworker told me a cop friend told him that there was going to be trouble. Then the bosses sent out an email warning us that T Rowe Price and University of Maryland Baltimore had closed early due to, “an abundance of caution.” We had permission to leave early and several women coworkers were trying to organize an escort to their parking spots.
My coworker just shook his head when I told him I was biking down Martin Luther King Boulevard as usual. I took off a few minutes early. Vendors were setting up for the White Sox game, and though the road was crowded, the MLK sidepath was if anything, emptier than usual. Going up Eutaw Street was uneventful until I got to Druid Hill Park. Police were turning cars off Druid Hill Ave onto Swann Drive – through the park. I always go through the park because people drive way too fast on Druid Hill Ave, and had no trouble getting up to Park Heights, but I did see a phalanx of police on foot blocking off Gwynn’s Fall Parkway and Liberty Heights Road. Further up Park Heights I saw police cars at intersections, and heard sirens.
When I got home I saw what everyone else saw on WBAL TV: a burning police car and MTA police van next to a CVS drugstore that was being looted. That was on North Avenue and Fulton, just a few blocks from where I saw the blockade. Reportedly Mondawmin Mall had been looted, which is also a few blocks from there. WBAL switched to a check cashing store being looted then went back to the CVS, which now had billows of brown smoke pouring out the smashed windows.
Later on WBAL showed Christian and Nation of Islam church leaders in suits and ties trying to insert themselves between the looters and businesses, but the looters were just too fast. The WBAL broadcast team was unanimously dismissive of the looters, who they began calling rioters. Only Kweisi Mfume, who called in for an interview, showed any sympathy for the years of frustration that led to such actions. Later they announced that the baseball game had been postponed and that Governor Hogan had called out the National Guard.
In the morning I heard reports that there were scattered lootings and burnings over night. On light rail another fellow was complaining that the school let kids out early but didn’t provide transportation home. I wasn’t so sure that would have helped, but later read, Those kids were set up. Another pointed out that there are areas near there that haven’t recovered from the MLKing riots. When I got off at Convention Center, I rode one block and saw a line of khaki-clad national guardsmen and state police cars moving slowly down Conway from Camden Yards towards the Inner Harbor. They let me skitter through to Sharp Street.
This morning I heard a new meme that Gray had actually been injured riding an ATV before he was captured. I’m not sure how he could have run from police for several blocks with a broken spine, but it will satisfy the people who want to believe the police can do no wrong. In any case the problem is not just Freddie Gray – there is a long history of grievances.
The ideal since Gandhi has been to conduct non-violent protests, and often that has been sufficient, but it is worth pointing out that Gandhi lived in an era where there was a large middle class in Britain with some political power to effect change. Gandhi sensed that the right sort of protests would reach the British consciousness.
We live in an era where political power is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. Moreover we live in an era where even white girls raped at colleges engender remarkably little sympathy among the public at large. As much as I hate to be stuck in the middle of all this, I do understand why it may seem to young people that non-violence is a failed strategy. I don’t look forward to violent struggle, but I do expect it.
Update 20150428: At ScienceBlogs, Greg Laden compares Baltimore rioting with events that led to the American Revolution, which I’m sure will thrill Tea Party members.
Update 20150429: Talking Points Memo has an article by a Morgan State prof on how the police sparked the Monday riot.