Google maps says it is 825 miles from Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, but the two cities have suddenly been joined together by common problems. Baltimore is one of the country’s largest municipalities, with three quarters of a million people inside the city limits, while Ferguson is an outer suburb in a larger metropolitan area. But both are now linked by responses to deaths of African American men caused by their police department, and both have experienced the tragedy of protests leading to destructive rioting. Officials in both cities have been roundly criticized in the media, especially on the radio DJ talk show circuit, and in the social media, for their response to the riots.
After reading and watching myriads of reports about both incidents, I would like to share a few observations.
1. This is not a partisan, political grandstand, and the attempts to turn it into one have not contributed to a resolution of the problem.
Conservative Daily, which is an oft-cited source on Facebook, blames the riots and problems leading up to them in Baltimore on years of “liberal” political leadership. Noting that there has not been a Republican administration in the city hall since the late 60’s, they blamed the riots, and the root causes of high unemployment, lack of development, lots of vacant housing, and budget problems leading to an inadequately funded police department on a liberal political and social agenda. Perhaps, in their haste to hedge their bets and make their point, they forgot that the worst riots in Baltimore’s history took place in the turbulent 60’s, when the Republicans were in control of the city hall, and those riots were directly related to issues that came out of conservative political control. The chaos was one of the main factors leading to the political turnaround in the mayor’s office and on the city council.
But beyond that, you only need get out of Baltimore to find that many of the same problems exist in large cities all over the country, and not all of those where there are problems are under the control of Democratic administrations. While Phoenix, Arizona is a much larger city, and doesn’t have nearly the number of African Americans as Baltimore, many of the same problems exist there–high unemployment, poor housing, underfunded police who often use physical violence to make arrests–among the Hispanic minority, which does make up over 40% of the population. And it is hard to remember the last time a Democratic administration ran the mayor’s office there.
Ferguson, where the rioting and looting was on the same scale as Baltimore, but which is a much smaller city in the suburbs, also had many of the same problems among its African American majority, but was also under the control of a very heavily Republican county administration. So it would seem that Conservative Daily missed the mark by a wide mile in its assessment of the problem.
Many of the problems that our inner cities are experiencing, Baltimore included, are beyond the scope of the municipality to resolve. In a democratic republic, the various entities of government are designed to work together to provide services and protect people on different levels. Baltimore is a city-county government, a model that many larger cities in the US have followed in order to more efficiently provide services like police, fire departments, and infrastructure. The kinds of problems that cities like Baltimore are experiencing result from a combination of circumstances, and a combination of accountability for that exists at all levels of government.
A partisan political perspective is not going to provide a solution to these problems. But partisan bickering is going to contribute to their continuing on as unresolved problems which produce the kind of frustration and lack of trust that causes riots and violence.
When the protests began to turn violent, it became apparent that the city’s police department was not equipped to handle the outbreak of violence. City officials, wanting to give legitimate, peaceful protestors a genuine opportunity to be heard, avoided the appearance of anticipating trouble by not going into “riot mode” right away. The violence and looting happened quickly. According to the police commissioner, the city requested help from the state as soon as they determined the rioting was turning in a direction that their own police department could not control. The criticism that resulted from the governor, triggered by the media cornering him with questions about the timing of the response, was neither helpful nor productive in resolving the issue.
2. What did the Mayor really mean when she made the comment about giving space to those who wanted to destroy?
Perhaps her words were not well chosen, but considering the situation that was developing at the time, in all fairness, I don’t think the mayor was sending a signal to those who were waiting to vandalize, loot and burn the city. Given her record as mayor, and her own initiatives and programs, including opening the door to private investment and encouraging it, I don’t think she wanted to see the city damaged and destroyed, or something to occur which would discourage development and investment.
I don’t think very many of those people who have blasted her words on social media even knew who she was prior to this incident. What they saw was an African American female who is mayor of a major city in the Eastern US, and they immediately jumped to the conclusion that her agenda is a socialist welfare state. That’s the result of the partisan polarization of this country, and it is one of the reasons why government can’t get anything done, and why the problems that lead to people feeling disenfranchised enough to gain attention by violence are still unresolved. And it isn’t anywhere near accurate in the characterization of the Mayor, based on either her background or her record.
She is a Democrat, and in fact is the Secretary of the Democratic National Committee. She is also the vice-president of the national conference of mayors. But her agenda isn’t socialist, not even in the twisted and incorrect definition of the word as it is currently slung around, and she’s no “welfare queen.” Her mother is a highly regarded physician, and her father is a lawyer with a long career in the Maryland state house. She is a highly respected attorney in her own right, and has a national profile, including having served on the panel of mayors and law enforcement officials of both parties on a task force convened in the wake of the Ferguson riots. Maryland’s current Republican governor praised her efforts in handling the situation in Baltimore, telling CNN “she has done a terrific job.”
There’s nothing in her record as mayor that would remotely identify her as a “liberal socialist.” Her budgets reflect conservative fiscal practices, and initiatives to encourage business development are most definitely pro-free enterprise. She is open to criticism because of a specific incident that ignited smoldering resentment and frustration that has been around for many years, long before she became Mayor. Nothing happened in Baltimore that couldn’t happen in virtually any large, American inner-city given the right conditions and the right event to set it off, and Baltimore was no less prepared, nor competent, than any other in dealing with something it rarely has had to deal with.
3. There is a real problem, not just in Baltimore, and it needs to be addressed.
The record of the Baltimore police in dealing with situations, especially involving the African American community, isn’t stellar. In fact, if you look at it with fairness in your evaluation, you can see why frustration blew up into a riot. The city’s police department has paid out over $6 million in damages related to claims involving loss of life, or injury, in handling some people during arrests in recent years, and has a higher than average number of investigations going in similar situations. The racial divide, in a city where 64% of the residents are African American, is most definitely a factor, as is the fear and frustration of serving as a police officer day after day in an environment that can be quite dangerous, hostile, and in which both a higher than normal amount of illegal drug use and a high level of organized gang activity is in play. But, and I will say this more than once, this is America. All citizens, even unruly ones, have civil rights, and the police force is constitutionally prevented from assuming power and authority it does not have. The instance of police brutality claims, and deaths caused in the course of an arrest is higher in Baltimore than most other cities of its size. That is a problem that must be resolved.
When problems developed in Ferguson, the police department mobilized an arsenal of riot gear and equipment that was mind boggling. It looked like they were getting ready to invade a small country, rather than protect property and stop a protest that got out of hand. That’s part of the problem. Police departments have become para-military organizations, and among some officers, there’s definitely an attitude that goes along with that kind of force. It’s also hard to make a case when complaining about budget constraints and lack of resources when you haul out an arsenal like that. Admittedly, sometimes crowds can get out of hand, but this is America, and its citizens, at whom all of that para-military equipment is aimed, have rights.
I’ve heard, and seen, comments from people suggesting that if the police were even more brutal and suppressive, and perhaps shot a few looters with their stolen goods in hand, the riot would stop pretty quickly. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Ultimately, in a country where you have citizens that are as well armed as the police, and gun ownership is a cherished, and enthusiastically encouraged, civil right, the riot may disperse, but you’d have a war of attrition on your hands, and given the numbers, the police wouldn’t come out on top of that, nor would those individuals who were caught on the battlefield that the streets would become. That’s how they do things in North Korea, perhaps, or Iran. Not the United States.
Whether it is more professional training, or a better grasp of individual civil rights, police departments need to make sure their members understand their role in enforcing the law, and the rights of the citizens it is intended to benefit.
4. Resolving the root causes of deep-seated problems.
One of the clearest themes that has come out of protests generated by the death of African American men at the hands of police forces is “black lives matter.” If you look at the specific cases that prompted protests–Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore–it is easy to see where that theme came from. In each case, an African American man lost his life in the course of an arrest for something that was relatively insignificant if compared to the value of a human life. Any life. Michael Brown allegedly stole some cigars. Eric Garner was peddling cigarette butts outside of a store. It’s unclear what Freddy Gray was doing, running when he saw the police was the original story. There doesn’t seem to be anything involved that warrants their death, except a physical struggle that ensued when police caught them. But I have to ask, in each case, was a chase, and a physical confrontation necessary?
If these men were dangers to the public, and at risk of taking someone else’s life, then the police would be justified in using deadly force. In the Ferguson case, the officer put himself at risk by initiating the physical confrontation, and was the one who ultimately pulled the trigger. The other two cases turned deadly as a result of the way that officers handled them, and in both cases, failed to call for medical assistance soon enough. The other fact of note here is that in cases where the suspects are white, physical restraint is not used nearly as frequently, nor are there nearly as many deaths that result from handling during the arrest.
The mistrust of police comes from some context. I think that is the message that protestors are shouting at the top of their lungs, but which is not being heard, and in some cases, is deliberately being turned around and shouted down. A majority of African Americans in this country do not trust the police, and for them, police officers represent something that is not the same as it is in other communities. They see them as agents of oppression, and that feeling is reinforced when a police officer, especially if he is white, is not indicted or prosecuted when he is directly responsible for an African American man’s death. The logical conclusions of that are pretty easy to draw.
5. Baltimore on the rebound.
Along with Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Chicago, Baltimore is one of my favorite places to visit, and I’m talking about the city itself, and not necessarily the suburbs. In its own, very unique way, it is a beautiful city, and while its architectural style is similar to that of DC or Philadelphia, it has some neighborhoods that, when you are in them, you know it is Baltimore. Handsome row houses, closely built, neighborhoods with clusters of stores and eating places in their heart that smell wonderful because of what’s on the menu, and a street layout that makes it relatively easy to get around are all part of the charm. The scars of inner city decline and decay are also very visible, and there are larger parts of the city which are in disrepair and decline than in Washington, or in Philly. Of the four that I mentioned, one of the things that makes Baltimore unique is that it has the larger percentage of African Americans among its population, almost 65%. And that’s not a bad thing.
It is a city worth saving, and protecting from destructive violence. But it is also a city whose people are willing to do their part to lift up and turn into a better place to live. That was evident after the rioting, when a large group of its citizens turned out to clean up the mess and help repair the damage. It is clear in the media reports now coming out of the city, that there is a desire to make sure the message they are sending gets heard, and acted upon by the appropriate officials while, at the same time, pushing their city forward instead of trying to bring it down.
Baltimore is America. We need to be keeping a close eye on how this issue is resolved, and pray that the city sees no more dark days like they had this week.