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Black Lives Matter: Parallels between Baltimore & Chicago

The people’s struggle in Baltimore is synonymous with those in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Ferguson, New York, and Chicago. It is an ongoing American ballad of the struggle between power and subjugation, between a persisting white autocratic control and racial equality, and between the Bill of Rights and institutionalized racism and classism.

Article published by on 05/10/2015

By Brian T. Murphy; Photo: Associated Press.

Most people agree that violence is not a reasonable means to achieving social change. But the unrest that transpired last week in Baltimore after the police-induced death of Freddie Gray – albeit misplaced – should not come as a surprise to us. It was readily predictable. This violence, though unjustified, was not unprovoked.


One night of civil unrest and one week of peaceful protests ensued when twenty-five year old Freddie Gray died while in police custody. Freddie was handcuffed, shackled at the feet, placed in a police van unrestrained, and at some point suffered a severed spinal cord. Six officers are currently charged with a variety of crimes related to his death.


Of course, this unrest is not really about Freddie Gray. Freddie’s death simply unleashed previously existing outrage in Baltimore and once again exposed a pattern of policing that has consistently violated civil liberties.


Law enforcement is running out of excuses to justify why unarmed black civilians are dying at the hands of its officers: either the victim was resisting arrest, or he was running, or he resembled the description of a dangerous man, or police thought he had a knife, or he looked suspicious. We even reached the point where some claim that a shackled black kid severed his own spinal cord.


A problem that seems to be amplified greatly in Baltimore is that a mostly white police force is put in a position of incredible authority, while they have operated in a vacuum of accountability.


The Baltimore Sun wrote a scathing critique of their Police Department, reporting that 5.7 million dollars (in taxpayer funds) were paid out in lawsuits since 2011, and greater than 100 people won settlements based on civil rights violations and other abuses by police. Astoundingly, the victims included beaten grandmothers, injured children, and even a pregnant woman. In a 2.5 year period 3,048 misconduct complaints were received, nearly half of which were proven to be true. These gruesome claims document a pattern of criminal abuses by officers.   


When criticizing the ways that law enforcement failed the Baltimore community, Ta-Nehisi Coates offered a sobering opinion on subsequent calls for non-violent protest:


 When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.


The latest “riots” in Baltimore cannot be distilled to unfounded acts of aggression committed by thugs. From continuing policies spanning from the early 1900s to the present day, Baltimore boasts a legacy of forcing African Americans into overcrowded, economically disparate neighborhoods. As summarized by the Economic Policy Institute, Federal Housing Administration (FHA) policies prevented sales to African Americans in certain areas, denied them bank mortgages to purchase property, and made it incredibly easy for them to lose property due to one missed payment.


These and several other well documented factors prevented the accumulation of wealth of entire communities who were forced to work longer hours to account for higher rents, attend sub-standard schools, and live amongst constant crime. Left behind were communities that had differential access to education and protection, and who were ravaged by high incarceration rates and fewer opportunities to gradually build a better life. Add to these debilitating obstacles decades of policing that has employed violence under the guise of the law to control and intimidate residents for generations.


The continued police-induced deaths of unarmed black citizens is a testament to the near absence of accountability within law enforcement, which is given extra protection from the social taboo that suggests we should not criticize a police officer who uses excessive force while making an arrest. It’s even common to hear criticism of the unarmed citizen being abused, using the classic straw man argument of “well if he didn’t resist arrest he wouldn’t have been killed.” That is possibly true. But that certainly doesn’t justify killing an unarmed human being.


Major news outlets are not free from blame either. A young African American protestor eloquently summarized this phenomenon captured on video when he confronted Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera:


"…you're not here reporting about the boarded up homes and the homeless people under MLK. You're not reporting about the poverty levels up and down North Avenue. Two years ago, at the 300 Men March and we walked…to Milton and North, you weren’t here. But you’re here for the black riots that happened."


So is it easy to cast this unrest aside as a Baltimore problem, justified through all the ways in which Baltimore and Chicago differ? Probably. But where our two cities do share overlap is striking – racially segregated populations, vast disparities of wealth, gang violence, high homicide rates, failed drug policies, high incarceration rates of African Americans, imbalanced opportunities for children of color, decades of housing discrimination against African Americans. These social diseases represent the prime cause to decades of frustration that have recently exploded beyond a quorum on the streets of Baltimore.

Do I condemn a group of youth when they turn to violence as a form of protest? Yes, I condemn this. But do I understand the feeling of empowerment that they succumb to when those who were previously victims take back the streets where thousands of documented civil rights offences occurred at the hands of police, and where they suffer constant dehumanizing abuse and unchecked aggression and unfounded arrests? Absolutely I do.


If you are shocked that this sort of thing happened in America, I urge you to realize that African Americans have not attained equal protection under our law, as evidenced by the astounding fact that they make up 44% of our prison population when they consist only 12% of the overall US population.


The people’s struggle in Baltimore is synonymous with those in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Ferguson, New York, and Chicago. It is an ongoing American ballad of the struggle between power and subjugation, between a persisting white autocratic control and racial equality, and between the Bill of Rights and institutionalized racism and classism.


It is unfair to have a population slowly beaten and degraded into submission and then criticized when they rise up in arms. As the next news cycle approaches and we casually sweep the intertwining problems of race and class under the rug, these tensions will still be there.  And they will continue to mount. Without attaining equal treatment for African Americans, a serious reform to drug policy, and a police force dedicated to serving a community with empathy rather than with body bags, law enforcement will continue to add barrels of fuel to a city full of matches by holding a population hostage to unwarranted arrests and life under constant intimidation. 


Be mindful in the coming weeks when another unarmed black man is killed in police custody, or in the coming years when a neighborhood takes to the streets because they are tired of being treated as criminals. Be mindful when camera crews decide to cover rioting as they travel to black neighborhoods that have been invisible to them, while ignoring social ailments that have been incubating there for decades. Be mindful so that we do not act out the same media charade when “blacks riot in the streets of City X,” while we repeat the narrative that the police committing these crimes are simply a few bad apples rather than examples of systemic abuse and legally sanctioned race and class warfare.

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