On April 4, 1968 civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His death outraged African-Americans across the country and was the inciting event that led to riots in several major U.S. cities including Chicago, Louisville, Kansas City, Washington D.C., and Baltimore. While King’s death was the proximate cause of the riots, in cities like Baltimore, years of economic inequality, high infant mortality, above average unemployment (compared to the national rate), and sub-par housing contributed to the anger and frustration felt by Black Baltimoreans. That frustration and anger provided the fuel that sustained riots in Baltimore from April 6-14 in the spring of ’68.
47 years later, civil unrest has once again come to the city of Baltimore, and once again, the catalyst for the unrest has been the death of an African-American male. On April 12, 2015, Baltimore police arrested Freddie Gray, Jr. after (I kid you not) he gave them a look and started running. Police reports claim his arrest was for possession of a switch blade (I didn’t know it was illegal to possess one in Baltimore). During transport Gray somehow fell into a coma and was eventually taken to a trauma center where injuries to his spinal cord and larynx were discovered. Gray died on April 19 as a result of these injuries. Although he was struggling to walk when he was arrested, he showed no signs of other injury, and the official police report states that the officers involved did not use force. Somehow he incurred damage to his spinal cord and larynx between his arrest and his admission to the trauma center (despite reports to the contrary, Gray did not have a pre-existing spinal injury). As he was in police custody during this time, it is highly likely that the police officers involved know more than they’re saying (it’s possible Gray sustained his injuries as a result of a rough ride). While some news outlets hint that Gray’s injuries were self-sustained, I find that quite implausible (and so does Gray’s family). Baltimore authorities have released little information regarding the events surrounding the death of Gray, claiming that it is important to allow the investigation to run its course. City officials have also said that they will not release the results of their investigation when it is completed on May 1.
With so little information released by city officials, many questions regarding Gray’s death remain unanswered. How did he sustain his injuries? Did they occur before or during his time in police custody? Were the officers involved aware of his injuries? Did the officers involved cause his injuries? Why were his hands cuffed and his legs in irons, yet he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt during transport? Why did the police chase him to begin with? Why did the police arrest him? With no answer to these questions, many African-Americans have become frustrated and suspect that a cover-up is underway. That frustration is fed in no small part by ongoing outrage over the unjust criminal justice system in the United States. That outrage fueled the creation of #BlackLivesMatter, a civil rights movement founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in the wake of the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The goal of the BLM is to raise awareness of and broaden the conversation surrounding state sanctioned violence against African-Americans. In their words:
When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. How Black poverty and genocide is state violence. How 2.8 million Black people are locked in cages in this country is state violence. How Black women bearing the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families is state violence. How Black queer and trans folks bear a unique burden from a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us, and that is state violence. How 500,000 Black people in the US are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows. How Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war. How Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by white supremacy, and that is state violence.
#BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project–taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.
In the wake of Gray’s death, protests began in Baltimore (ostensibly under the banner of #BLM). Initially the protests received little coverage from the mainstream media. Apparently, it isn’t news when an African-American man in police custody later dies under mysterious circumstances. On April 25, a small number of protesters became violent and hurled rocks at police officers and that’s when the MSM took note. The coverage of the protests focused on the relatively minor incidences of civil unrest, serving to paint a decidedly negative image of the protesters in the eyes of many USAmericans. Headlines like USA Today’s ‘Baltimore police say Freddie Gray protest turns destructive‘, TIME’s ‘Baltimore Riots: Instagram videos show violence, looting, unrest‘, CBS’s ‘Calls for calm amid rioting, chaos in Baltimore‘, CNN’s ‘Baltimore riot video shows liquor store on fire, chaos‘, and CNBC’s ‘Chaos in Baltimore: what you need to know‘ have helped perpetuate the idea that the protests in Baltimore are violent, chaotic, and city-wide. Two images courtesy of Vocativ dispel that notion:
The smaller scale of the 2015 civil unrest in Baltimore belies the claim that the city was engulfed in chaos, and yet many media sources chose attention-grabbing headlines that imply the opposite. AJ Woodson of Black Westchester warns people not to fall for the media narrative surrounding the protests:
As you read most of the nationwide coverage, the various news media and websites do admit that most of the protesters were peaceful as you read further down their stories, despite the attention grabbing headlines that speaks of only the violence, destruction and criminal mischief of a few. Unfortunately there will always be a few agitators in any crowd this size. Some of which are purposely positioned among the peaceful protesters for just that reason.
After what has been going on with black men being killed nationwide without any justice taking place even after grand juries, video evidence, incidences being ruled homicide by medical examiners, No officers go to jail, very few cops lose their job and the Ferguson officer who killed Mike Brown was allowed to retire and protect his pension, there is a sense of frustration in these protests, yes!
What happened in the streets of Ferguson was worst by comparison. But let’s be very clear, the scene the media is describing, the picture being painted with all headlines are something no one, I repeat NO ONE wants to see. What they’re showing you are the actions of 100 or so people, there were 10,000 people there, and despite some of the headlines, and you can see by the pictures below all the protesters were not black and out of control. And despite what a local pastor would have you believe, some of those who were acting up the most were doing so before those (he called outsiders), who came to town in support showed up.
Words have power, they create perceptions that make other actions possible and allow the most outrageous of explanations why they kill black people believable and acceptable by other groups of people. Let’ be clear here, NO ONE wants to truly see Scenes of Chaos: 1,000’s of Frenzied Protesters Rioting In Baltimore, the city would truly still be burning. But they media will show the worst or the worst, you know if it bleeds it leads. It’s true it’s great for ratings which leads to heavy advertising revenue, but it is not good for our community or the race relations nationwide.
Just like the media takes the liberty to show the worst of the worst like they did in Baltimore, I am taking the liberty to show the worst of the worst in their reporting and calling them out. It’s important to not allow the mass media to distort the narrative and take away from the message of this fight for justice.
What they don’t report was there were, “Muslims, Christians, Jews, Blacks, Whites, Asians, Young and Old, Rich and Poor people all united and standing harmoniously against common oppression,” shared one of the organizers Frank ‘Sha’ Francois. The demonstration was sponsored by a wide coalition of social justice groups, including Malik Shabazz of Black Lawyers For Justice (BLFJ), Carl Dix of Stop Mass Incarceration (SMIN) and brother Ted Freedomfighter Sutton of Sutton House, just to name a few who came in support of their brothers and sisters in Baltimore. Support for justice of Freddie Gray, 25, who was arrested one week ago, in West Baltimore. Who died on April 19th, from injuries sustained while he was in police custody.
Contrary to news reports from many sources, the story out of Baltimore is not ‘police were hit by rocks‘, ‘a CVS store burned to the ground in an act of arson‘, or ‘protesters became violent‘*. Yes, there were pockets of violence and property damage. Yes, roughly 15 police officers were injured and a CVS was destroyed. The CVS can be rebuilt, and the officers are still among the living. The same cannot be said of Freddie Gray, Jr, who joins a growing list of African-Americans killed in fatal police encounters including Michael Brown, Jr., Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Tanisha Anderson, Shelly Frey, Eric Garner, Alesia Thomas, John Crawford III, Rumain Brisbon, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Kajieme Powell, Ezell Ford, Malissa Williams, Dante Parker, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Shereese Francis and many more. The real story is one the mainstream media has largely failed to address: the failure of the U.S. criminal justice system to treat People of Color-especially African-Americans-equitably.
Let me be clear here: I do not condone the civil unrest. I recognize that there are people who suffer emotionally and financially when their property is destroyed. At the same time, I do not fully condemn the civil unrest because I understand that it is the last option open to an oppressed people who have had their lives and their rights trampled upon by an unjust criminal justice system enabled by the government. When black person after black person continues to be the victim of disproportionately harsh sentencing laws, racial profiling, and police brutality…when peaceful protests and lobbying politicians doesn’t work…when writing and blogging and being an activist does not work to change the system-what then? What is left? How can positive change be accomplished when all other avenues have been exhausted? It is this understanding that led Martin Luther King, Jr. to say the following about riots:
Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act. This may explain why most cities in which riots have occurred have not had a repetition, even though the causative conditions remain. It is also noteworthy that the amount of physical harm done to white people other than police is infinitesimal and in Detroit whites and Negroes looted in unity.
A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’
The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.
The outrage felt by African-Americans is the result of centuries of discrimination, oppression, disenfranchisement, and economic inequality that sustains the engine of white supremacy. USAmericans must confront the deadly legacy of racism this country was founded upon and continues to benefit from (with an eye to demolishing that system) even if it means white USAmericans lose a bit of privilege. Until then, equality for all citizens will continue to be nothing more than a dream for all but a privileged few.
*For the pearl clutchers concerned about property damage, I have two things to say:
- Your priorities are deeply screwed up. You’re hand-wringing over property damage, but where is your concern for black lives? Why are you not outraged over the mass incarceration of black bodies? Why aren’t you similarly angry over the disproportionate levels of police brutality experienced by African-Americans? Why do you care so much more for property than human beings?
- Given your concern for property, if you would focus your attention on dismantling the engine of white supremacy, fewer and fewer African-Americans will reach the point of desperation whereupon they choose to engage in civil unrest.