The Roots of Baltimore’s Riot

Extract from the Time magazine

Big image

The city’s eruption follows decades of systemic failure

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was in church when she heard that Freddie Gray was dead. She says she knew “immediately” that this was something more than the depressingly common passing of another young man in a troubled old city. Black men dying at the hands of police had become “a slow-rolling crisis” in America, as President Obama would put it nine days after Gray’s death. And Freddie Gray was a black man who entered a police van handcuffed and conscious on April 12 and came out less than an hour later comatose, with his spinal cord nearly severed.

A “Slow-Rolling Crisis”

For Nine uncomfortable months we have wrestled in new ways with our centuries-old conversation about race. The roots of these days of rage, whether in Ferguson or North Charleston or Baltimore, reach down through decades of compounded failures. Each flash point is different; so was each community’s response. But there is something universal about them all. As Obama noted, during remarks in the Rose Garden that ranged from determined to despairing, “I think we, as a country, have to do some soul-searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades. And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities,” he continued, in Baltimore and elsewhere “you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty.” The parents, “often, because of substance-abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves, can’t do right by their kids.”

Baltimore’s troubles persist despite the rise of a generation of black leaders and a highly diverse corps of public employees. The mayor, the schools’ CEO and the police chief are all African Americans, and 48% of the police force is black. Indeed, Baltimore has always produced strong black figures, from the religious leader Mary Elizabeth Lange to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (who once lived in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray died).

Signs of Hope

The city passed a tense but mostly peaceful night after the rampage of April 27, but officials were taking no chances. School was canceled, and after postponing two games, the Orioles played inside a shuttered Camden Yards on April 29–the first time a Major League Baseball game has ever been closed to the public. Somehow, given all that is true of Baltimore and all that has fed the nation’s slow-rolling crisis, it seemed too much to hope that the worst might be over.

The men and women who leaped to defend and repair their neighborhoods are the agents of hope that Baltimore so desperately needs, and theirs is the energy that might be harnessed to meet the daunting challenge of what comes next. Obama was right when he said “there are police departments that have to do some soul-searching,” and Baltimore’s is obviously high on the list. But as he went on to say, our communities–and the whole nation–have soul-searching to do as well. We might start by noticing not just what went wrong in Baltimore but also what went right.