Baltimore is a scene of chaos as rioters converge on the city’s streets, attacking police officers and looting stores in a frenzied state of unrest rivaling that of last year’s demonstrations in Ferguson. What began as a protest of police violence in the name of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died from a severe spinal injury sustained during his April 12 arrest, has quickly escalated into an ongoing brawl between the overpowered local law enforcement groups and enraged masses. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on Monday, imposing a city-wide curfew and mobilizing the National Guard in hopes of preventing further damage to the area and aiding the police, 15 of whom are currently wounded, in curtailing the rampant violence. To add to the turbulence of the situation, threats of a systematic gang annihilation of the police force are breathing a sense of paranoia into not only the crisis in Baltimore, but also the prospects for continued reactions to racial tensions in the U.S. in general. It seems, over the course of this decade, that with each act of police brutality aimed at the black community, public responses grow increasingly volatile—is the country, then, spiraling into a place of Civil Rights era conflict? Can the underlying social injustices that are to blame for this outburst be weeded out before irreparable cultural divisions are drawn?
Deemed a “senseless act of violence” by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Obama Administration, the riots stemmed from harmless peaceful protests over the weekend and morphed into destructive mobs on Monday, the day of Gray’s funeral service; Lynch, who is encountering this incident just after being frustrations pent up within the city’s Black community, then it is evident that the flaws in Baltimore’s law enforcement system, which have led sworn into office on Monday, also noted in her official statement on the crisis that rioters are doing a “disservice to his [Gray’s] family, to his loved ones, and to legitimate peaceful protesters who are working to improve their community for all its residents.” It’s true that the riots are proving detrimental to the health, seemingly, of every involved party—the police are attacked with rocks and bricks, the protesters with pepper spray and tear gas—and that this sudden “war zone” is crippling the functioning of the troubled community, one fraught with crime, poverty and hazardous racial conflicts, that these protests were originally seeking to protect. Children, whose ability to go to school is jeopardized by the unsafe conditions, are being forced to remain at home, and the University of Maryland has shut down its campus. The Mary Harvin Transformation Center, a neighborhood building currently under construction that was supposed to, as its website states, provide “…a community based organization that supports youth and families with the goal of assisting them in their quest to move towards quality living,” was set ablaze by juveniles, along with a nearby CVS and smaller stores in the downtown Mondawmin Mall. A local business owner was dragged from his store and beaten by looters in the midst of the riots. Bemoaning the needless carnage, Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. Young said, “These are thugs who are seizing upon an opportunity to show their anger and distrust and frustration with the police department, and this is not the way to do it.”
What is the “way to do it,” exactly, when “it” covers such an expansive problem? If these riots are simply a physical manifestation of the for cracking beneath the stress of years of hopelessness and oppression. The population that to this explosive outpouring of animosity and rebellion, have been left festering for too long. Over the course of the past 10 years, Americans have been spectators to a relentless series of horrific acts of discrimination against minority individuals, accepting the continued deprivation of Black bodies as an aspect of 21st century life embedded into the fiber of our social structures. The recurring instances of police brutality that resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell and others have been laid out for the public to evaluate and contest, and yet, despite the rallying cry that “Black lives matter,” hopes for the eradication of police abuse are shown continuously to be powerless against deep-rooted institutional prejudices; increased pressure on the government to address and resolve these problems has inspired solutions such as body cameras for law enforcement officers, but ultimately, this is an issue of attitude, not execution, and an easier means of convicting unjust policemen, though necessary, will not reverse the tradition of mistreatment. After all, in many cases, the startling behavior of the officers in question have been captured by witnesses and spread through the media without any real consequence other than popular outrage.
And with the outbreak of these riots in particular, the attempts at calmly protesting the circumstances surrounding Gray’s death have been undermined by the fruitlessness of recent fights for equality. While the destruction inflicted on the community by rioters and vandals is, without question, hurting the efforts of protesters and inhibiting any form of recovery or peace within the city, the mobs can hardly be criticized is directly influenced by an issue cannot be expected to mirror the rationality of those who are detached from it; in this vein, the clashing 1960’s principles of civil disobedience and defensive violence are reappearing in the spectrum of reactions displayed on the scene in Baltimore. While some supporters of the riots sympathize with the hardships placed on African Americans and recognize the violence as an apt response to this, most officials are decrying the situation as absurd, immature, rash and totally avoidable—Governor Hogan said, “Look, people have the right to protest and express their frustration, but Baltimore city families deserve peace and safety in their community, and these acts of violence and destruction of property cannot and will not be tolerated.” But what about the acts of violence occurring at the hands of racially biased police departments? Do they not pose a long term threat to the wellbeing of families in affected communities?
In April 1968, similar riots erupted in Baltimore and throughout the nation as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and historians claim that the city has yet to truly recover from the consequent devastation. Almost 50 years later, the same process is playing itself out. Although the country has evolved in the decades since, is enough being done to quell the hatred and discrimination that are the root causes of racial conflict? Or has the nation become too complacent to create meaningful reform, accepting that, over the course of the next 50 years, prejudice and abuse will retain their bloody place in society?
—Emily Sayer ’18 is a student at Vassar College.