If you’re surprised by the Baltimore riots you haven’t been paying attention

A dam has broken after Freddie Gray’s brutal death at the hands of the police
Photo: Stephen Melkisethian

Last night I followed the Baltimore riots, transfixed on Twitter until the early hours of the morning. Eerily reminiscent of what played out in Ferguson not long ago, the bitterness and the despair spilled into violence, and I watched as too many tried to explain it away as the callous actions of irresponsible “hoodlums.”

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“There’s a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t,” sings Leonard Cohen, and those lyrics were my soundtrack as I watched Baltimore police hurl rocks at rioters and kettle school-aged children, and heard appeals for peace and calm made to people who have watched too many young black men die at the hands of those who are paid to protect them.

Those plastering pictures of Martin Luther King’s non-violent protests on social media, as a contrast to last night's looting and destruction, are missing the point.

King’s non-violence has been played up in recent years as he heads toward deification. But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us on a recent trip to Montreal, “No one should think emancipation in America happened non-violently.” Criticizing the hypocrisy of those looking down at protesters as hoodlums and not as people who’ve reached the breaking point, Coates said then, “Whiteness is the right to plunder, and then to wag my finger at the people I’m plundering.”

Freddie Gray’s spine was severed while he was in police custody, and the Baltimore man died a week later. While the six police officers involved in his death are on paid leave, we still don’t know why he was arrested and why he did not get medical attention in time. Meanwhile suburban white America is pearl-clutching over the destruction of… property?

Gray’s death comes on the heels of well-publicized national cases of brutality where police officers have shot and killed unarmed black individuals with absolutely no legal repercussions. They have been videotaped planting evidence beside a dead body and choking a person to death. The city of Baltimore has paid more than $5.7 million since 2011 to settle police brutality suits, yet last night appeals were made for calm. How does one remain calm when the dam breaks, when the injustice of it all hits like a tidal wave wiping away everything in its wake?

Martin Luther King may be used as an example of peaceful protests, but he also said this: “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?”

Last night’s events were a symptom, not the disease. They resulted precisely from ongoing and relentless systemic racism. To be surprised and shocked by Ferguson and Baltimore means you haven’t been paying attention.

And all those calls for peace? They ring hollow. As Coates wrote yesterday, “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor yelling ‘time-out!’ it exposes itself as a ruse.”

This desire to label rioters as “thugs” looking for any excuse to destroy and defy authority extends past Baltimore and enters most political protests. I think of Quebec and the relentless austerity protests and the student strikes that recently turned destructive at UQAM.

The glee with which Journal de Montreal columnist Denise Bombardier wrote about the denial of bail for UQAM student activist Hamza Babou was disturbing. No matter how one feels about the legitimacy of student protests, a columnist for Quebec’s most widely read daily rejoicing at our legal system’s administration of unconstitutional pretrial punitive damage as moral punishment is horrifying.

Echoing the same privilege and sentiments in Bombardier’s column, a piece by Sun columnist Kate Hopkins compared immigrants to cockroaches hours before a fishing vessel packed with migrants capsized off the coast of Libya. The death toll has climbed to 1,000 and includes hundreds of women and children, many of whom had been locked away by smugglers.

In these three examples is a deep lack of interest in understanding why people in Baltimore have resorted to rioting, why Quebec’s university students have been protesting so loudly and for so long, and why migrants would risk their lives to reach another country.

Some people are content to criticize the tip of the iceberg without any inclination to comprehend the immensity of the massive hunk of glacier hidden beneath the surface. Underestimating that immensity has sunk ships before. But like Senegalese author Fatou Diom recently said about the migration crisis and Europe’s hypocrisy in dealing with it, “We will be rich together, or we will drown together.”

Half a century ago, U.S. novelist James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

Fifty years after the U.S. Civil Rights movement the sentiment resonates still.

Riots don’t just happen. To dismiss them as nothing more than opportunistic mayhem and destruction is to discard the truth and delegitimize the anger that rises from the harsh realization of deeply ingrained inequality.

You can’t fix what you can’t see. And you can’t see it without an honest attempt.

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