Freddie Gray’s funeral was Monday. The family wanted a time of peace. But Freddie no longer belongs just to his family. Once he was thrown into a Baltimore police van and removed with a nearly severed spine, he belonged to the community and to the nation.
An eruption of violence, just hours after the funeral, wasn’t only about Freddie. He was simply the trigger that set off violence in the streets: apparent looting, destruction of property, and attacks on police officers that resulted in 15 of them being injured. By evening, Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in the city and activated the National Guard.
Officials opined that the violence shouldn’t have happened. No, it shouldn’t, but it’s just the last in a very long line of things that shouldn’t have happened— a line that stretches back long before, but includes, Freddie Gray’s broken neck.
Young Mo Jackson, 22-years-old, joined a peaceful protest earlier in the day because he’s grateful that the national spotlight is finally on Baltimore. He explained to NPR that the anger in the community has been building for decades:
“This has just been a struggle. Every year, cops kill innocent people. Cops lock you up. It’s oppression.”
Jackson summed up the crux of the situation. ‘We don’t have nothing out here’ — which Includes both justice and resources.
The issue isn’t really about race. A focus on race is how we are distracted from looking at the reality. Race is how those who have few resources are baited to scapegoat minorities rather than look at the inequality by which they, themselves, are afflicted. Minorities who are poor often end up with the fewest resources, making them additionally subject to finger-pointing. It must be their fault instead of a system that rewards a few off the backs of the many.
According to a report in Slate, in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up and was arrested — called Sandtown-Winchester — the unemployment rate is double that of greater Baltimore, a third of the families live in poverty, and over half have an income of less than $25,000 a year. It is, of course, a black neighborhood and a place where, just as in poor neighborhoods all over the country, the property isn’t owned by the residents.
The poor do not have mobility. They don’t have the resources to move. They typically don’t live near jobs. They can’t afford their own transportation. But, like fish in a barrel, they are vulnerable to exploitation. When they have had enough — enough poverty, enough repression — their situations become explosive.
What is happening in Baltimore is not a recent phenomenon. Martin Luther King probably wasn’t assassinated because he was black. He was no doubt marked for death because he had started talking about economic inequality instead of race. His final endeavor was his Poor People’s Campaign. Two weeks before he died, he spoke to a union group in Memphis, saying:
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
In August of 1964, in Watts, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, police stopped Marquette Frye for allegedly driving drunk. Frye’s family members got involved when they saw that force was being used in his arrest. An angry crowd gathered and the infamous Watts’ riots were set off — 8 days of rioting that resulted in 34 dead, 1000 wounded, 4,000 arrested, and 600 buildings destroyed.
A state commission that was appointed to find the reasons for the riot concluded that the causes were “poverty, inequality, racial discrimination, and the passage of Proposition 14 [which repealed the state’s Fair Housing law].”
Riots in Detroit and Harlem in 1943, plus the Harlem Riot of 1935, all resulted in widespread destruction and all shared the same roots.
Mayor LaGuardia’s ‘Commission on Conditions in Harlem’ found after the 1935 riot that it was caused by “injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation” of the city.
Wouldn’t it be a reasonable expectation that after 50 years, 80 years, 100 years, 150 years — and after the findings of endless commissions have been published — that something would have been done? That ways would have been found to alleviate boxing minorities into dead-end communities and scapegoating them when they can’t get out?
So, no. The riots in Baltimore shouldn’t have happened. Freddy Gray’s broken neck shouldn’t have happened. So much inequality and police brutality shouldn’t have happened. But they did.
Is America going to continue ignoring the causes and blaming those caught in their trap?
There is another perspective — one voiced by 40-year-old, disabled Tony Luster as he was out in his neighborhood on Monday, watching the police. Luster said:
“All this had to happen, people getting tired of the police killing the young black guys for no reason. … It is a sad day but it had to happen.”
Yeah, people are going to be angry that he said it, but it’s a point of view that needed to be voiced. How far do things have to go for this country to pay attention to rampant inequality and divisiveness? Another Watts? Another Detroit? Another Harlem? Another Baltimore? Where does it end?
A broken neck can’t be fixed. Maybe a broken Baltimore and a broken America can’t be either. But we sure better try before the answer becomes even more extreme.