by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
April 30, 2015
THE FIRE THIS TIME: BALTIMORE WAS NOT AN ABERRATION
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- One of the first photos I saw from the unrest in Baltimore this week was of a black youth with his arm cocked as he prepared to throw a stone at a phalanx of police in riot gear.
It looked like a picture from the Inifada in Jerusalem. Or an image from the streets of Belfast at the height of The Troubles in the 1970s. Ot Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968 during the uprisings against their Soviet occupiers.
What I was seeing was people who were rising up against an occupying power and lashing out against the daily assaults to their dignity.
Police violence directed at people of color has become an epidemic in the United States. More than 2,000 people have been killed by police since 2013, and that is only a estimate, because there is no comprehensive federal database tracking people killed by police.
Black males of all ages are being killed by police with mind-numbing regularity. But it is more than just the high profile cases of black males killed by police. It is those daily assaults on one's dignity - the knowledge that you can be hassled by the police for any reason at any time, simply because of your skin color - that is stoking the anger of black Americans.
The death of Freddy Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died after his spinal cord was nearly severed while in police custody after being arrested for running, was the catalyst for this week's unrest.
But Gray's death was only latest episode in a long history of police violence against black people in Baltimore. As The Baltimore Sun reported last year, the city out nearly $6 million since 2011 to settle more than 100 police brutality lawsuits.
Then there is the grim arithmetic of what life is like for African Americans in Baltimore, courtesy of Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
That is one of the highest racial disparities in the nation, and one reason why the United States has the highest number of its citizens in the criminal justice system of any nation in the world.
As for the tut-tutting over smashing police cars, looting stores, or throwing bricks, and all the well-meaning invocations of Martin Luther King Jr., it's worth remembering what he said during the urban riots of the 1960s. He correctly pointed out that it was "morally irresponsible" to condemn riots "without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. A riot is the language of the unheard."
Or. as commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic this week: "When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con (in the name of) the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community."
You cannot call on protestors to be peaceful when the response to dissent looks like the Israeli army on the West Bank, British paratroopers in Belfast, Russian tanks in Prague, or U.S. Marines in Fallujah.
You cannot forcibly deny humanity or democracy to a group of people, respond to their angry protests with violence, then turn around and condemn the protestors as "thugs" while ignoring the complaints that brought people into the street.
Our nation seems to have never learned the lessons of the great urban riots of the 1960s, when Watts, and Detroit, and Newark went up in flames. White America acted surprised when it happened again in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. White America thought Ferguson was an aberration.20
I fear it may be a preview of coming attractions. And it will be, until we stop bullshitting each other as a nation and finally admit that we are two separate nations - black and white, rich and poor - and do something about it before it is too late.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 35 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.