Imagine for a moment that a man's neck was almost severed, nearly clean cut in the most painful way possible, while in the custody of the people charged with the duty of protecting and serving. Imagine that man died, alone, in a prison cell, while his cries for help were blatantly ignored. Now imagine that in the wake of that tragedy, a government had been infantile in its ability to explain even the basic details of what happened.
That's the revolting reality in Baltimore. And through it all, the dominant white response was muted. From different reaches of the Internet, prominent civil rights leaders weighed in on the travesty, offering perspectives on another data point in an ever-growing body of evidence that the police state is still being mobilized against black Americans. And sure, the death of Freddie Gray received some national media attention.
But it wasn't the concern of the average guy who looks like me. White Americans are immune to these problems, isolated from the realities of police brutality and oppression. Severed spines are a problem in the abstract, but certainly not something to get all bothered about. For some of us, the Freddie Gray travesty was another opportunity to reflect on the moral failings of the afflicted, noting that if Freddie had been a law-abiding choir boy, he wouldn't have found himself in the crunching grasp of Baltimore's police force. For others, it was an opportunity to remind the world that not all cops are bad, an impulse that's certainly correct, even if ill-timed.
But the brutal death of Freddie Gray, an example of police brutality that could have reminded us all of the dangers faced by inner-city black men on a daily basis? Well, that's just not occasion enough for us to offer an opinion.
Now imagine that in response to this one particular tragedy, the citizens of Baltimore - most of them black, but many white - rose up to question the culture of brutality that's produced more than 100 successful claims against police over the last few years. Imagine that in the midst of those protests, a debatable number of mostly young, mostly angry men smashed some windows, threw some rocks and bottles, and destroyed some property. A few of those men even got violent with those around them.
After sitting on the sidelines, silent at the lynching of Freddie Gray, you'd think that some property damage and non-lethal violence would fail to shake the conscience of the average white viewer. You'd be wrong.
It's in the defense of that property - those CVS stores owned by faceless individuals and those police cars being bashed in - that we've seen the strongest response from the dominant element of society. Social media is a good indication, but certainly not the only one. There, on sites like Facebook and Twitter, folks have spoken up about Freddie Gray for the first time. They've not come to the defense of the oppressed. Rather, they've spoken up in condemnation of those "animals," "thugs," and "criminals" who are "destroying their own city."
It's some combination of historical illiteracy and racial animus that drives the response. The prevailing white view has been tragically non-curious from an intellectual perspective. Rather than asking what might cause a people to risk life and limb in an effort to smash to bits their own neighborhoods, we've responded with a stupid, incredulous look on our faces. "Look at them," we've said. "Burning down their own city." We understand that we would never do something like that - not even when our favorite hockey team failed to win Lord Stanley's Cup. But we fail to ask that critical next question - if these people, who are in so many ways like us, would do something that we wouldn't think of doing, what must the conditions be like to drive that behavior?
To put all of the blame on the lack of historical literacy of white folks in America would be letting too many off the hook. Even if they don't know about the history of red-lining, the effects of the drug war, and how Jim Crow has shape-shifted into the modern criminal justice apparatus, many of these people would be unmoved if their eyes would open. Simply put, for them, it's racial animus that drives the boat.
But white Americans, many by their own choosing, are painfully unaware of the historical context in which a mostly-black protest in Baltimore might take place. What are these people so mad about? we ask, as if the answers are too complicated to be discerned from one extended reading of anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates or Greg Howard.
As a white man, I'm in little position to pass judgment on the behavior of people so beaten down that they have little hope. I'm certainly not in a position to offer the tired white liberal tripe, asking black folks in places like Baltimore to sit quietly and trust the system, waiting for me and those like me to rescue them through legitimate democratic means. While rioting, looting, and lighting stuff on fire is certainly not a productive way to achieve equality and real civil rights, I won't lie to these people and tell them that by doing so, they're undermining progress that might have been made through legitimate protesting.
That's because I understand the unfortunate reality that powers this kind of destructive protesting. That is - these people are aware in a way I can never be aware, that whether they choose to jump on cars, sing Civil Rights hymns, hold signs, or stage peaceful letter writing campaigns to their local congressperson, the situation is going to stay mostly the same.
Why do you see destructive rioting and looting? It's not because people think it's the best way to get things done. It's because the people have finally come to realize that no matter what they do, nothing gets done. No matter how loud they scream, the system still crushes them under its weighty wheels. Their macro situation in many ways mirrors their individual situations. These people are expressing not just anger and frustration at another black man killed by another group of police officers. Rather, they're expressing anger and frustration at a socio-economic reality in which they are the bones and scraps left over after the best meat's been taken.
Despite living in the wealthiest state in the country, the residents of Baltimore's inner city find themselves in abject poverty. No group is hit harder than young people. In fact the child poverty rate in Baltimore is 36.5-percent, according to a 2014 report by Catholic Charities of Maryland. Around two in every three high school students will graduate, a number that is even an improvement over how things were just a few years ago.
These are young people who live in communities torn to pieces by the War on Drugs, where violence is the norm. They're young people who are considered a "success story" if they achieve what people in my community would call the base level of productive existence - graduating high school without dying or being sent to prison. They're young people who, if they were to achieve what my parents would call success, will be a story so rare that Hollywood might come calling for the movie rights. The handful of young people who escape horrible Baltimore neighborhoods and find themselves in the middle class are the exception that proves the rule.
And they're smart enough to know it. Centuries of oppression, and more specifically, decades of policies targeted at the economic destruction of black communities in places like Baltimore, have led to this reality. They're the bubbling furnace that powers the kind of frustration necessary for destructive protesting.
As a white male, I don't particularly care for looting and rioting. I wouldn't like to be one of the store or property owners who will have to replace or rebuild. But I'm forced to recognize this destruction as the final option for a group of people so systematically disenfranchised that their voices have not been heard. And I have to ask myself a difficult question - who is the worse moral monster: The young man whose hopelessness leads him to jump on the hood of a cop car, or me, a person who has acquiesced to a system that creates justified hopelessness among young people in places like Baltimore?
When we, as white folks, seem more eager to speak up in defense of property than we are to speak up in defense of another slain black man, we demonstrate that the righteous anger of those doing the rioting is justified. We show that our unwillingness to invest resources in their future is not a coincidence, but rather, the intentional workmanship of our decrepit value system, which tosses away young black men as readily today as it did 200 years ago.