With thousands of law enforcement officials and National Guard troops enforcing a curfew, the streets of Baltimore were mostly peaceful last night. But the disturbances of the last two days have prompted a probing national conversation on Black despair in America—a conversation that extended well beyond Black people on social media to include national leaders and the mainstream media.
This immediately leads to an obvious question: Will any of the talk lead to actual change?
Perhaps because Baltimore is much more of a known entity to most people, the conversation began much more quickly than when the community of Ferguson exploded after the death of Michael Brown and the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who killed him. The poverty and frustration of the Black community in Baltimore, just 40 miles from the nation’s capital, is such a familiar phenomenon that it was chronicled in a popular television series, HBO’s The Wire, making it an intimate part of American pop culture. And before The Wire, there was the highly acclaimed 1990’s show Homicide: Life on the Streets, starring Andre Braugher and chronicling homicide detectives inside the Baltimore police department. Both shows, incidentally, were created by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon.
The death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray 10 days ago at the hands of Baltimore police was the powder keg that brought the Black community’s decades of rage quickly bubbling to the surface. After a week of peaceful protests that included thousands of local residents, on Monday following Gray’s funeral the anger exploded into less socially acceptable forms of demonstration, such as burning buildings, destroying cars and looting. Many observers faulted city leaders for shutting down public transportation and then letting high school students out of school with no way for many of them to get home—leading to many of them joining in the uprising.
Almost immediately, a debate ensued on many platforms about whether the Black community in Baltimore had a right to these particular expressions of anger. While most commentators felt the need to condemn the violence and the looting, many people at the same time said they understood where it was coming from. Even President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid engaged in sociological analysis—though the president felt the need to join in the name-calling by first condemning the “criminals and thugs who tore up” Baltimore.
But in many ways the commentary of Obama and Reid underscored the incredible frustration felt by Black communities across the US. Here were two of the most powerful men in the country talking about the poverty and hopelessness of a community less than an hour away from where they stood, sounding as if they were speaking of a people in a far-off land who they had no ability to help. If Obama and Reid appear helpless to assist the Black residents of Baltimore, how can those residents not feel hopelessness and palpable anger?
Clearly, if change is going to come to Black communities like Baltimore, it must come from within. Waiting for leaders who are part of the system that has oppressed them for generations is praying over fool’s gold.
“Since Ferguson and the task force that we put together, we have seen too many incidences of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals — primarily African-American, often poor — in ways that raise troubling questions,” Obama said. “It comes up, it seems like, once a week now. Or once every couple of weeks. So I think its pretty understandable why the leaders of civil rights organizations, but more importantly moms and dads, might start saying this is a crisis. What I’d say is this has been a slow rolling crisis.”
“This is not new,” he said. “And we shouldn’t pretend this is new.”
Obama said police unions needed to work with communities and “acknowledge that this is not good for police.”
“We have to own up to the fact that occasionally there are going to be problems here,” he said.
But he said the change must go beyond law enforcement.
“We can’t just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul-searching. I think there are some communities that have to do so some soul-searching. But I think we as a country have to do some soul-searching,” he said. “This is not new. It’s been going on for decades. If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only help the police, we’re going to have to think about what we can do, the rest of us.”
He mentioned such things as investing in infrastructure, bolstering early education and reforming the criminal justice system as changes that could help communities like Baltimore.
“That’s hard. That requires more than just the occasional news report or task force,” he said. “If we really want to solve the problem, we could, it’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant and that we just don’t pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns. And we don’t just pay attention when a man gets shot or has his spine snapped.”
Reid dug even deeper, standing up on the floor of the Senate and saying the protests are an understandable response to a system that’s rigged in favor of the rich and leaves young people with little hope or opportunity.
“We cannot condone the violence we see in Baltimore, but we must not ignore the despair and hopelessness that gives rise to this kind of violence,” Reid said. “So let’s condemn the violence, but let’s not ignore the underlying problem.”
Reid, who grew up in Nevada in a shack with no hot water or indoor toilet, added that if he were a young boy today facing similar circumstances as the young people in Baltimore, he doesn’t know how he would respond.
“Let’s not pretend the path from poverty like the one I traveled is still available to everyone out there as long as they work hard,” he said. “For hard work to bear fruit, there must be opportunity and there must be hope. I can’t imagine what direction my life would have taken without the hope of the American dream.
“It doesn’t matter if you live in Searchlight or Las Vegas, in Baltimore or rural Maryland: When there is no hope, anger and despair move in,” Reid said. “Let’s not pretend the system is fair. Let’s not pretend everything is okay.”
Reid warned his fellow senators and the rest of the country not to be distracted by riots and lose sight of the injustice that led to the riot.
“We should not let the violence perpetrated by a few to become an excuse to ignore the underlying problem: that millions of Americans feel powerless in the face of a system that is rigged against them. It’s easy to feel powerless when you see the rich getting richer while opportunities to build a better life for yourself and your family are nonexistent in your own community,” he said. “This isn’t just about inner cities. This is about the deep, crushing poverty that infects rural and suburban communities across the country.”
“It’s easy to feel devalued when schools in your community are failing. It’s easy to believe the system is rigged against you when you spend years watching what President Obama called today ‘a slow-rolling crisis’ of troubling police interactions with people of color.
“A man is dead who should not be dead. His name was Freddie Gray,” said Reid.