As someone who has not closely followed Maryland politics, I will admit to being guilty of seeing photos of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake come across my news feed and quietly smiling. I hadn’t spent much time considering who she is or what she actually means to the historic city. I say this not to suggest that the explosive events of the past week prove that the mayor is of no service to her constituents, but instead to acknowledge how easy it is for us to get caught up in the idea of Black faces in political spaces as The Solution—even for those of us who’ve long since known it’s not that simple. As someone who has been both an ardent supporter and fierce critic of our Black president (who will eventually go down in the history books as our “president, Black”), I should know better than to be caught up in the glow.
Alas, as the two-term presidency of President Obama did nothing to save the lives (nor punish the killers) of Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd and Eric Garner, the presence of Mayor Rawlings-Blake did nothing to prevent the violent, prolonged death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore police. It did nothing to assure the city’s residents on April 12, when they became aware that the young man’s arrest left him in grave condition, or on April 19, when his broken body was finally granted the rest of death, that there would be #JusticeforFreddieGray outside of Instagram memes and poignant Twitter quotes.
This was made painfully clear when police union president Gene Ryan referred to early peaceful protestors as “a lynch mob. ” A lynch mob! The irony, stupidity and lack of self-awareness is at Jeff Roorda/Ferguson PD levels! When we needed to see this woman in the streets letting her people know that she was them, and that she cared, and that she, too, wanted answers, we instead saw the standard issue calls for calm that put the onus of responsibility on the rightfully outraged.
And just a few short days later, Baltimore is on fire. Hashtag Baltimore uprising. It’s here.
This fire was a long time coming and is bigger than Mayor Rawlings-Blake. She’s low hanging fruit here, and the same Black womanhood that makes some of us want more (compassion, understanding, outrage) from her in these bleak moments will allow folks on both sides of the conflict to present her as the scapegoat for Gray’s death and for the ensuing police violence and citizen uprising. I don’t want to add to that chorus, but to instead acknowledge the flaws in how she has responded her city in its most vulnerable moment. Referring to protestors as “thugs” who are “destroying the city in a senseless way” speaks to the inability of so many of us to really do the emotional and intellectual labor of getting past the good/bad binary, and recognizing how hurt and righteously indignant our people really are.
If the sight of a burning drugstore can do so much to change the perception of people who claimed to be “down for the cause” beforehand, then one can be pretty sure you haven’t done that work. If your assumption is that anyone who riots or destroys property is a “thug” and on the same plane as a violent police officer who’d beat someone ultimately to death for no other reason but “he ran from me,” then you’re still missing a few things here.
“But what does burning down your own neighborhood prove?” The same refrain our parents and grandparents heard, or perhaps parroted, when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered is on the tongues of many today. Rioting and looting are not strategic sustained action; they are cries of grief and utter despair. And while I certainly pity any small business owner or retail employee who will suffer as a result, it’s hard for me to feel a sense of moral outrage over some stolen sneakers and hair weave bringing a fleeting feeling of power or pleasure to people who have had their humanity assaulted to the point that they thought to grab sneakers and weave at a time like this.
If the sustained psychological terror of being reared in an economically disenfranchised neighborhood, babysat by a failing school, and abused by aggressive police didn’t leave you with the tools to effectively organize against state sanctioned terrorism in a way that society finds “respectable”—in other words, voting and being polite enough to say, “Please, suh, don’t kill us no mo’!”—then far be it from me to mourn the loss of Nike socks and Remy bundles and exaggerated reports of violence against police that leave out this week’s violence at the hands of police, and of White counter-protestors who attacked and berated people for the past three days on the city’s streets.
When we see images of revolution and resistance across the world, we salute them. Some of the same Black folk who clutched at pearls at the sight of a burning Baltimore—as if Baltimore hasn’t been on fire, as if The Corner and The Wire were simply the product of some White liberal imagination—will gladly cheer the liberators of Egypt and lament the struggle of Palestine with the same breath they use to imply that the Maryland protestors are no better than the police because a few cops got hit with rocks and some police cars got the Jazmine Sullivan treatment.
As my friend dream hampton pointed out the other day, American police have a fantastic PR campaign via decades of Law and Order and Cops, and society has bought into the idea that law enforcement is such a dangerous job that officers have no real choice to be consistently on edge and ready to pull a trigger to protect themselves and their truest interest: property. Laws have been put into place to make it virtually impossible in some states to hold officers accountable for murdering innocent citizens. Note the recent Baltimore Sun report about widespread police violence (and that the paper still led with “the perception that officers are violent” before explaining that, spoiler alert!, officers ARE violent.) Do you still think Malik and Keisha are “just as bad” as the cops for taking to the streets and demanding something—accountability, attention, retribution… something—in such a desperate way?
(Sidenote: Black pain and death was way more entertaining when TV writer David Simon was at the helm, amirite? Can’t wait to see how he fictionalizes this and compels the sympathy of the White moderate “stumbling block,” as MLK called them, who cried for Stringer Bell and a burned out CVS, but not Freddie Gray.)
This is the formal reminder that your city is the next Baltimore, the next Ferguson. Your son, daughter, mother or partner is one unfortunate encounter away from becoming a hashtag. While there may be “best practices,” there is no failsafe method for dealing with a police encounter. You meet a cop at the wrong place at the wrong time and you might die. Period. Doesn’t matter if you are moving weight or haven’t smoked an L in your life, this is just a Black fact. A cop may kill you, maybe even today. Did we not forget Anthony Hill’s heartbreaking tweets that were steeped in respectability politics and the notion that we have to respect ourselves before anyone else does, just days before he was gunned down, unarmed, in the throes of a mental health crisis? Are these not reasons to rise up?
An unarmed man spent a week dying after being chased by police and suffering a lethal injury over the course of a mysterious 45-minute encounter. He was one of too many to name and the ensuing chaos is wholly the fault of the Baltimore Police Department and our broken system of law enforcement in this country.
If you are more bothered by the images of stolen Enfamil and burned-out squad cars than those of highly militarized police—who were meeting children in the streets donning riot gear before a single store had been vandalized—and people treating tear gas burns, then it’s hard to take seriously the idea that you actually care about the crisis of police violence.
If you are unable to understand that the protestors who turned violent (and the majority who did not) hit the streets of Baltimore informed by near-daily reports of police killings of unarmed Blacks by officers who face virtually no chance of being punished, then your critique of their actions isn’t one we should be compelled to consider.
If the events of the last 400 years have not left you with, at the absolute least, a sense of “it’s not right, but I understand” as it relates to the utter despair that leads one to go into the streets with destruction on their mind, then you may want to reconsider the levels to which you actually understand what is taking place in Baltimore and beyond.
A verse from Langston Hughes’ “Warning” has made the rounds the last few days and it’s too perfect not to cite here: “Negroes, sweet and docile. Meek and humble and kind. Beware the day they change their mind!”
Continuing to perpetuate the myth of “act good, get treated that way” does nothing to protect us from the reality of police terror and mass incarceration, which work hand-in-hand. This is not a case for riots, but acknowledgment that they aren’t the work of thugs and ne’er-do-wells, but an SOS call. The question is, are we willing to listen? We should, because our people have finally changed their mind.
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com’s Senior Editor. Views expressed here are her own.
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