Yesterday the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Chicago White Sox by a score of 8-2 at Baltimore’s Camden Yards “Oriole Park.” Normally an afternoon game in April would pass nearly unnoticed except for the fans of the teams involved and those who just love the game. But this game was remarkable, for the first time in over 140 years of Major League Baseball, no fans were in attendance. The ballpark stood empty as the teams played a game that is probably more associated with the connection that fans feel towards players and teams than any other sport. Home runs were hit and the only sound was the crack of the bat sound of the ball landing in the stands. Players could hear the raidio and television announcers as they gave their play by play and the pitchers in the bullpens could hear every word spoken by the outfielders. It was surreal and somewhat symbolic.
But the silence and emptiness at Oriole Park was emblematic of the plight of the people who live in the decaying inner cities of America, and a clarion call for us as a nation to address the root causes of what happened in Baltimore, what happened in Ferguson and what will happen in other cities if we do not take action to deal with the root causes.
The reason for this was the rioting and violence that followed in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a young African-American who had been arrested, and severely injured while in police custody and not given immediate or adequate medical attention for a spinal injury from which he subsequently died. What was Freddie Gray’s crime? He ran from the police, as far as I know he was engaged in no criminal activity and from what I understand, running from the police is not a crime.
As always there are conflicting accounts of the incident and the official State Police report has not been completed, and will probably not be made immediately available leaving his grieving family to wonder what happened and to suspicions of another cover-up. But the key thing is that we do not yet know what happened. In order to be fair I want am placing a link to the press conference of the Baltimore Mayor and Police regarding the arrest and the timeline of what happened to Freddie Gray in the police van:
The riots caused much property damage and many people were injured and arrested. The Baltimore Police and the Mayor were overwhelmed and allowed the rioting to get out of hand before requesting that the National Guard assist. President Obama called those who rioted and looted calling them “a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes,” who should “be treated as criminals.” The President also said “We have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions,” and noted that “This has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” He sought balance though and expressed a measure of sympathy for police who have to “do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise” in broken urban communities where fathers are absent, drugs dominate and education, jobs and opportunities are nonexistent.
President Obama has been criticized by those who think he has not done enough to address the numerous accounts of police violence, and those on the political right like Senator Cruz who blame him for “inflaming racial tensions.” Frankly President Obama’s plight reminds me much of the tensions that Abraham Lincoln had to deal with in dealing with the various political factions in the North during the Civil War. The issues are not the same, but the political climate is quite similar. Lincoln was somehow able to navigate through the various crisis including some that involved his closest advisors and even political allies.
American conservatives today, especially those on the “Religious Right” are quick to blame the problems on the disintegration of the family unit, there may be some truth in this but is certainly not at the heart of the problem, otherwise all the white kids from broken families would be out doing the same thing.
But the difference is that many, if not most of those white kids, even those from broken families have educational, economic and social advantages that kids in the inner city ghettos, be they African American, Mexican American or Hispanic, or any other racial or ethnic minority trapped in the hellholes of the inner cities; hellholes that were not created by them but by decades of neglect and intentional political and social policies that served to marginalize Blacks and other minorities, leaving them without hope. As such I think there is a measure of racism in the argument of American conservatives in attributing the riots to the collapse of the family unit in Black communities, which they cannot admit, but secretly harbor.
This has been going on since the 1960s at least and there are historical examples of other Americans trapped in similar situations who resorted to rioting as well, notably the 1863 New York Draft Riots which mainly involved the poor Irish immigrants who were shouldering much of the burden of the war and were trapped in similar social and economic conditions in the Irish ghettos of New York. Those riots cost many lives and because the New York Police could not control them Federal troops, fresh from their victory at Gettysburg were sent to New York to restore order.
The simplistic “answers” of the conservative pundits, politicians and preachers who seek to blame this on the demise of the family unit are wrong. As I mentioned the issue is not broken families, it is the lack of opportunity that we as a white dominated society have sentenced those who inhabit our inner cities to, a lack of opportunity that has bred a culture of despair, a culture where hope is absent and dreams die, and after seeing incident after incident of what looks like police brutality and the seeming abuse of power by white dominated police forces, people are taking matters into their own hands and are venting years of pent up anger and frustration.
Back in 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the rioting and violence that were occurring in his day. They are words that we need to heed today, because things really haven’t changed that much for those who are trapped in the inner cities. He said:
“Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act. This may explain why most cities in which riots have occurred have not had a repetition, even though the causative conditions remain. It is also noteworthy that the amount of physical harm done to white people other than police is infinitesimal and in Detroit whites and Negroes looted in unity.
A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’
The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.”
We as a society, as Americans need to deal with this. We cannot go on as a society if we fail to address the legitimate claims of those trapped by our neglect, our social policies, and our economic policies which have doomed millions of Americans to live without hope.
I pray that somehow something good will come out of this and that the silence at Camden Yards will echo across this nation and open our eyes to see our collective responsibility to address these issues, something that our political, social and business leaders seem so want to do. If we do not, what does that say about us as a nation?