Stop school buses on their way home. Pull the children off. Shut down the subway, block the roads: intentionally strand them. As they desperately try to find new ways home, harass them until they feel so panicked they think their very lives might be in danger. Provoke them into violence. Then shout, “Riot!” March in against the children you stranded with assault weapons, pepper spray, smoke, rubber bullets, tear gas, and combat armor. Get called hero.
In a Hollywood movie, we’d call the Baltimore Police Department villains for this. In real life, we call them brave. This is what happened before the Baltimore riots.
These are the strategies adopted by the Baltimore Police Department when inciting riots they are then asked to quell. Mother Jones has the most thorough report on it I’ve seen, and it meshes with what reporters I know who covered the Mondawmin “riot” in Baltimore have told me. Kids were just trying to get home. The Baltimore Police Department systematically shut down every option they had to leave, including buses and the subway, and stranded them. The police reportedly bullied and terrorized these school children until they reacted.
The simple media narrative of “riot” this kind of reaction creates on 24-hour news networks relying on analysts housed hundreds of miles away – CNN, Fox News, MSNBC – shifts sympathies from an embattled community to the police themselves. If all we know is “riot,” then all we know is that police are endangered. It helps us get to that comfortable spot on our couch where protesters don’t have a valid complaint about the system – instead, they’re just violent. Animals. Thugs. Gangsters. There’s nothing wrong with the system. There’s something wrong with “these people.”
Now that Mother Jones and other alternative news sources (who rely on investigative reporters) have reported differently, we know that the Baltimore Police Department stranded school children and terrified them until they began to react. Police then used this as justification for marching in. When press tries to cover these advances, they are often turned back, sometimes detained or even beaten (warning: link contains graphic video).
I can tell you this – if you had pulled my niece or nephew off those buses, harassed and injured them, I’d have burned down every CVS and liquor store and anything else I could get my hands on from New England to L.A. to get them back. Here’s the thing: those kids the Baltimore Police Department intentionally stranded, terrified, and injured until they reacted? They’re somebody’s niece or nephew, daughter or son, sister or brother. Those are someone’s kids, too.
That Baltimore isn’t leveled in reaction to this is an act of restraint I would not know. That a community can still send tens of thousands to march peacefully after you attacked their children… I will not condemn the people of Baltimore, the largely African-American community protesting a long history of police violence that has resulted in millions of dollars in personal injuries, dozens of their young children dead over recent years, and no less than three human beings with their spines severed by police in the last decade – just like the injury that killed Freddie Gray, in whose name these protests were sparked. They are not animals, they are not thugs, they are not gangsters.
I don’t want to boil down a multitude of different people from different backgrounds across this country into a single group, but for the purposes of what I am about to say, I will do it for a moment:
I am in complete awe of the restraint the African-American community has shown across this nation’s history. The United States has enslaved them, brutalized them, withheld their rights, withheld their vote, lynched men, women, and children, set dogs and police and cavalry on them when they peacefully marched, shot their congregations, bombed their Sunday schools, and the police they pay to protect them now beat, sexually abuse, and murder them without repercussion. We have imprisoned their leaders and have seen their greatest shot down in cold blood.
Yet we have the gall to think African-Americans do not have the right to be mad, to think enough is enough? We have the gall to sit there and insist the kind of violent protest on which our country was founded – in part by slave owners – is overreaction in the hands of others? We have the gall to say African-Americans are inherently violent or animalistic or thuggish in reaction to being murdered by police when we celebrate our foundational riots against slightly high taxes with fireworks and BBQs in two months?
I am in awe of the African-American community’s long history of restraint in this country, their long history of suffering and turning the other cheek, their long history of not sinking to the level of those who brutalize them. We can post pictures of rioters to our heart’s content. If it had been my niece or nephew, you’d be posting pictures of me, too. If it had been your daughter or son or sister or brother, I’d be posting pictures of you.
I admire and marvel at how African-Americans have exemplified the very best virtues this country says it prizes. I look at Baltimore and I see the same restraint, a self-control and willingness to forgive. I see dozens of rioters and I see tens of thousands of protesters, focused on the goal of bettering conditions for entire communities despite individual provocations and attacks from the police, attacks even on their children. I do not know if I could be forgiving and disciplined enough to do the same in their shoes. I don’t think most of us could. When a community such as Baltimore’s marches peacefully, cleans its streets after violence, and continues to protect the very police who stranded and terrified their children days before, I have no feeling left in me but appreciation.
Thank you to the protesters in Baltimore. You are the best of us. I am in awe of your astonishing restraint.