Sunday, May 3, 2015

Baltimore's Lament is Ours.


The news that Marilyn Mosby, the Maryland state attorney, has decided to file charges against the six police officers who were involved in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray is welcomed news to millions of African Americans who had all but given up hope in the American criminal justice system. Finally, a prosecutor who has decided to behave like a prosecutor, instead of a defense attorney. Skip the grand jury and go straight to a jury trial. Maybe if Robert McCulloch had done the same thing in Ferguson, we would've been spared the ensuing riots that an entire nation witnessed.

But filing a charge is one thing, getting a conviction is quite another. Just last month, officer Michael Slager of North Charleston, South Carolina was charged with murder in the shooting death of Walker Scott, an African American, after a traffic stop. Even now, there are some legal experts who are speculating that Slager will not be convicted, citing the enormous burden of proof prosecutors have to overcome in such trials.

But while Mosby's decision is a step in the right direction, it is hardly the cure for what ails that city and hundreds like it. Millions of viewers tuned in to watch the streets of Baltimore turned into a war zone, and what should've been an opportunity to talk about poverty and racial injustice, instead was turned into a wrestling match between those who called the protesters "thugs" and those who thought they were innocent babes out for a stroll in the night-time air. This was one instance where both the Right and the Left got it all wrong.

For the record, the violence in Baltimore was unacceptable. Looting and burning stores, throwing rocks at cop cars and destroying private property is not an acceptable response to anything, much less something as important as what happened to Freddie Gray. Not only isn't it acceptable, it is completely counterproductive to the overall aim, which should be social and political justice, not just for African Americans but for all people stuck in poverty. Without quite realizing it and perhaps without quite intending it, those who took part in such acts of violence, did not help but rather hurt the cause they were fighting for.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Selma, he didn't burn down the city; instead he protested peaceably. The result was that the overreaction was left to the authorities to commit. America got a front row seat to Jim Crow and was rightly repelled by it. King understood that violence only exasperated tensions and gave fuel to his opponents. Leaders in communities of color would do well to remember his wisdom going forward.

But while it is only right to condemn the senseless violence that took place in Baltimore, all of us need to stop pretending that these riots somehow occur in a vacuum. There is a direct correlation between what's happening in cities like Ferguson, New York and now Baltimore and the growing sentiment within the minority communities in those cities that the criminal justice system has abandoned them. When a police officer clearly chokes someone to death and he isn't even indicted for negligent homicide, the message could not be any plainer: You're on your own.

No doubt this is the predominate view of many African Americans in the country today and, sadly, they are right to feel that way. The police, who are sworn to defend and protect the communities they serve, are seen by them as nothing more than execution squads who doll out death with impunity in their neighborhoods. And while I fully realize that the vast majority of cops do not behave in such reprehensible ways, that is of little consequence to the Eric Garners, Walker Scotts and Freddie Grays of the country.

To those who would prefer to assign blame here to the breakdown of the black family, I would point out that black families were very much intact in the 1960s and that didn't stop cops from turning hoses on them or hanging them from trees; nor, for that matter, preventing Watts from burning to the ground. More than fifty years have passed since the passage of the Voting Rights Act and states across the country are taking steps to undermine the rights of minorities to vote by enacting draconian suppression laws. And yet some still wonder how a people so deplorably treated could lash out so violently. When a people lose hope and faith in their government, sometimes their only recourse is to take to the streets.

It is the ultimate irony that a nation that was born out of a violent uprising against an oppressive and tyrannical government, cannot comprehend the depths of despair among African Americans today. They represent 13 percent of the country's overall population, yet comprise 60 percent of its prison population. For every dollar a white earns they make only 61 cents. The unemployment rate for them is twice what it is for whites and in some cities like Baltimore it is even higher.  Adding insult to injury, they are viewed by some cops as mere targets in a shooting gallery.

Until and unless America is prepared to take a long and painful look at its history and come to terms with it, I submit we have not seen the last of these uprisings. Indeed, should the six cops responsible for Freddie Gray's death walk, I fear for what might happen to Baltimore.

We have avoided dealing with this wound - this original sin, if you will - long enough. It is high time the nation ripped the scab off and let the puss drain out. Only then can we disinfect the wound properly and allow for the healing that is three centuries overdue to take place.

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