The Need for Compassion Amidst Chaos
I’m sure everyone has seen the events that have played out after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore over the past few days. What had started as peaceful protests has erupted into riots throughout the city of Baltimore. It doesn’t take a person of particularly high intellect to rebuke or have utter disdain for the actions of those who go about destroying the businesses of hard working individuals and have no connection to the death of Freddie Gray or the actions of the police department. Being part of a family owned small business, my heart reaches out to those who have lost what takes years of hard work, sweat and tears to create. With that being said, to completely understand any situation, especially one with such high levels of tension, we must try to understand all aspects of the situation; more especially the darker, more heinous side of the moral landscape we find our selves traversing when evaluating situations like these.
In relation to the events that have occurred in past 24–72 hours, I feel that there has been a lack of effort on the part of the media to provide viewers and readers the ability to view the situation objectively and understand the root cause of the problems we are seeing in Baltimore today. Based on the majority of mainstream media reporting, one would be lead to believe that the destruction of Baltimore by looters and rioters is a function of the perceived lack of justice or accountability in the death of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore police department. However, I would argue the problem is much deeper, more systemic and harder to digest than the relatively palatable narrative we have received so far. The reaction you are seeing in the streets of Baltimore is not simply an irrational and violent response to civil injustice in black urban communities, but a culmination of decades of frustration stemming from poor education, housing discrimination, poor economic opportunities, and criminal injustice. When any group of people, regardless of race or background, are not educated properly or provided with proper avenues of expression, violence is very a predictable outcome.
The Baltimore educational system, which is 64% black, has been riddled with controversy over charter vs. non charter schools, budget deficits and failing public schools, so much that in 2007 Baltimore schools received a D+ rating from Baltimore citizens in a poll conducted by the Baltimore Sun. Along with failing public school systems, Baltimore has fallen prey to the national trend of charter schools being placed in more affluent, better funded (via tax dollars in newly relocated districts), and predominately white suburban communities; thereby placing the already failing and disparately funded public schools in urban communities at a further disadvantage to provide quality education for the students attending. A broken, poorly funded, and routinely dysfunctional public school system historically functions more as an “institutional daycare” than an academic institution that educates children regarding options, which they can utilize to channel their frustrations and concerns effectively.
The economic situation in Baltimore is arguably even more frightening by providing even starker evidence of racial inequality and lack of opportunity in the black community. The recent financial crisis, fueled by a market flooded with financial tools that used toxic subprime mortgages, which were disproportionally targeted towards minority communities, shows just how easily racism can creep into our seemingly impermeable system of economics we know as capitalism. It has been shown that black neighborhoods accounted for more than 48% of the subprime mortgages, while white neighborhoods accounted for only about 8% of the subprime mortgages in Baltimore. In addition, the highest rates of foreclosures were seen in subprime mortgages that were owned by homes in black neighborhoods, accounting for about 57% of total foreclosures. Job reports show equally deplorable numbers. At the age of 22 in Baltimore, 84% of whites without a high school degree were employed in Baltimore, compared to a mere 40% of blacks. At age 28, nearly 50% of white men without a college degree were employed in skilled trade labor (industrial work, construction, etc.) compared to 15% of blacks in Baltimore. Recent studies have also found Baltimore to be the 17th most segregated city in the country. The effects of housing discrimination and lack of economic opportunity can be observed throughout in the country in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. We have seen violence and social unrest in each of these urban communities between both the police and the residents. Baltimore is not immune and is not an exception.
Finally, we arrive at the issue of civil injustice. I am not alone in the belief that the government’s primary role is to protect the rights of its citizenry, thereby creating an environment conducive to the growth of any given community within its borders. And for the most part, the government has done enough to allow our great society prosper and grow to the stage that it is at currently. But the dark truth is that not all citizens have been able to benefit from protection provided to us from our government by our constitution.
The government, especially in its manifestation as the police, has a sinister history in using its power to prevent minorities, often specifically blacks, from having the same rights as millions of other Americans. We are all too familiar with Jim Crow, the established system of abuse and exploitation, which plagued the south for decades until its eventual abolishment in 1964. But even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, police brutality amongst minorities still continued throughout the south, much of it forgotten and undocumented. We’ve had instances where apparent and outright abuses of power have been properly displayed by the media, (e.g. Rodney King) but a large majority of it has been left largely unexposed. The knowledge that young black men have a radically different experience with law enforcement is a trope that has been well understood in the black community for decades, often times expressed in popular culture in the forms of music and comedy (Dave Chappelle, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur). It wasn’t until the age of mobile phones and social media that the rest of America has been able to peer into the reality that minorities experience in this country on a day-to-day basis. Study after study has supported these notions, ranging from the Federal investigation results of the Ferguson Police Department, to the studies showing the discrepancies between white and black police stops with the stop and frisk policy in New York, and the well known disparity between whites and blacks when it comes to drug offenses, prison sentences, and the death penalty. These results are seen in urban areas across the nation, including Baltimore. At this point, the facts are undeniable and the damage has been vast and extensive. The reality that many minority youth face every day in urban communities, just like Baltimore, is sobering at best, yet extremely illuminating. It gives us a glimpse into their experiences. When they see police, they see relatives who have been harassed and friends and family members who have disappeared from their lives. Fundamentally different experiences with police and law enforcement will elicit profoundly different responses to police presence than it would in you or I.
The Necessity of Compassion
Above all, I want to emphasize that there is absolutely NO excuse for what has happened in Baltimore over the past few days. The violence, the looting, and the destruction are ineffective and pointless. There are many brave police officers on those streets attempting to keep the peace and protect the city from diving into further chaos. Police officers are absolutely necessary to keep the peace within society and are often not applauded enough for the efforts they take day in and day out, putting themselves in constantly life threatening situations to keep our neighborhoods safe. For the most part, we are traditionally empathetic and understanding of the daily dilemma that an urban police officer faces. I’m writing to urge you to demonstrate the same empathy and compassion that we traditionally have towards police officers, and direct it towards the youth you see on the streets today. Their actions are not an irrational attempt to correct for the injustice done to Freddie Gray or his family. Instead, I argue that the youth’s response is a climax to a decades long story of economic injustice, inferior educational access, and systemic discrimination that includes discrimination in housing, lending, and criminal justice. Most of these children are raised in war zone like communities, where ineffective governmental policies and programs have consistently failed them. If we continue with this simpleminded narrative that these youth are nothing but thugs, villains, and hoodlums, we will be failing these youth in Baltimore and across the nation a second time.
As the National Guard rolls in, and a curfew is imposed, criminal investigations will be launched by the Baltimore police department just as they were in Ferguson and New York. The protests and indiscriminate violence will die down. The name Freddie Gray will fade from our memories just as those of previous victims have, until the next police shooting occurs. We will then start this roller coaster ride all over again. This cycle is not sustainable. Solutions are needed. The urban youth are desperate for answers. We as a nation will not be able to provide them with any until we begin to look at them as human beings, instead of problems that need to be fixed.
Sources for statistics and pictures are linked throughout the reading and in the picture captions.