Future students of race relations and police brutality in the United States may look back upon two distinct periods: the country before Michael Brown’s death and the country afterwards.
Since the shooting of the unarmed teenager by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson last August, massive protests have taken place across the United States and further afield. Baltimore is the latest city to rise up in protest against the killing of innocent civilians by overly aggressive and racially prejudiced police. On the 12th of April, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was violently arrested by the Baltimore Police Department, and loaded into the back of a police van, where he subsequently suffered fatal injuries. Six police officers have been arrested in connection with Gray’s alleged murder. Charges filed against them by Maryland State Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, range from false imprisonment to assault to second-degree murder.
Freddie Gray is not the only victim of Baltimore’s police force. Baltimore paid $5.7 million in court settlements to victims of police brutality between 2011 and 2014, according to the Baltimore Sun. Conor Friedersdorf has written: ‘Years of abuses are every bit as egregious as what the Department of Justice documented in Ferguson, Missouri, and as deserving of a national response’. Many of the problems in the police-community relationship emanate from the drug war which has been aggressively waged in Baltimore. Although disproportionately affecting black people, as is common throughout the country, the fact that three of the officers charged in the Freddie Gray case are African-American hints at a more nuanced state of affairs. David Simon argues that is as much a function of class and social control as it is of racism.
Regardless, along with other factors, such as police militarisation, the drug war has served to further undermine the association between police and community. The results are shocking. Along with extremely high levels of incarceration for victimless crimes such as possession of drugs, many people are losing their lives at the hands of domestic police forces: 400 already in 2015. The issue is one both of police brutality against citizens and undue targeting of black people in a patently racist manner.
It is in this context that riots are taking place in Baltimore and elsewhere, and they are fully justified. Those who condemn looting, the breaking of windows, and the burning of cars and buildings serve only as apologists for the assassinations of innocent Americans by police forces supposedly there to protect them. It is absolutely right to revolt against the injustice being carried out, particularly against the black community. Systemic change is required and history shows us that will not occur without sustained pressure and protest by those suffering and those who sympathise with them.
There are those who cite Martin Luther King as the leader of a non-violent movement who would not approve of the so-called riots in Baltimore. No one is arguing that there isn’t a place, indeed a necessity, for peaceful protests as the primary means of confronting the injustice facing black people, but as King himself said, a riot is the language of the unheard. He also said:
‘The cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro, . . . What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that many segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity‘.
These quotes are from 1966. They could be made today.
There are circumstances in which it is legitimate to protest in the manner that has been seen in Baltimore since Freddie Gray’s death. Extraordinary levels of incarceration for victimless crimes, racism and brutality in the police force, and a society that remains startlingly unequal in terms of both class and race are such circumstances. It is the police who brought violence into the equation with their assassinations of unarmed American citizens. It is the police who came to Baltimore ready for a riot, with the National Guard called in, and military equipment more suitable for the battlefield on the streets of Baltimore. It is the police who placed a curfew on citizens in Baltimore who do not possess a ‘Peacekeeper’ badge, in a sort of bizarre and disturbing real-life amalgamation of George Orwell and The Hunger Games.
Here’s hoping the protestors ignore that curfew and turn out in force throughout the next few days and weeks, exerting pressure on the American Government to finally make meaningful and drastic change.