In the wake of the riots that roiled Baltimore earlier this week and sent National Guard troops into the city for the first time since 1968, I don’t have lots of answers. I have a few questions, and I have a series of observations.
Raise your hand if you knew that half the residents of Freddie Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood on the city’s west side were unemployed or that one-third of the homes were vacant. Raise your hand if you knew that the neighborhood has had toxic levels of lead, enough to “poison the children and leave them incapable of leading functional lives.”
If that’s a standard you would accept for your own life or your children’s lives, raise your hand.
I once spoke to a women’s group in Baltimore. I remember making a wrong turn into an alley, hitting my brights and screaming as so many rats ran in front of the car that it was like a scene from a horror movie.
Have you ever heard of Michael Austin? This Baltimore man spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Eyewitnesses had said the gunman was 5 feet 8 inches tall and light-skinned. Michael Austin is 6-foot-5 and dark. The time card proving he was at work just before the murder went missing. Later, so did other police evidence. After Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based nonprofit group, took up the case, Austin’s conviction was overturned. He was pardoned in 2003 and awarded $1.4 million from the state.
Question: Do you think he’d rather have the money or half his life back?
Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, a Spelman College professor, wrote on Facebook that few jurisdictions have done “anything to signal that ‘law and order’ applied to police officers, too. Now, some folks are just tired.”
And they have long been tired. Seventy years ago, Harper points out, Langston Hughes’ character Simple threw bricks through store windows during the 1943 Harlem riots – caused by a white policeman shooting a black soldier. When Simple was challenged about using violence, he explained: “That is the way the Allies got (justice) – breaking up Germany, breaking up Hiroshima, and everything in sight.”
Wrote Harper: “I am not recommending violence, but it is ludicrous for anyone familiar with American history to condemn violence as a justifiable means to achieve justice when the powers that rule are unwilling to listen to reason.”
The professor noted that Simple didn’t loot. “Please recognize the difference between opportunistic looters and genuinely frustrated protesters and rioters,” Harper wrote.
Question: Who thinks looting is bad?
Raise your hand if you know what happened to the Wall Street types who broke into the American economy, exploited every financial loophole, melted down mortgages and made off with people’s retirement funds, leaving taxpayers to bail them out in 2008.
Question: Do those billions constitute opportunistic looting?
Raise your hand if you remember the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen to protest corrupt leaders, poverty, lack of jobs, and systems that brutalize citizens, leaving them feeling unheard.
Nod if you understand that while we convene grand juries, open federal investigations and debate police rights and wrongs, sometimes the human condition spills beyond that debate. And if you understand, deeply, that at some point, every pressurized system demands a release.
Lonnae O’Neal is a columnist for the Washington Post.