Reactions to the Baltimore Riot (2015)

I have a few partly formed, preliminary thoughts about some people’s reaction to Baltimore (originally posted on my friend Miles Kurland’s page as a comment, then on my facebook page, edited.)

What I’m mainly reacting to is the constant drone of people saying that rioting and anti-state violence in Baltimore is fully 100% wrong and will have 0% positive effect. That may or may not be true, but I have the impression that most of these reactions (mainly seen by me on Twitter, which does tend to lack nuance and detail) are of the knee-jerk sort and not well thought out. More importantly, perhaps, these reactions constitute, intended or not, a rejection of reasons that Baltimore is blowing up, a kind of punching down. The larger situation may call for something other than a simplified scolding of people engaged in behavior that is shocking or disturbing.

The only reasonable position is to not approve of riots, and to speak out against them. They are violent and messy and bad press for any movement.

The only reasonable position is to openly understand that when people are fed up they will do extreme things. That is not excusing the acts, it is understanding and explaining the acts. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to applaud such acts. We actually do this all the time. As a society we support many insurrections. We even try to incite them sometimes, almost always abroad of course.

Within the range of civil disobedience, there are actions that are less extreme and more extreme. It is very rare to start at the most extreme end of the spectrum. When the less extreme acts fail to produce results, more extreme acts are understandable, and in some cases necessary. When that fails to produce results, even more extreme acts are expected once escalation starts.

I think it is correct to use the American Revolution as an example, though the parallels are not (and need not be) perfect.

The American Revolution did not start with the forced Evacuation of Boston by attacking the established legal authority (the British military) with weapons and forcing them out. That was just the first effective act. the first meaningful win by the colonists. Before that there were attempts to change laws, to change local procedures for implementing existing laws, written and spoken protests. As that happened acts of violence and repression against the colonists such as the Boston Massacre started to happen and increased. That was met with even more peaceful and academic protest sprinkled with acts of civil disobedience that did not involve interpersonal violence. That did not work either, and was responded to with acts of military actions against colonists.

Then, Lexington and Concord, a draw; the colonists arms were destroyed, two British soldiers killed. This was followed by a full on military confrontation (the Battle of Bunker/Breed’s Hill) in which the colonists got their asses kicked by a superior and enhanced British military force. That was followed by a non violent but potentially violent act by the colonists (Ticonderoga) in which arms were illegally stolen by the colonists. At any point up to this time the British could have stopped further non-violent and violent repressive acts by listening to the majority of the people but they chose not to. They were not playing fair not acting as moral actors, we say now with the hindsight of history.

Finally, the British were driven out of Boston and full on war results.

Is it the case that every illegal act, especially those that involved violence and weapons, was not justified by the colonists? Had they held out for five or 10 more years with negotiations, political acts in their various legal bodies, etc. would the British have let up? All the evidence suggests not. We don’t look back at the Evacuation of Boston as an immoral or inappropriate act. We don’t in retrospect feel that the colonists were wrong. That could be because they won, eventually, but it is mostly because they went to full on insurrection after years of trying not to. One could say “they did it right.” But, at which point in time during the early days of the Revolution and the days leading up to it could an objective observer had said that at the time?

It may well be that the rioters in Baltimore lack patience and should wait two or three years, or a decade, before acting. Or even a few months. But as far as anyone can tell, police repression of minorities and the poor has increased not decreased, or at least continues apace.

Go look a the numbers. Oh wait, actually you can’t look at the numbers because some of the key data sources have been shut down by Congress or other forces. I would like to see a full accounting of this, please post any links about police-on-people violence over the years in the comments if you have them.

We would like an academic study of violence against the population but such studies that fall under the study of gun related morbidity and mortality are no longer subject to funding, by act of Congress, and as far as I can tell some of the key databases collecting pertinent information have been shut down and made unavailable.

The argument that people should be more patient because the numbers show this or that can’t be made because as part of this repression the numbers are no longer available or studied by people who can understand and measure data quality and reporting bias, etc.

So, really, the people who are doing, passively allowing, or benefiting from the repression don’t really have the right to say that a particular response to continuous class and race repression should be or not be a particular thing. It just isn’t a realistic option.

Stating that rioting is bad, then, is a reasonable thing to say but if it is the only thing you have to say, then you are part of the problem. If you say it along with a statement that one might understand what is happening, then it all depends on what you put first, foreground, prioritize.

We may be seeing a moment of change right now, this week. Or not. Hard to say. But insisting that the status quo is the only thing that is OK, is not a moral stand. The real situation is more complex. Everybody’s got to put their big boy pants on and start recognizing that this is complex, and that identifying repressed people who strike out after decades/centuries (depending on what you are counting) of violent repression by the state and society is so simplistic that it is either full-on ignorance or complicity with that repression.

Martin Luther King condemned rioting. But he also said this:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

The photograph at the top of the post was taken during rioting in Baltimore in, in 1968, response to the assassination of MLK.

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33 thoughts on “Reactions to the Baltimore Riot (2015)

  1. That was nuanced. I have to admit I would likely have fallen into the “rioting is wrong” category if I had to offer an opinion. I now think that opinion would likely have been wrong.

  2. Does the author see these violent protests as a foreshadowing / metaphor for climate ‘activists’ frustrated by a gamed system?

  3. The comparison to the American revolution is a good one. You have to wonder at the fact that governments continue to ignore one of the most fundamental truths about human nature: the golden rule. This is central to the morality of mankind. In 1858 Reverend Theodore Parker, addressing a Massachusetts crowd about ending slavery, and he spoke of this. His remarks were echoed by Martin Luther KIng: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It also reminds me of what John F. Kennedy said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable”.

  4. I’m glad someone else realizes it isn’t as simple as, “violence is bad.” I biked just a few blocks away from much of the action last night. I saw a lot of police presence. There are rumors of new events in Owings Mills and we just got word that the office is closing early again today. A lot of the streets around here are closed and there are national guardsmen and staties all over Inner Harbor.
    https://donalfagan.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/freddie-gray-protest-riots/

  5. The businesses that were looted and burned should take their insurance money and never open up shop ever again in this community… shame

  6. There are always a range of reasons why people may join in a riot. Oftentimes, once the perception is that authorities have lost control purely opportunistic individuals join in, hoping to get free loot. There are good and bad reasons for people to be part of these mobs, and all the people in them -or the people that were part of the original demonstration are often not the same ones.

    Obviously the issue of police brutality and discrimination has been around for decades. Iits just that recently the attempts to do something about it have seemed to gain some traction (at least traction with the popular media). But case after case, where officers who seemed to behave reprehensively are let off are fueling frustration and anger. It seems that while public awareness of the issue is high, actual progress on the ground isn’t apparent to the causal viewer.

  7. Why do I get this vivid image of a wealthy, white, male Republican party leader, on being told, “These Americans don’t even have bread to eat!”, responding, “Well, then, let them eat cake.” I’m trying to picture what comes next…

    Regarding your image, what should the military do when the looters are dressed in three-piece suits and are stealing tax dollars and retirement accounts (all the while patting themselves on the back at how clever they are)? Who, really, should our police & military be pointing their guns at??

    Better question: Why don’t they?

  8. Question to those who keep attacking and focusing the rioters :

    Just how many black lives have to be murdered by racist and cruel cops with no justice and no change before you think rioting will be okay?

    Also, what would you have them do if nothing ever happens or gets noticed any other way?

    Plus would you have noticed or cared about the lives lost if the riots hadn’t happened?

    (If no, why not? If yes, then damn well prove it. Its not like it won’t be happening again tomorrow ..)

  9. Let’s be honest here. If it happened to a white man nobody would cry about it. Blacks want racism so do their civil leaders. They make millions from their own people. Jessy Jackson is a fraud and blacks don’t want the problem resolved. They like crime and food stamps and when we say something about it we are called racists. Wake up people raise your children with integrity and teach em to work rather than steal and deal drugs. Sorry the truth hurts.

  10. JTT, saying such tripe as, “They like crime and food stamps” makes you a racist (and, BTW, makes you an asshole, too). Sorry the truth hurts.

  11. “blacks want racism” LOOK AT THIS INSANE TROLL LOGIC

    “If it happened to a white man nobody would cry about it.” WHAT IS CONTEXT?????? Police brutality happens disproportionally to colored people, how can an ignorant fool like you end up on ScienceBlogs without knowing such a basic truth?

  12. Well, you don’t have to take a test to comment here … usually.

    I normally don’t allow such comments but I am not going to be selective on this post. People can say what they want. They may get an earful, tho, depending on what they say.

  13. Problem is, most of those who do/need to get an earful… Are too self-righteous to hear anything that may be said.

  14. @16 “Just spewing racism” :

    .. Blacks want racism so do their civil leaders. They make millions from their own people. Jessy Jackson is a fraud and blacks don’t want the problem resolved. Wake up people raise your children with integrity and teach em to work rather than steal and deal drugs.They like crime and food stamps and when we say something about it we are called racists.

    So you get called a racist for saying that all blacks are criminals and don’t raise their kids right and don’t want the problem of their kids being murdered by racists resolved? Gee I cannot imagine why that might be ..Oh wait actually I can.

    Self-refuting racist troll is self-refuting and racist. Or were you doing a Poe? Hard to tell.

    “Let’s be honest here.” (yeah, let’s! Are you? -ed!) If it happened to a white man nobody would cry about it.”

    Thing is, it doesn’t and wouldn’t happen to a white man based on all the actual statistics and evidence and cases we know about. If it did happen to a white man it’d be a white man who looks say, Muslim or gay perhaps. And there’d be a huge outcry and lots of people outraged and angry and they’d actually get justice. Which tends not to happen when the murdered person has black skin as you, well, haven’t apparently noticed.

  15. To all you ignorant rioters in Baltimore what did the original
    civil rights leader Martin Luther King want. PEACEFUL
    PROTESTS. He stood for PEACE. Destroying your city just
    shows how ignorant you are. I am WHITE and I believe that
    these cops have acted irresponsibly towards BLACKS in
    these unarmed killings of BLACKS. However why is it that
    BLACKS only see what they want to see and most of you thought that OJ SIMPSON was innocent JUST because
    he was BLACK. You just prove your ignorance because
    I admit when WHITES act irresponsibly why can’t BLACKS
    admit when they do. We are all part of human race so try
    to also act responsibly no matter what the color of your skin

  16. Empathy for the victims family, But when a black mayor states to just let predominately black looters just go ahead and loot and the cops cannot do a thing. WTF, go ahead and ruin businesses and hurt people and the police that protect just so others can have a tantrum. I say all of the businesses leave the town and let them do without. To top it all of the mayor needs to be removed from office not because of color but because of shear stupidity.

  17. While Rawlings-Blake chose her words poorly, it’s not at all likely that she intended at any time to encourage or justify rioters (though no doubt bottom feeders will relish believing that).

    What she said originally:

    “It’s a very delicate balancing act because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well, and we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate.”

    And her clarification:

    “I did not instruct police to give space to protesters who were seeking to create violence or destruction of property,” she wrote. “Taken in context, I explained that, in giving peaceful demonstrators room to share their message, unfortunately, those who were seeking to incite violence also had space to operate.”
    http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/baltimore-unrest/mayor-stephanie-rawlings-blake-under-fire-giving-space-destroy-baltimore-n349656

    ======
    Spotted on dailykos:
    “So, we have ‘white riots’ (because we lost the game), and ‘black riots’ (because we’re losing our lives). Guess which riots national and mainstream media choose to demonize?”

  18. … The state can thrive and plunder only if it will harm or kill you for disobediance. Of course … The police of course will fine you first but if you resist then you will be imprisoned. And if you continue to resist the police will kill you. No exceptions.

    Every law, no matter how trivial, will be enforced with violence against you. Remember those words: AGAINST ME!

    A government that operates through coercive force is also pointing its guns at you every single day. Violence, and the threat of violence, is the only way this system can be maintained. After all, how else can you enforce slavery?
    Police don’t arm themselves with kind words and flowers…

    … All this has been massively veiled through the guise of our own protection.

  19. “As that happened acts of violence and repression against the colonists such as the Boston Massacre started to happen and increased.”

    I thought the actual Boston “Massacre” concerned a small number British soldiers shooting at a mob that threatened their lives. If I recall correctly, they were tried in a local court, defended by John Adams, and most acquitted.

    The fictional Boston Massacre, as distorted through propaganda and embellishment, is of course something different.

  20. @25. Keith : I don’t think they can hear you from here dude!

    But since we can :

    “what did the original civil rights leader Martin Luther King want?”

    Civil rights and Black Americans being treated fairly and equally and having their lives matter.

    Oh & on riots specifically, MLK said :

    “But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

    — “The Other America,” 1968 ” (Emphasis added.)

    Source : http://www.salon.com/2015/04/30/fox_news_mangles_martin_luther_king_jr_9_quotes_you_wont_hear_in_the_mainstream_media/

    So, yes, its pretty clear that Martin Luther King would’ve been on the side of the Baltimore rioters here or at least that he would’ve understood what was happening in a way you seem to miss.

    “However why is it that BLACKS only see what they want to see and most of you thought that OJ SIMPSON was innocent JUST because he was BLACK. ”

    Not being black I don’t know and, incidentally, you may want to reflect on the reality that blacks are as individual as you and I and will have a range of views of anything just as we do.

    Perhaps, my guess would be , they were more willing to think OJ was innocent because of their knowledge of police frame -ups and mistreatment of people of their ethnicity over times. They knew the police could be more corrupt and less honest in their experiences than we privileged white folks know them to be in ours. Perhaps part of it was that OJ was a hero of many of them and no one whatever their colour likes to find their heroes flawed and a many respond to such a accusations with denial. perhaps there were other factors too such as the polarisation, peer pressure, media bias – ours as well as theirs, etc …

    Whatever the case, how is OJ ‘s case related to this one? Why do you feel its in anyway relevant here? Hint : It isn’t. Not in my view and I think most others anyhow.

    ” You just prove your ignorance because
    I admit when WHITES act irresponsibly why can’t BLACKS
    admit when they do.”

    What makes you think they don’t admit to getting things wrong and being irresponsible on occassion – even this one?

    “We are all part of human race so try
    to also act responsibly no matter what the color of your skin.”

    Again, what makes you think they aren’t or haven’t been trying to do so?

    I think the rioting is the exception to the rest of the lives of most of the people here – it happening because black lives are being lost to racist police brutality all the time and nothing has changed and no justice ever seems to happen. As the video linked here by #24. Douglas C Alder shows, a lot of white people riot over far less reasonable motives and causes.

  21. @30. Eamon : Yup. See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Massacre

    Eight British troops were arrested, six were aquitted and the other two convicted of manslaughter and although facing hanging had their sentences changed to branding on their thumbs.

    One of the five Americans killed and apparently a leader of them at the time was Crispus Attucks, a man of Native American/African descent who was possibly a runaway slave.

  22. to astrostevo #31. Hello once again you prove your
    ignorance . NO WAY Martin Luther King would have
    approved of blacks destroying the town they live in
    over any issue. The white cops were 100% wrong
    and I am white myself. They need to treat their
    suspects much better. Destroying innocent peoples
    property and Businesses just shows what THUGS
    they are. You are not very intelligent obviously.

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