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Baltimore Uprising: Insisting What Happened Was Not a Protest is Delusional

Screen shot of CNN coverage on April 27

The establishment press and the ruling class did not care about the people in the community of West Baltimore until rocks and bottles were thrown, businesses were looted and police cars, trash cans and buildings were set on fire. Then, everyone in a position of power in Baltimore, the state of Maryland and the federal government—as well as pundits—had an opinion on the community outraged by the police brutality against Freddie Gray and his death. Those in positions of power suddenly claimed to be interested in the safety and well-being of this community, and that was all because the uprising had their attention.

Nevertheless, guests on CNN engaged in moralizing about how this was not legitimate protest. “There is a long and honorable history in our country of people protesting, and there does seem to be a lot to protest in Baltimore. But burning down a CVS is not a protest. That’s a crime,” argued CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

“There are no protesters out there,” Toobin also declared. “The protest is an honorable thing. Looting and criminality is not. And the city of Baltimore really disgraced itself.”

Democratic Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told the press, “There is a difference between what we saw over the past week with the peaceful protests, those who wish to seek justice, those who wish to be heard and want answers, and the difference between those protests and the thugs who only want to incite violence and destroy our city.”

In spite of the fact that police brutality and misconduct lawsuits have cost the city of Baltimore around $5 million since 2011, Baltimore Police Department spokesperson, Captain Eric Kowalczyk, asserted what happened was a result of a “group of lawless individuals with no regard for the safety of the people that live” in West Baltimore and the police officers who live and work in the area.

Neither of those messages about the uprising help one understand the source of the discontent. Baltimore police routinely treat broad swaths of African-Americans in the community as suspects and harass them. So, if these individuals do not respect the law, it may be because they see police as the law and officers have mistreated and abused them to the point where they see no reason to respect the law anymore. It may be because when people of color in their community are brutalized by police there are no officers sent to jail.

Additionally, labeling the people from the community who rise up “thugs” and refusing to call the rebellion a protest only encourages delusion when discussing why the community is being plunged into chaos. It may help the city isolate the few that were engaged in the rebellion and committed crimes, but such an uprising is virtually guaranteed to happen again if people deny there is a connection between them and the police brutality that goes unpunished.

It also reinforces a police narrative of disorder that wholly excuses nearly all of the force used by officers clad in paramilitary gear and how they may have instigated the situation.

Liz Pallia of Baltimore, in a widely shared Facebook posting, wrote:

All major activist groups were holding off on protests today, because Freddie Gray’s family asked them not to protest on the day of his wake or funeral.

Some students were allegedly planning to stage a walk-out (not a gathering protest) toward the end of the school day. Someone (zero evidence of it being students) spread a flyer about this being a “purge.”

Cops show up hours before this is even supposed to occur, wearing riot gear. They force the mall to close, and shut down all transit out of the area, which is the only way the majority of these kids can get home.

The kids leave school (at 3pm…isn’t that when school ends?). They are greeted by a hundred cops in riot gear, and forced to gather because the mall is closed and their transportation options have been taken away from them.

Explain to me how this situation wasn’t orchestrated and instigated by the police.

It would all seem to be a shining example of how those in positions of power choose to operate within a haze of willful and deliberate ignorance about the dynamic between police and the populations they aggressively police.

Huffington Post Live host Marc Lamont Hill had it right when he said, “We can’t pathologize people who after decades and centuries of police terrorism have decided to respond in this way. And we use the language of thugs. We use the language of riots. We make it seem as if it’s this morally haphazard, pathological, illogical [and] counterproductive [act].” Plus, one should not be more upset about the destruction of property than the destruction of black bodies.

Here is a description from an editorial published by The Baltimore Sun of the community where Freddie Gray lived. It should help anyone understand what was at the root of the rebellion.

The neighborhood where [Gray] lived, Sandtown-Winchester, recently made news as the census tract that is home to more inmates in the Maryland correctional system than any other. But that is not the only way in which it is exceptional. Four years ago, the Baltimore Health Department issued a community profile of that neighborhood and even in a city where poverty is widespread, it stands out. The unemployment rate there is about double the citywide average, and so is the poverty rate. Similarly, there are about twice as many liquor stores and tobacco outlets per capita in Sandtown-Winchester as in the city as a whole. Fully a quarter of juveniles in that neighborhood had been arrested between 2005 and 2009. It had the worst domestic violence rate of any of the neighborhoods the health department analyzed and among the worst rates for non-fatal shootings and homicides. A quarter of the buildings are vacant, and the lead paint violation rate is triple the city average. (Gray and his sisters suffered from lead paint poisoning as children.) The only metric the health department analyzed in which Sandtown-Winchester was the best in the city was in the density of fast food restaurants. Perhaps it’s too poor to have any.

Reverend Jamal Bryant, who helped organize Gray’s funeral service, sought to educate CNN viewers and respect the dignity of the people who were out in the streets and angry by talking about the poverty and suffering experienced daily. However, CNN host Erin Burnett was concerned this might send a bad message.

BURNETT: You’re saying you find it inexcusable and you want the dignity of the people preserved. But at the same time, when you’re saying you don’t trust the police, do you think that adds at all to the anger that you’re seeing among young people, right? They’re attacking police.

BRYANT: No, you are responding as if what I’m saying is a newfound phenomenon. When you’re considering how many people in Baltimore have had to have redress right here in Baltimore. Over $5 million has had to have been paid off for excessive force. So what I’m saying is new to CNN, but it’s not new to citizens of Baltimore who are already frustrated. And that’s why we’ve been protesting in the street. There is absolutely no reason in the world that today we should have [funeral for] a 25-year-old. So many times we look at the riot but don’t look at the root. The riot is absolutely out of order, but the root still has to be addressed by the same governor who has dispatched the National Guard, is the same governor who would not give redress to the officers’ bill of rights that have given them a kind of blue shield where for ten days they don’t have to give testimony, they can wait to have an attorney, and even what it is that they say is not necessarily admissible in court. [emphasis added]

Another CNN host, Don Lemon, who typically can be counted on to make foolish statements, as well as contributor Van Jones, suggested this was not a “riot” by people who were unheard. “The reality is in this situation voices, at least about police brutality, have been heard. Certainly, CNN and other news agencies have been giving space to these voices,” Jones said. Lemon interrupted, “For hours and hours and hours of coverage daily.” He was clearly frustrated about the time spent on this issue.

But just because CNN is showing protests and putting people on air, who are angry with the police, does not mean that these people are no longer the unheard. In fact, it may add to their sense that they have no other choice but to resort to looting and burning because they realize peaceful protests and interviews and press events on CNN are not getting through to people in power. The community may think police are still getting away with brutality and murder. They may see that power structure does not respond to their needs. It does not regard them as lives that matter, and open rebellion is required to convince those in power that they are not to be neglected.

Nonviolent protest may be better for long-term struggle and more tactically effective at winning hearts and minds, but there are white privileged people in Baltimore who could not give a shit about these people unless something is being burned to the ground. If the community cries out that “Black Lives Matter,” white privileged people out for a drink shout racial epithets, say they think protesters should be run over or chant, “We don’t care.”

None of the above is written to condone throwing bricks and bottles, setting cars on fire, burning down commercial buildings or community centers, breaking windows and stealing goods from stores. However, it is written as an attempt to promote an understanding of what drives people to rebel in the way they did yesterday—the lack of educational opportunities, absence of jobs, loss of recreational centers or after school activities, etc. And, it most certainly is an attempt to reckon with the message society sends when it aggressively criminalizes people of color and demands they answer for violence while at the same time failing to hold police responsible for their routine acts of brutality.

Here is Marc Lamont Hill on CNN, as Don Lemon and Van Jones took issue with his comments.

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

Baltimore Uprising: Insisting What Happened Was Not a Protest is Delusional

Screen shot of CNN coverage on April 27

The establishment press and the ruling class did not care about the people in the community of West Baltimore until rocks and bottles were thrown, businesses were looted and police cars, trash cans and buildings were set on fire. Then, everyone in a position of power in Baltimore, the state of Maryland and the federal government—as well as pundits—had an opinion on the community outraged by the police brutality against Freddie Gray and his death. Those in positions of power suddenly claimed to be interested in the safety and well-being of this community, and that was all because the uprising had their attention.

Nevertheless, guests on CNN engaged in moralizing about how this was not legitimate protest. “There is a long and honorable history in our country of people protesting, and there does seem to be a lot to protest in Baltimore. But burning down a CVS is not a protest. That’s a crime,” argued CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

“There are no protesters out there,” Toobin also declared. “The protest is an honorable thing. Looting and criminality is not. And the city of Baltimore really disgraced itself.”

Democratic Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told the press, “There is a difference between what we saw over the past week with the peaceful protests, those who wish to seek justice, those who wish to be heard and want answers, and the difference between those protests and the thugs who only want to incite violence and destroy our city.”

In spite of the fact that police brutality and misconduct lawsuits have cost the city of Baltimore around $5 million since 2011, Baltimore Police Department spokesperson, Captain Eric Kowalczyk, asserted what happened was a result of a “group of lawless individuals with no regard for the safety of the people that live” in West Baltimore and the police officers who live and work in the area.

Neither of those messages about the uprising help one understand the source of the discontent. Baltimore police routinely treat broad swaths of African-Americans in the community as suspects and harass them. So, if these individuals do not respect the law, it may be because they see police as the law and officers have mistreated and abused them to the point where they see no reason to respect the law anymore. It may be because when people of color in their community are brutalized by police there are no officers sent to jail.

Additionally, labeling the people from the community who rise up “thugs” and refusing to call the rebellion a protest only encourages delusion when discussing why the community is being plunged into chaos. It may help the city isolate the few that were engaged in the rebellion and committed crimes, but such an uprising is virtually guaranteed to happen again if people deny there is a connection between them and the police brutality that goes unpunished.

It also reinforces a police narrative of disorder that wholly excuses nearly all of the force used by officers clad in paramilitary gear and how they may have instigated the situation.

Liz Pallia of Baltimore, in a widely shared Facebook posting, wrote:

All major activist groups were holding off on protests today, because Freddie Gray’s family asked them not to protest on the day of his wake or funeral.

Some students were allegedly planning to stage a walk-out (not a gathering protest) toward the end of the school day. Someone (zero evidence of it being students) spread a flyer about this being a “purge.”

Cops show up hours before this is even supposed to occur, wearing riot gear. They force the mall to close, and shut down all transit out of the area, which is the only way the majority of these kids can get home.

The kids leave school (at 3pm…isn’t that when school ends?). They are greeted by a hundred cops in riot gear, and forced to gather because the mall is closed and their transportation options have been taken away from them.

Explain to me how this situation wasn’t orchestrated and instigated by the police.

It would all seem to be a shining example of how those in positions of power choose to operate within a haze of willful and deliberate ignorance about the dynamic between police and the populations they aggressively police.

Huffington Post Live host Marc Lamont Hill had it right when he said, “We can’t pathologize people who after decades and centuries of police terrorism have decided to respond in this way. And we use the language of thugs. We use the language of riots. We make it seem as if it’s this morally haphazard, pathological, illogical [and] counterproductive [act].” Plus, one should not be more upset about the destruction of property than the destruction of black bodies.

Here is a description from an editorial published by The Baltimore Sun of the community where Freddie Gray lived should help anyone understand what was at the root of the rebellion. (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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