Isabel M. Estrada-Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
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.
― Martin Luther King Jr.
The Other America, March 14, 1968
In today’s Morning Edition, in NPR, Steve Inskeep reported that Baltimore is not Ferguson. Here’s what it really is. I was rather surprised at the angle of this report. I understand the desire to showcase what Baltimore is, in general, and how Baltimore residents are, also in general.
The idea of not adding Baltimore to a list of cities where “high-profile deaths of African-American men involving police” occurred is somewhat silly. Of course it belongs in that list, and of course, every one of those cities is a particular place and each of those deaths a particular story. Each of them are, also, part of a much larger, national story about many things, including poverty, racism, police brutality, disenfranchisement and lack of accountability for those who are supposed to hold us accountable.
Inskeep chose instead to focus on the wonders of Baltimore, “the greatest city in the country,” which are many.
However, the greatest city has had such an epidemic of police brutality that just the payments to settle claims could rebuild every torn building from Monday’s violence.
So, the greatest city in the country is not as great for everyone. As Inskeep knows, many of those places he visited are rife with poverty, with the crime that usually assails impoverished and under-served areas, with the unemployment and lack of real investment that creates that poverty and with the over-policing necessary to continue to buttress the coffers of those profiting from the war on drugs.
Those friendly residents, those residents cleaning up the city after a few looters, wrongdoers and just others swept in the irrational sentiment of the moment messed it up – not that you would know it was a few by the front page pictures and headlines in newspapers and the TV visuals – those residents are always there. That is where they live. The majority of them are poor and decent. They work their tails off in low paying jobs and have to send their kids to bad schools that will end up keeping them tied to the same cycle of misery.
All of the sudden, the media have found those “decent residents,” “those nice black people,” “those who are torn and ashamed by the acts of the looters.” Those residents have always been there. Usually, the media and the politicians call them takers, welfare queens, lazy bums that don’t want to work. Those are the people to whom we aim the policies to further humiliate them. Those are the ones we despise when we talk about food stamps and try to deny them any support and make them pay for that meager help with a high price in pride.
Are there criminals among them? Oh, yes, there are. There are criminals everywhere. We would do well to remember how one becomes a criminal: by violating a rule that may have been unjust to begin with…and by not having the money or the connections to defend oneself.
But now those are the good people. They are not looters. I was waiting for someone to say they were the good Negroes. The media even paraded the video of a mother slapping her son and dragging him away from the riots with a slew of bad words. Usually, they would have used that same imagery to show how violent blacks are and how they raise their children with such unkempt demeanor. But this time, that image serves their purposes, so, it becomes exemplary.
I know what many black mothers like me thought of that. I didn’t watch the video; the first still image revolted me because I suspect what she felt; black mothers have been feeling that for a long time: fear, terror. She knew he could get killed if he was caught. She knew his record would be tarnished forever as it doesn’t happen to white kids who riot after their team loses a sports game. We have slapped our black sons hard in front of the white master for long enough, because we think that would protect them from the much harsher and definitive slap from the master. We have done that even when we knew in our hearts it was unfair.
The last interviewee, the mother with a six-year-old boy, did not say: “I am afraid for my son since Monday (when the riots happened).” She said: “I am afraid for my son EVERYDAY.” Why do we think that is? Would it be, perhaps, because she knows her son could be walking the streets and in the next scene be in a hospital bed with a severed spine after a brief encounter with the Baltimore police?
Don’t get me wrong. She is also afraid because she knows the poverty and crime that surrounds her. But crime is not a black thing you wouldn’t understand. Crime is a poverty thing we don’t want to understand. That kind of crime, that is. There is the other crime of those who loot the environment, the savings of working people, the real estate market, the banks, the governors’ mansions…but I guess that’s a different thing altogether.
Apparently, there are reasons people riot, and injustice and despair seem to be somewhat at the top of the list. In 2011, as we were trying to understand riots in the UK, Dr. Ken Eisold wrote in Psychology Today:
This is not to justify the behavior of the mob, but to recognize that we all can so easily become “hooligans” ourselves. To be sure, delinquents and petty thieves can easily join in under the cover the mob provides. But riots do not rely on criminals or “criminality, pure and simple.” Thinking that way, though, can distract us from the underlying conditions that give rise to such events. They can be appeals to be heard, when normal channels don't work. They can be eruptions of rage, when frustrations boil over. They can be expressions of hope that things could change. And they could be all these things - and more.
No, Baltimore is not Ferguson. But for the poor, black neighborhoods, it may as well be.
Riots are more complex than "criminality, pure and simple."
DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.