Calls for calm in Baltimore ignore the language of the unheard

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible of 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.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

The timeline of events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray unfolded in a pattern familiar to anyone observing America’s recent racial tensions. First, the death of a black American — who had committed no crime and posed no risk — at the hands of white law enforcement. Freddie Gray was taken into custody after (curiously) deciding to turn and run from a police officer he made eye contact with. Gray’s repeated requests for medical attention were denied by the arresting officers, and it was soon discovered that Gray’s spinal cord had been severed during the arrest. A week after the incident, Gray was dead. The Baltimore Police Department has (absurdly) claimed that Gray’s injuries were self-inflicted.

After the death of this innocent black man came a massive community response. Citizens of Baltimore, described by Ta-Nehisi Coates as regarding the police “not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution,” overcame their fears and poured into the streets by the thousands to express their discontent with a brutal police department insulated from the consequences of its actions. Raucous baseball fans showered the protesters with racial slurs, calling the blacks “porch monkeys” and the whites “n***er lovers.” Through all this, the protests remained overwhelmingly peaceful, and largely ignored.

Two days later, the day Freddie Gray was put to rest, the protests turned violent. And while violence does not need to be condoned, it does need to be understood. Should the child who kicks rocks at a soldier be held to the same standard as the soldier who fires back? Of course not. Attempting to understand the underlying causes of the violence in Baltimore enables us, as individuals and as a society, to address America’s original sin and climb out of the mire nearly 400 years of racism have trapped us in.

But unfortunately for proponents of productive discourse, the American news media consistently fails to articulate the complexities of these issues, instead throwing up their collective hands in sensationalized faux-angst. As President Obama remarked on Tuesday, “one burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way” will be ignored. The mainstream media has latched on to the riots in Baltimore as a excuse to avoid addressing the long-standing economic, political and cultural roots of racial tensions in America. In so doing, they have fabricated a false dichotomy between non-violent and violent protests, establishing the former as legitimate and the latter as illegitimate.

Black Lives Matter, via Creative Commons

Black Lives Matter, via Creative Commons

Within this dichotomy, a protest can only be legitimate, and therefore successful, to the extent that it is conducted in terms set by the very institutions it seeks to criticize. In the context of police brutality, this both ignores and undermines the underlying causes of the protest itself. As Coates writes, those who criticize the crusade against police brutality “can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death and so they appeal for calm,” and obfuscate the true dichotomy: the violence of individuals versus the violence of the state.

Telling people they ought to act in accordance with the law is beyond insulting when the law enforcement is itself at issue. It is striking to see how many regard police aggression as the norm and angry, frustrated reactions as the surprise. Those who remained silent as courts time and again ruled in favor of the police in seemingly open-and-shut cases of horrifying brutality have no ground to stand on when they condemn the smashing of windows or the overturning of cars. As community organizer Deray McKesson reminded Wolf Blitzer, whose insistence on the illegitimacy of this week’s protests has been as consistent as it has been insulting, broken windows are not worse than broken spines. Windows can be replaced; lives can’t.

There is no level of property damage that could possibly compare to the violence America has inflicted and continues to inflict on its black citizens. There is no monetary settlement that could possibly compensate the families of the countless innocent Americans who have lost their lives to overarmed, undertrained cops. There is no small amount of irony in the fact that the journalists who claim that all protests should be peaceful are the same journalists who heralded the bombing of Baghdad as an act of “liberation.” The truth is that our politicians and pundits have no qualms with violence until they realize that appropriating the rhetoric of peace serves to preserve the sordid status quo they’ve spent decades creating.

So long as the media presents the violence of the state in one light and the reactionary violence of the people in another, they are complicit in maintaining the system of control that allows our government to act with impunity. So long as we choose to focus our attention on protests’ optics instead of their causes, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Raghav Sharma
Raghav Sharma is a writer, filmmaker, and political activist studying at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes on electoral and campaign finance issues, foreign policy, and economic affairs.

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