Reflections on a Race Riot

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Baltimore is burning. The recent riots, which followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, have sent the media into a frenzy of sensationalism and recrimination. For the most part, black residents in the inner city of Baltimore have been portrayed as lawless thugs eager to destroy property and harm police officers. The much greater number of peaceful protesters was largely ignored, their hand-in-hand march not exciting enough to capture  media attention.

My first reaction upon seeing bricks hurled at police officers and store windows shattered was to agree with the conventional narrative. Of course blacks should be outraged, but this was no way to further their cause etc. etc. But the more I saw and read, the more I realized that I had failed to grasp the anger and hopelessness that led to this point.

As author and activist Kevin Powell wrote, “Any people with nothing to lose will destroy anything in their way. Any people who feel as if their lives are not valued, like they are second-class citizens at best, will not be stopped until they’ve made their point.”

The death of Freddie Gray was not an isolated incident but a pattern of police behavior when it comes to blacks in America. It is a system that must be addressed, that must be rectified. It is ironic that at the very moment in history when we have our first African-American president, the plague of police brutality against blacks seems to be at an all-time high.

Many blogs and photo essays have popped up on Facebook making the point that when whites rampage, break windows, and set fire to cars, it is revelry that has gotten out of hand. When blacks do it, they are thugs and animals. When a white man guns down dozens of people in a movie theater, he is described as a brilliant student. When a black man commits even a much lesser crime, he is described as a criminal or suspected gang member.

I am not trying to excuse violent behavior. I am not saying it is right to burn buildings or loot stores. In fact, I have been disturbed by the almost unanimous public approval for a Baltimore mother shown on camera repeatedly slapping her teenaged son on the head as she dragged him away from the unrest. “Mom of the Year” she was proclaimed. Really? I wonder where her son learned that violence is the answer to problems.

Violence begets violence. When parents beat their children, their children learn to vent their anger with violence. When police officers treat black people as de facto criminals, using excessive force, threats, and intimidation on a regular basis, they are furthering a cycle of violence.

As a country, we need to deal with the endemic problems that create violence and disorder in our society. The answer is not more police or more incarceration. It is not corporal punishment to keep our children in line. The answer is to see our common humanity and to strive to make our country, arguably the greatest country in the world, a place of fairness, prosperity, and justice for all.

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5 thoughts on “Reflections on a Race Riot

  1. I don’t know how to say this without sounding racist, but here goes. For many in the African American culture, corporal punishment is viewed much differently than in “white” culture. And, really, if white kids are capable of the same types of violence, whether it’s called revelry or not, then how mothers reprimand their children has little to do with the level of violence in the sensational protests.

    I would argue that it is precisely because we have an African American president that police brutality toward and bias against blacks has become so much more evident. I know whites who are mad as hell about having a black president. I have heard, on my upper middle clas suburban block, neighbors (white) saying of Obama’s first campaign, “If that guy gets elected, there’ll be riots in the streets.” At the same time, Wanda Sykes was joking that if Oama was elected, she would go to the market and buy as much watermelon as she wanted.

    Perhaps this is a little too reductionist, but if we are in a culture where blacks are seen as criminals and, let’s be honest, they are, then why wouldn’t those charged with protecting society against criminals lash out with force against them? After all, one stole the highest office in the land on their watch.

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    • I never thought about it that way, Janice. Is this a reaction to our country – not once, but twice! – electing a black president? A backlash of sorts?

      As to the issue of corporal punishment, I don’t care what your race or culture is or how you view it. The effect of beating one’s children is often (not always) to make angry and violent adults. I am not implying that parents beating their kids led to the unrest in Baltimore, but I do question why so many public comments towards this mother’s behavior were positive.

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      • I don’t applaud the mother, either. I thought the sight of her whacking away at him was revolting. I wrote a column for the Patch about findings that corporal punishment can actually cause mental illness. I got so many comments defending corporal punishment that I was shocked. So, obviously, it isn’t just African Americans who are more accepting of it than you and I. My son and I were talking about parents’ violent reactions, verbal or physical, to children’s transgressions. I’ve always maintained that I can’t punish them more than they are likely to punish themselves. He agreed that he always felt terrible when he knew he’d disappointed us. He also agreed when I said that yelling at him would make him angry with with us and, therefore, make the issue our fault. I don’t know how you get people to stop thinking hitting someone as punishment is a bad idea.

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