May 17, 2015

Freddie Gray: the Beat Goes On

I drafted the following post a few weeks ago. Work commitments and other matters commandeered my schedule, and I never got around to pressing the publish button. In this short interlude, "Baltimore" has faded as a national story, which sort of makes my point.

A few weeks ago a friend asked if I was going to write about the shooting of Walter Scott. My work load since March has been really heavy, but I made a note that I should. Some time passed and then Freddie Gray was killed. By the time I revisited my notes a few weeks later, Freddie Gray had been killed and I could barely remember who Walter Scott was. Which is my primary thought in this particular post. In the period that has passed since this post was drafted, the focus has shifted from the death of Freddie Gray to the prosecution of the officers, and the rather idiotic suggestion that the local prosecutor recuse herself because her decision to seek a conviction means she's biased. There will be more to follow. There's just too much to say, too much going on, to write just one passing post about this Freddie Gray moment.

The murder of Freddie Gray is a fresh, raw wound. It's one that will either scab over and heal or be gouged wide open by the upcoming criminal prosecution of the officers. Over the past week or two, Gray's death, and the reaction in Baltimore and around the country, felt like it would dominate the news for the months to come.  It likely will not. Some other distracting event will occur, and we will lurch forward, leaving Gray and Baltimore behind. We will do so without any meaningful attempts to acknowledge, much less resolve the underlying issues that caused the officers in question to abuse and kill Freddie Gray, or to grasp and address the deep anger and frustration that comes rushing to the surface in the public demonstrations that follow these deaths.

As these events unfold, I am struck by a certain sameness. Police culpability varies from death to death. Some killings appear utterly wrong, others, not so much. But the state's reaction is inevitably the same. First, the police unions and their accomplices rush out to defend the officers and blame the victims. Plainly, they cry, Freddie Gray must have done this to himself, the officers did nothing wrong, they had no choice, etc. The government chimes in with the usual assurances that it will look into things. Eventually, little is done and it fades away. If the public responds with anger, the media leaps in to marginalize the protesters, as though expressions of public fury and hopelessness are the moral and causal equivalents of state killings.

My first thought as Baltimore convulsed was that the media battle to dictate the terms to be used covering the public's reaction was important. CNN, for instance, did yeoman's work to recast the protesters as thugs and the police as polite peace keepers, as well meaning faces of a government forced into violence by the brutality of the black mob. Thugs, in this context, obviously meant black men who appear violent, dangerous, possibly criminal, and dangerous for white people. In this mainstream narrative, protesters were either thugs; antagonists who were out there stirring up the thugs, the "good ones." The violence that precipated and then was dispatched to quell the protests was seemingly beside the point.

Parenthetically, when I was growing up white in Brooklyn, mostly in the 1970s, I heard plenty of other white people extol the virtues of black people they liked as the "good ones." It was a parallel to the back handed compliment that so-and-so was really articulate or something similar. These comments usually came from people who were utterly clueless that they were racist, and would be offended if you suggested that they were. But that's a discussion for another day.

Freddie Gray's death for many was but one more example of a state system that visits casual violence upon the poor and disenfranchised on a daily basis. (Yes, it appears to be racially driven, but that is just as much a function of racial disparity in income distribution that masks the core underlying class conflict). It became a tipping point and protests ensued. Those that cannot or will not acknowledge the legitimacy of this anger insist that this was an isolated bad act, as though nothing was going on until the agitators got everyone all worked up and the thugs started looting.

Since I'm going off on tangents, I would be remiss not to mention a viral news clip that showed a black woman encounter her teenage son while he was throwing stuff and generally protesting in a non non-violent way. The video showed her berating and smacking her son, which caused me some conflict. As a former angry young man, I am deeply sympathetic to that youngster's sense of helplessness in the face of authority, which manifests itself in a destructive rage. But as a lawyer committed to trying to work within the system (despite my knowledge that the system will not long tolerate any genuine challenges to its authority), as a parent of three kids, including one almost adult, I understand mom's reaction. I get her desire to protect and shield her son, her anger at him for putting himself in harm's way. In short, I feel for both of them.

But as for the protests versus riots story line, it is far too simple to laud the non-violent and condemn the protesters. Baltimore did not explode because Freddie Gray was violently killed by police officers. Baltimore, and the rest of the country, reacted strongly and immediately to a long-standing pattern of oppressive behavior. Not simply state supported police misconduct, but a larger, deeper, more reality in which people have no political voice, no economic power, and no hope that any of this will change. I am speaking about the lack of jobs, the lack of meaningful opportunity, the generations of helplessness in the face of local, state, and federal governments that effectively treat different people differently, that mete out a skewed form of justice that leaves larges numbers of people fearful and alienated. Over time, people's anger at real and perceived bias mounts, waiting for a triggering event.

I don't condone violence, and certainly not reactive, pointless violence. But I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent point in The Atlantic:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.
I struggled to write this post. So much is going on and on so many levels, it's difficult to be concise. But, as an opening to a post that was going to be on Walter Scott shooting who morphed into Freddie Gray while I dithered, well, it's a start.

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