On Monday, Americans watched televised images of riots and looting in Baltimore, Maryland, where days of peaceful protests sparked by the killing of Freddie Gray gave way to mayhem in at least several locations. As CNN broadcast scenes of young people looting a CVS pharmacy and police cars burning in the streets, its commentators, including anchor Wolf Blitzer, criticized Baltimore officials for allowing such flagrant lawlessness to transpire. "I keep asking where are the police," he said. "They seem to be invisible." In fact, law enforcement had come under attack by high school students throwing cinder blocks, dispersed that crowd, and had officers massed at several spots, just not the particular corner where the news helicopter trained its cameras. The anchor treated truths not captured on CNN's video feeds as if they didn't exist. Americans should avoid that sort of myopia.
Many Baltimore police officers deserve to be lauded for the courage they showed Monday: They met hostile crowds and stopped them from destroying more businesses, burning more churches, and harming more people. Even as rocks were thrown at their heads they seem to have kept their cool. Fifteen officers were injured.
Justice demands that participants in the riots are identified, arrested, and charged with whatever crimes they committed. Their unjustifiable violence endangered innocents, destroyed businesses, and harmed the economic future of largely black neighborhoods; they earned the frustrated contempt of Baltimore's mayor and members of its clergy and strengthened the hand of the public-safety unions that are the biggest obstacles to vital policing reforms.
But a subset of Baltimore police officers has spent years engaged in lawbreaking every bit as flagrant as any teen jumping up and down on a squad car, however invisible it is to CNN. And their unpunished crimes have done more damage to Baltimore than Monday's riots. Justice also requires that those cops be identified and charged, but few are demanding as much because their brutality mostly goes un-televised. Powerless folks are typically the only witnesses to their thuggery. For too long, the police have gotten away with assaults and even worse. The benefit of the doubt conferred by their uniforms is no longer defensible.
To any reader who sees Baltimore smoldering and believes that this isn't the appropriate time to start focusing on police misbehavior, I'd have to agree: The right time to start would've been any time over the many years that it's been epidemic. Last week, I wrote about the brutality of police culture in there, drawing on the Baltimore Sun and other news sources that documented cops beating an elderly grandmother, a pregnant woman, and scores of others, prompting almost $6 million in police brutality settlements in the course of a few years.
Why hasn't Wolf Blitzer ever expressed on-air outrage at any of those cases or their sum? It is perfectly possible to laud police heroes, lament injured police officers, and excoriate bad cops for undermining their colleagues and their community. Imagine watching a rioter beat and kick someone on television and knowing that no one in the city would ever attempt to prosecute the attacker. That's the lived experience of many blacks in Baltimore, except that no one was recording when they watched brutality by police who still patrol their streets.
That context doesn't justify riots or looting. Many who've been victimized by Baltimore police have not felt the need to victimize other innocents in turn. But it does help explain the contempt many in Baltimore have for its police department, although even its harshest critics will acknowledge that it isn't all bad and rightly insist that violence should not ever be initiated against police officers.
Why is television news so bereft of this background information?
Watching CNN, you'd think that Freddie Gray's death and funeral are all the context one needs to understand unfolding events. The network need only read from the local newspaper to offer greater context, but its anchors almost never find time to do so. Their commentary is as limited, in its own way, as the circumscribed visuals they run on a loop. And most other broadcast outlets are no better. The cause of Gray's injuries may be beyond the scope of what we know. But the Baltimore Sun made the following information public knowledge last week:
Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries. Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride. Others have also received payouts after filing lawsuits. For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a "rough ride" — an "unsanctioned technique" in which police vans are driven to cause "injury or pain" to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson's subsequent death.
Let's pause to reflect on that: Baltimore police use rough driving to brutalize suspects often enough that there is a special term in their subculture for doing it! My colleague David Graham, who focused at greater length on "rough rides," points out that the extrajudicial punishments are not unique to Baltimore:
In Philadelphia, the practice is commonly known as a "nickel ride," a reference to cheap amusement-park rides. The Philadelphia Inquirer published a gripping investigation into nickel rides in 2001. The story begins with one not unlike Freddie Gray's: "Gino Thompson stepped into the police van an able-bodied man. He emerged paralyzed from the waist down." The newspaper found 20 cases of injuries, including three spinal injuries and two instances of paralysis. Settlements had cost taxpayers at least $2.3 million at the time, but no Philadelphia cop had been disciplined for the practice. After the Inquirer investigation, the department agreed to end the practice, but a 2013 lawsuit alleged it had been quietly reintroduced.
On Monday evening, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, expressed the hope that protests over Gray's death would ultimately transform if not redeem the city.
"But now—in this moment—the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease," he continued. "There was real power and potential in the peaceful protests that spoke in Mr. Gray’s name, and there was real unity at his homegoing today. But this, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a diminution of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death. If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore. Turn around. Go home. Please."
Passionate advice of that sort, which has been echoed all night by black parents and preachers and city officials, may help to spare the city more mayhem on Tuesday.The state of emergency declared by Maryland's governor may help, too.
Those are appropriate responses to a city aflame.
And as the riots end and rioters find themselves punished by the courts, as will be appropriate, Maryland leaders ought to consider something like a second state of emergency, one declared because a police force that routinely perpetrates extra-legal violence on a community is no less incendiary a crisis than a CVS on fire. It is every bit as shattering as a brick thrown through a shopkeeper's window. It should outrage Americans at least as much as a truly awful day of riots.
That imperative is worth highlighting even before the cityscape stops smoldering because there is near unanimity urging peace and virtual certainty that many rioters will be punished, while the chance that police misconduct will be investigated as zealously or punished as harshly is comparatively slim. That is clear from the fact that violence has persisted among those with badges for so long.
"We have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames," Martin Luther King declared in a 1968 speech. "And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt."
Yet while he felt that "we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results," he added, "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." Even as he championed nonviolence and condemned rioting, he insisted on observing that America had "failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met."
After a day of reflecting on Baltimore, I believe it is as necessary now as it was in 1968 to simultaneously insist upon the following: that riots are to be condemned; that they are inextricably bound up with injustices perpetrated by the state; and that it is a moral imperative for us to condemn both sorts of violence.