In the Wake of Baltimore: Your Thoughts

Passions flared among Atlantic readers during our coverage of last week's unrest. We compiled some of the calmest commentary below and Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to one of his critics at length.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Last week, Atlantic coverage was dominated by the dramatic events in Baltimore. Ta-Nehisi Coates lit up the Internet with his controversial take on the rioting in his hometown, followed by a forum at Johns Hopkins University about the broader meaning of the unrest. Conor Friedersdorf frowned at conservatives' response to Baltimore and police brutality in general—though he didn't fail to condemn the rioting as well. Conor also recognized the role that cameras played in the Freddie Gray story, as did Rob Meyer, who offered sound advice on recording cops. David Graham, who has been all over the Gray story, examined how the rioting arose and explored the impact of Twitter. Adam Chandler chased the breaking news while Alan Taylor illustrated the drama with imagery.

Off the news cycle, Derek Thompson took a look at new findings "concluding that the income mobility for poor children in Baltimore City is worse than in any large county in America." We also heard from two teachers on the impact the unrest had on schoolchildren, while Megan Garber gave us a history lesson on the word "thug." James Fallows, for his part, focused on the implications for former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley, whom he interviewed last night.

Tens of thousands of your comments accumulated across Disqus, Facebook, and Twitter, and we can't keep up with them all, but below are some of the strongest and most sober ones we found. TobinH starts things off with a few charged statements:

I'm having a hard time thinking of any meaningful social change that was ever achieved without a few riots here and there. ... Sometimes rioting is the act of an otherwise helpless person raging against an injustice.

Asurbanopal pushes back:

The people that rioted in Baltimore were not the powerless raging against the powerful; they're criminals taking advantage of a situation to spread chaos and, ultimately, delegitimize an otherwise respectable gathering of respectable people. Rioters are criminals and losers. They should not be confused with good people, nor should outsiders make excuses for them much less pretend to speak for them.

Protesting = good. Rioting and looting = bad.

Damascusdean draws another distinction:

Random rioting and looting, not so much. Pitchforks and shovels to the barricades ... now we are talking.

One of those caught up in the riots was Michael Singleton, whose mother was famously captured on cable news smacking him around in the street. Deus ex iguana calls her "the world’s best mom":

It turns out she has a daughter too, and this daughter is "passionate about becoming a Baltimore policewoman."  Out of this truly horrible episode in Baltimore—a city already stuck in entrenched, bitter poverty and now facing the flight of so many businesses —we at least have a glimmer of hope.

Spaceghost06 wasn't as heartened:

The mother's actions are understandable, but I do think she was as out of control as her son was. He exhibited very little impulse control by picking up the rock. She exhibited very little control by wailing on him like that. I looked at it and my first thought was, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

There was a time when swift physical discipline and strict obedience was necessary for survival in the African American community. Kids had to obey their parents and never question what they were told, even if it didn't make sense. "Mom, why do I have to get off the sidewalk just because a white man is coming?" [smack] "Boy, shut up and do what you're told." I mean in the past just looking at someone the wrong way could mean a death sentence for a young black man ... wait, never mind.

Another resident of Baltimore, The_Whimsical1, shares his perspective on last week's events:

I moved to the city from Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2012 because I wanted to live in an American city that I hoped shared my values after living through a war in which they were trampled by our national policy. One value I care about a lot is diversity, and it's part of the joy of the city. I love Baltimore, but the city has a serious problem with thugs and bad policing. The year I moved there, young men chased me down the street in a neighborhood mere blocks from where the looting erupted a few days ago; they were trying to steal my bicycle.

But don't look for justice. The cops are feckless marauders from the suburbs, partly because Maryland's stupid laws don't require police, firemen, and "civil servants" to live in the communities that pay their wages. So they all live in the suburbs instead. The politicians, chief among them Mayor Rawlings-Blake, though she's not alone, are smooth-talking grifters who drape themselves in the cloaks of neighborhood or race to hide their lack of good ideas and civic ambition.

How do we fix Baltimore? Let me count the ways: (a) force civil servants who work there to live there; (b) require the city to comply with the auditing requirements it routinely ignores (this would begin the process of rooting out the grifters who have turned the city's government into a cancer on the metropolis); (c) actually arrest and punish the thugs who are doing things like looting CVS under cover of "black rage"; (d) actually punish police and city officials who commit corruption (and boy, the list is long!); and, (e) fix the schools (this priority should be higher, but can't even be begun until you do (a) through (d)).

Meanwhile, Megan's look at the history and evolution of "thug" sparked a lot of debate among readers. Here's Megan:

Tupac Shakur (Wikipedia)

"Thug" may have undergone the classic cycle of de- and re- and re-re-appropriation—the lyric-annotation site Genius currently lists 12,590 uses of "thug" in its database, among them 19 different artists (Young Thug, Slim Thug, Millennium Thug) and 10 different albums—but the word remains fraught. In a series of interviews before last year's Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman—who had been described by the media as a "thug," and who is African American—referred to "thug" as an effective synonym for the n-word. And in Baltimore over the past few days, the term has been flung about by commenters both professional and non-, mostly as a way of delegitimizing the people who are doing the protesting and rioting. To dismiss someone as a "thug" is also to dismiss his or her claims to outrage.

Kevin Bishop isn't buying it:

Being offended has become a political power play. In the same breath, a person can brag about being a thug or being gangster or some other glorification of criminal activity and then feign offense when a group they are opposed to plays into that picture that person presents of themselves. The fake offense is getting old. Here's to hoping that political correctness and the hyperbolic reactions end soon.

ThinkingCritically gripes along those lines: "There's another Atlantic article about how the word 'poor' is now code for black." Tim Sims' take:

The looters and rioters ARE thugs. Not because of the color of their skin, but because of the content (or lack) of their character.

It's true that there are too many people who see a black man of a certain age, dressed a certain way (or any way) and assume they're a thug. Those people are racists. Their misapplication of the word doesn't change the actual meaning of the word, which still applies.

Damascusdean disagrees: "When a term is only, or mostly, applied to young black men, then that term takes on a different meaning." Pragmatic Squirrel gets, well, pragmatic:

As long as we agree that "thug" should be used to describe those who engage in unlawful violence, it should also describe every police officer who uses violence against a non-violent innocent citizen. If "thug" is not a racial/socio-economic label, but just about criminal violence, let's apply it equally to everyone and let the "thugs" in every police department be called out.

A police officer throws an object at protesters, following the funeral of Freddie Gray. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Cowboyabq's critique of Megan's piece touches on several other points made in the comments section:

That article is pedantic nonsense. I am 77 years old and have heard the word thug my entire life, by far relating to skinheads, "rednecks," and mafiosi, all of which are exclusively white groups. It is not a racially-tinged term at all. So the mayor of Baltimore was correct to refer to looters and arsonists and rock-throwers as "thugs."

One commenter on another site urged the term criminals, which indeed they are, rather than thugs. But thugs are a particularly violent stripe of criminal. Forgers, tax evaders, vandals, embezzlers are all criminals, but not thugs. It takes physical brutality against persons or property to make one a thug. It also is a useful social distinction in this particular case, between the peaceful demonstrators, who are exercising rights of assembly and free speech to the purpose of inciting real movement against injustice, and the thugs who are gratifying baser instincts of greed and sociopathic indifference to their own community.

Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated the power of capturing the moral high ground when he peacefully provoked the irrational and, yes, thuggish response of Southern whites (the police in particular).

Speaking of the legendary leader, here's what he had to say about rioting during his "The Other America" speech at Stanford in 1967:

Money quote from MLK:

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. ...

[A]s long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

Slātlantican suggests it's all a vicious cycle:

Many would say that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between police behavior and black criminality. Conservatives believe that higher black crime rates and lack of deference to authority lead to a hardened police attitude toward African Americans. Liberals believe that police abuse of African Americans lead to a hardened attitude of black Americans towards the police. Which of these two perspectives is correct?

Unfortunately for the conservative analysis, the answer to that question is irrelevant to the issue at hand. If one takes on the badge, one is obliged to "protect and serve." Even if you're a police officer who attends Klan rallies on the weekend, you're obliged to accord every citizen the full protection of the Constitution and the laws of our country.

Let's move on to Ta-Nehisi's talk at the "Forum on Race in America" held at Johns Hopkins last Thursday:

Two-year-old Ta-Nehisi

There are young black people who folks on TV are dismissing as thugs and all sorts of other words (I know the mayor apologized, I want to acknowledge that), but people who are being dismissed as thugs—these people live lives of incomprehensible violence. And I know this! This is not theory here. I’m telling you about what my daily routine was, but I went to school with some kids who I can’t even imagine what the violence was like. It was just beyond anything. You know, I had a safe home, I had people who loved me and took care of me. I can’t imagine how crazy it actually can get.

So when we label these people those sorts of things—when we decide we’re going to pay attention to them when they pick up a rock, and we’re going to call them “violent” when they act out in anger—we’re making a statement. ... What are we doing to actually mitigate the amount of violence that is in the daily lives of these young people? Let’s not begin the conversation with the “riot,” let’s back up a little bit. Let’s talk about the daily everyday violence that folks live under.

But much of the talk in the comments section was predictably vile. Sorn sighs:

Call me a conservative regarding the trajectory of the comments at The Atlantic. I'm nostalgic for the old days where we learned and talked together.

For a great short history of The Horde—the community of commenters moderated by Ta-Nehisi—go here. Eva Holland spoke with him:

[Ta-Nehisi] doesn’t sound optimistic about the future of the comment section. Instead, he sounds tired: of deleting and banning trolls, of trying to police and curb an online community’s worst—and, it often seems, most natural—instincts, all in the name of a goal he doesn’t feel he’s ever achieved. “To be honest, I can’t say how long this will go on for,” he told me, addressing the possibility that he might someday close comments entirely, like his colleague James Fallows. ...

Comments are still open, occasionally, on some of Coates’ blog posts, but the longtime commenters now tend to refer to the comment section in the past tense. If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the Horde, it might be—depressingly—that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth.

Commenter marwilli compares the unmoderated Horde to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus: "It's home to lots of good music venues, but there's also an open air sewage canal." But there were some critical comments on the Johns Hopkins forum worth highlighting. From Tyfereth and his Captain America avatar:

The female professor brought up a good point about the Drug War, and I do agree that the consequence is incarcerating an absurd amount of African-American men (although I believe that’s an unintended consequence, rather than some white conspiracy to imprison black men).

Coates brought up a good point about how kids growing up with violence all around them might be socialized to act violently. Point taken about when the clock starts on violence. I’m not sure if Coates meant to suggest that rioting was how people socialized to violence might respond to systematic violence they perceive, but if so, then I’d disagree that the rioters are reacting against that. The rioters were just taking advantage of a breakdown in order, that the mayor allowed to happen. Rioting should not be conflated with protestors.

How do we stop kids from growing up in these violent environments? How do we reform police departments, without hamstringing their law enforcement functions?

The reader answers his own question:

Police unions and their collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) should be abolished. Absent an officer gunning someone down, it’s nigh impossible to discipline a police officer for misconduct, and that’s not because of a vague "thin blue line"— it's because the police union CBAs make it so difficult. Police departments should be able to fire bad police officers who have a history of excessive violence just as easily as Walmart could fire someone for stealing inventory.

His suggestion about seat belts is a no-brainer:

If there's strong evidence of a "rough ride," then [second-degree depraved-heart murder] is probably the right charge. If there's just evidence that the police cuffed him, but did not seat-belt him in, then involuntary manslaughter was probably a better charge. In any event, the police department needs to start disciplining officers who don't buckle up their suspects in custody.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Tyfereth also addresses the broader points of Ta-Nehisi's talk (seen in full above):

Given that the Southern states would never have agreed to join the Union without legalized slavery, white supremacy was objectively part of the U.S.’s foundation. An argument can be made that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination, etc., has resulted in continuing challenges for African-Americans today, but that’s different than claiming that America is still a white supremacist nation and thus implicating every American who is not black. “White privilege” is amorphous and meaningless without being able to point to concrete policies. We can challenge policies effectively, or we can racial name call. We have an obligation to provide equal rights for all individuals, but Coates argument amounts to collective responsibility, which should be rejected, as should all theories that implicate an individual’s reasonability based not on their actions but on their "race."

The more important question: What do we do about it now? The government attempted to redress past housing discrimination, but that was one of many factors that unfortunately led to predatory lending and the housing bubble. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem: You can decrease down payment requirements, but absent a sufficient income, many people won’t be able to make mortgage payments. Education and 21st century skills are more fundamental problems; without those, wealth—through home ownership or otherwise—will always be out of reach.

Jim Crow was one heck of a barrier to entry, but it hasn't been legal for decades. If legal barriers are no longer restraining African-American wealth growth, then what is? A cycle of poverty, but why? Coates dismissed family breakdown, but I suspect that’s closer to the truth than white supremacy.

Ta-Nehisi responds to his reader:

There’s a lot to disagree with in his comments but I should start with what I agree with—the rejection of the term "white privilege." You won’t really find me using that phrase in any of my writing, though I reject it for reasons different than the commenter. I’m not sure how claiming someone has "white privilege" is name-calling, any more than saying someone has "home-owning privileges.” Either being named a member of the "white race" grants privileges in America or it does not. An argument can be had here. But making the case is not "name-calling."

That said, I still think that phrase should be rejected because it is politesse, an attempt to dodge the arguments and conflicts that arise when people say what they mean. What I mean to say is what I have been saying for some time—White Supremacy is foundational to America. White Supremacy is not a bump on the road toward a better America. It is the road itself, the means by which America justified the taking of land and enslaving of humans, which is to say the means by which America came to be. The commenter seems to agree that “white supremacy was objectively part of the U.S.’s foundation.” This bit of clarity makes me happy. But the commenter rejects “collective responsibility” because he believes it "implicate(s) an individual’s reasonability based not on their actions but on their 'race.'" This bit of misunderstanding makes me sad.

One must start by acknowledging that without "collective responsibility" we do not have a country. Perhaps the most significant form of “collective responsibility” is our tax system. Why should I pay taxes to fund wars with which I, individually, disagree and had no direct hand in fomenting? Why should my hard-earned dollars pay the pensions of the families of veterans who fought before I was born? Because by being responsible for the collective—the United States of America—I also accrue the privileges. I enjoy the privilege living in a country where certain freedoms are guaranteed, freedoms which I, individually, did not create. I enjoy the privilege of taking a particular, specific and native, pride in Ulysses S Grant’s taking of Vicksburg—though I did nothing to make this possible. When Ronald Reagan said of the civil rights movement—"We can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it"—he was certainly not speaking of his individual action, but of the "collective privilege" of national pride.

"Collective responsibility" and "collective privilege" are why an immigrant who arrives two centuries after American Independence can still celebrate on the fourth of July. It is why we—as a society—paid reparations to Japanese-Americans jailed during World War II, despite virtually none of us being individually culpable in the events of that sad era. A state, a society, a country is more than the individual lives and direct decisions of its citizens. To argue that each of us should only be responsible for what we, specifically, do is not an argument for democracy, but against government itself, and ultimately against the state. Perhaps that is the point.

I also agree with the commenter that we should reject the impulse to dole out "collective responsibility" and "collective privilege" on the basis of race—especially given that we have always lacked a firm definition of the what constitutes the "black race" and the "white race." I don’t support doling out anything on the basis of race, but on the basis of racist acts, both past and present. The "collective responsibility" for the act of enslavement of African-American belongs to the country that legalized it and profited from it, the country which built it’s national monuments with it. The "collective responsibility" for the acts of lynching belongs to the Congress which allowed it, and in several cases endorsed it. The "collective responsibility"  for the act of red-lining belongs to the country that authored and enforced it. The "collective responsibility" for the collected acts of "white supremacy" does not, and can not, belong to anything so vague as "white people," any more than Japanese internment belonged to "white people." It was the country, as a collective, that did this. And it is the country as a whole which must account for it. And the people deserving of that accounting—of reparations—are not merely those who happen to be darker than the norm, or whose hair curls with slightly more aggression, but the people who were injured by the actions of white supremacy—enslavement, lynching, red-lining.

The commenter asks what we should do now. As I have already said, I would start by immediately commencing to account for the damage done some two and a half centuries of white supremacist policy enacted at the federal, state and local level. And then, as much as possible, I would make good on that debt because more than anything it is the debt that dogs us. White supremacist policy stretches through the lion's share of American history. The commenter is amazed that the impact of 250 years of American policy, and 100 years of colonial policy before that, has not magically disappeared in 50 years. One might as well examine a man beaten into a coma, and then after a day in the hospital, ask why he has not yet recovered. That would be much kinder, in fact. Hospitals heal people. America has done very little to heal black people. Indeed, there’s a strong argument that through the criminal justice system it has continued to hurt black people.

That African-Americans have not experienced a miraculous recovery in a short span does not require a deep explanation, so much a foundation in the history of one’s country. It is that history that will immediately make one understand why comparing black people with ethnic whites—who did not face the red summers, who did not face red-lining, who did not face enslavement in America—is unsustainable. I’ll leave it to the commenter to define, specifically, what they mean by "family breakdown." I assume the commenter means children born out of wedlock. As the product of such a family—and as a Dad who fathered his only child out of wedlock—I reject the label. Nonetheless, whatever we call it, the “out of wedlock” theory has a serious problem—the out of wedlock birthrate in the black community is at its lowest point since the CDC began keeping stats. Indeed the gap between black and white women has been shrinking for the last 15 years. (I suspect that much of that shrinkage is the result of the rapid decline in teenage pregnancy in the black community.) The gap in wealth between black and white families has enjoyed no such shrinkage. How can this be? If the main driver of black poverty is black out-of-wedlock birthrate, and yet that birthrate is in decline, what explains the yawning chasm between black and white America?

I have given my answer. I believe it still stands.

Children play at the Gilmor Homes housing projects in Baltimore on May 3, 2015. (Eric Thayer / Reuters)

Readers also had constructive criticism on Conor's piece, "Few Conservatives Take Police Abuses Seriously." One dissent via email:

If you are going to make an issue of the Maryland government in your piece and beat up movement conservatives, you should have the decency to point out that the state's government is not exactly beholden to movement conservatives. The Maryland State Legislature is 2-1 Democrat to Republican in both houses.  Until January, Maryland had a Democratic governor, too. Baltimore, at every level of its local government, is the product of 50 years of uninterrupted Democratic governance.

So it's not movement conservatives who are blocking the mayor's requested police reforms. It's a Democratic legislature that oversees a Democratic majority city, run by a Democratic mayor, with a Democratic city council, and a Democratic appointee chief of police, that has created the issue.  

A resident of Baltimore, Daffodil Finesmith, shares her view:

I live in one of the more affluent neighborhoods of Baltimore City. Naturally, given our long history of red lining, my neighborhood is 99% white. Because we pay much higher property taxes due to the market value of our homes, the city administers are extremely responsive to our concerns no matter how minor, moronic or mundane they may be. There's a dog on the loose? Call 911! And, yes, they show up. We have better schools, better trash pickup, better road maintenance, better policing. Unlike the rest of the city, *our* policing experience is invariably polite and deferential.

In other words, the wealthy white community here effectively owns the city, government regardless of the color of the officials' skin.

The most productive back-and-forth in Conor's comments section was sparked by E.A.:

I feel like this article vastly over-simplified the issue. I consider myself politically conservative, and I'll express my thoughts as briefly as possible. I don't expect broad agreement, but I hope that they're at least a little enlightening. I hesitate to fully vest myself in the broad accusations against police for several reasons, among them:

1. I have friends who I know are upstanding officers. There's a personal bias.

2. I'm middle class and white, and have never had a negative encounter with an officer. My image of cops is them helping my family after a robbery and laying flares when my car broke down.

3. I wholeheartedly, and very justifiably, believe that accounts of police misconduct have been over-sampled by the media since Michael Brown. Every time an officer fires his gun is not national news. And more than a few trumpeted as "brutality" have been officers acting in compliance with their training, attempting to ensure that they are able to go home that night. Not to say that all of them have been, but to suggest that the news doesn't make assumptions at the speed of Twitter refreshing would be dishonest.

4. I struggle with the fundamental negativity toward "the cops," a crime equal to that of assuming that a person is more or less likely to act poorly due to the color of their skin. "F* the police" is, in my opinion, no more acceptable than "F* [insert subsection of populace]", whether it's a minority or another political affiliation.

Stormatsea responds to the young conservative:

"I struggle to understand systematic mistrust, where those protesting struggle to understand how I could ever trust the system." The fact that you are at least struggling puts you head and shoulders above most conservative commentators I have read, either in comment sections or in paid editorials or on the news. So that's something.

I think your point about "cast[ing] a broad class of men and women as suspect due to the uniform they wear" is a good starting point. I think that's something that a lot of African-Americans (and other people of color) feel they have to do as a survival skill. Best to assume that a random police officer you encounter is likely to pull you over, ask for your ID, ask you why you're driving that car in this neighborhood, etc. If they don't profile you, then hey, you got off free. If they do profile you, at least you were expecting it and can behave accordingly.

The point being, an African-American has no way of knowing if the police they encounter are of the type that are likely to do their job and protect them as fellow citizens, or if they are of the type that will snap their spine or shoot them in the back. No way of knowing. So the safe assumption, the one likely to keep them alive the longest, is that men and women in uniform bear them ill will. It's unfortunate, but it's the logical outcome.

Robert1111111 also respects where E.A. is coming from:

Well written and stated. A central tenet of conservatism is that government should be limited and accountable. The most dangerous power that government possesses is to remove you from society. The branch of government charged with that is the police. While I have seen police abuse before, I'm willing to stipulate that most police are trying to make the world a little better place and get home safely. But we have invested a huge amount of authority into the police. To me it is simply the logical route to make the police accountable for their actions.

One easy way to do this is simply to have accusations of misconduct by the police investigated (and prosecuted) by totally independent bodies. It would better serve justice both for the communities served and for the officer accused of something.


I'm inclined to agree with your solution. There's obviously a strong perception that police aren't accountable. Whether or not that's accurate is almost immaterial if a truly autonomous body is created as a check. At worst, it proves optimists' views on good cops.

It's intriguing to me how police are, on one hand, highly privileged members of society (LEOPA rules on concealed carry, for example), yet the past twelve months indicate a segment of the population who has little or no regard whatsoever for them. I think that establishing checks and balances that are more transparent might go a long way in clarifying and solidifying what (at least in my view) ought to be a generally neutral or somewhat positive view of police.


Yes. I fully expect that there would be a very small to no increase in the number of prosecutions of police. But I think they would behave better and have better relations (i.e. more trust) within the communities they serve.

E.A. concludes, "And ultimately, trust (and respect) are really what we're most lacking in these issues." If you have some of your own respectful dissent on our coverage of Baltimore or anything else, email—it's a much easier way to spot your quality criticism than in the vast and unruly comments section.