Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Riot By Any Other Name?

The Baltimore riot of 1861
The episodes of violence and property destruction that gripped the city of Baltimore today were unfortunate for the idea of civil disobedience, but it's happened before.

Many times.

The Baltimore Riots of 1861, which broke out on April 19, 1861 when Union troops being transferred to Washington, D.C. were attacked by mobs of Confederate sympathizers and pro-slavery activists who lived in the city at the outbreak of the Civil War, left some sixteen people dead and dozens more injured.

Not only would those riots lead to some of the first deaths of Federal troops in the Civil War (four soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts Militia were killed by pro-Confederate mobs on April 19th) the ensuing disorder on the part of Baltimore officials would lead President Lincoln to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in order to arrest and hold Confederate sympathizers and secessionists and restore order to the city.

After the violent attacks on the Federal troops (who were simply making their way to another rail station) mobs attacked and destroyed the offices of a German language newspaper, Baltimore Wecker,  as William Schnauffer the publisher was a staunch supporter of the Union; he and the editor Wilhelm Rapp were forced to flee the city for their own safety.

So in the midst of what's going on now in Baltimore, some historical perspective helps to put things in context.

Since 1807 there have been at least nine different riots in the city of Baltimore, including the aforementioned riots in April, 1861, riots associated with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and rioting that took place in April of 1968 in the wake of nationwide outrage over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th.

And here again on April 27, 2015, a day that was supposed to be a day of mourning for the family and friends of Freddie Gray instead sparked more violent reactions just hours after hundreds attended a packed funeral service.

Too many of the television reports I saw on what were constantly labeled "the riots" today focused exclusively on the worst parts of the civil disorder that affected parts of the city; officers hurling tear gas canisters, looters pouring out of a CVS store that was later engulfed in flames and shots of police arresting rioters.
It's hard to tell from the images of disorder and looting constantly being recycled by mainstream media outlets, but there were also hundreds of people participating in peaceful protests across the city of Baltimore today.
Their demands for answers in the death of Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department were largely drowned out, and their non-violent actions overshadowed by the actions of roving smaller groups of outraged (mostly young) people damaging police vehicles, causing damage to local businesses (and in some cases looting) and in several areas of the city, hurling bottles rocks and other items at police in riot gear.

But as a Twitter user named Afro State of Mind observed a little while ago, despite all these reports of rioting and property destruction, no one's spine was severed.

During the course of the day I kept hearing the same report about a Baltimore Police officer who was injured in the riots and was "unresponsive."

Yet the Baltimore Police Department's own Twitter account released this statement via Twitter within the last 90 minutes: @BaltimorePolice "We have received several media inquires asking if we have an officer who was injured and in grave condition. THIS IS NOT TRUE."

Riots tend to fuel reactionary and inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the issue, as different groups seek to use the imagery to fit a narrative.

April 27th protests over Freddie Gray's death in Oakland, CA
Given the media's tendency to distort what's actually happening on the ground in the interest of ratings, it's quite understandable that some might see what's happening in Baltimore as anarchy, but it's actually not.

What's happening in Baltimore is part of a growing national opposition to, and outrage over the unchecked excessive police use of deadly force in this nation that too often claims the lives of poor African-American and Hispanic men and boys.

It's easy to look at a burning store, or a police car on fire and label what's happening in Baltimore as simply "rioting".

But look at the photo above, that's a photo that was posted on Twitter earlier this evening of street protests taking place in Oakland, California right now; it's early evening Eastern Time as I write this.

What you see in that photo are diverse groups of people taking part in the same organized protests going on in Baltimore. These are Americans united in opposition of unchecked police use of deadly force.

These are Americans outraged at the idea of a man's neck being severed in police custody who are demanding an end to the abuse of police power seen most recently in South Carolina and in Tulsa. 

I'm not condoning the destruction of property in Baltimore or anywhere else for that matter.

Personally, on this day when the nation's first African-American Attorney General was sworn into office, I think there were far more effective peaceful ways of civil dissent that could have been used to bring media attention to the Freddie Gray case and bring pressure to bear on the city of Baltimore to hold the officers involved in this young man's death accountable.

People from different age groups, religions, economic backgrounds, races and nationalities are tired of it.

They're tired of a nation whose political leaders used inflated rhetoric to point the finger at human rights abuses in China, Syria, Iran or Russia; while in this nation the Department of Justice doesn't even keep accurate data on the death of Americans killed by police - making it even harder to know exactly how many innocent people are killed by members of law enforcement.

Politicians in Washington wag their fingers at accounts of ISIS members killing innocent civilians in countries thousands of miles away from the United States, while less than an hour's drive from the nation's capital, members of the Baltimore Police Department are seen on tape dragging Freddie Gray into a police van as he screams in agony; only to be found with a severed neck about an hour later.

So no one wants to see people venting their outrage on a CVS store, but remember there are over 7,600 CVS stores in the United States; a CVS can be rebuilt and the shelves restocked.

Freddie Gray's life was taken, that's irreplaceable.

And for many people in Baltimore and around the nation, that's unacceptable.

So perhaps a "riot" is simply a matter of perspective. Maybe those images of Baltimore being shown on television are not simply a bunch of crazed lunatics running around burning stores and police cars.

Maybe what you see are Americans who believe in the right to due process who are determined not to see Freddie Gray's life reduced to a concocted police story, a botched investigation and a bogus trial.

Maybe what you see in Baltimore and other cities are Americans determined to see that Freddie Gray's voice is heard in a court of law, even though he can't be there to testify.

After all, if the Boston Tea Party, or Abraham Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War, or Daniel Ellsberg giving The Washington Post and The New York Times copies of a classified Defense Department study of the Vietnam War, or some black students sitting at a lunch counter  teaches us anything, it's that sometimes laws must be broken.

Not to "riot" or cause chaos; but to challenge authority in order to enforce the larger concept of the rule of law.

That's what was at the heart of many of the previous "riots" that have taken place in Baltimore since 1807 - that's what's at the heart of what is happening right now.


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