Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Riots in Baltimore

In Baltimore, we're having a little problem with riots. Not a big problem, mind you, whatever you may have heard on the news -- so far the count stands at four stores looted, and a couple of suspicious fires in a city that sees suspicious fires every night. But there is violence, and anger.

It always amuses me when public officials, like the new Attorney General, go on the air to denounce "senseless violence." She may be the first African American woman to hold the office, but she talks like an old white man. I suppose that's her job. But the violence in Baltimore is anything but senseless -- it is a political act. It is a political response to decades of police violence, which everybody from the mayor on down has admitted is a problem. (The city paid out $5.7 million in lawsuits for excessive police force last year, most of  it in amounts of less than $100,000. That's a lot of beatings.) But in defense of the police, they beat people up because they are scared, because there are whole neighborhoods where they are not welcome and they know it, where there are dozens of gang kids who would happily shoot them if they could get away with it. As the mayor put it, the relationship between the police the the black people of Baltimore is "fractured." Everybody knows this, but nobody knows what to do about it. Sometimes, when problems fester, they eventually explode.

Consider this: if there had been no public explosion in Ferguson, would the Justice Department have sent the task force that exposed the city's deep problems with police brutality and judicial screwing of the poor? The revelations were no surprise to any black citizen of Ferguson, but nobody listened to them until they staged a riot. Sometimes violence makes perfect sense.

At a deeper level, the poor, black neighborhoods of Baltimore represent the failings of our society. What are we doing to help poor people in those neighborhoods make their lives better? If you ask me, every positive thing we do (WIC, Medicaid) is largely cancelled by a wrong (jailing millions of men for minor crimes). The Republican party has devoted far more energy to ending the Federal estate tax, which at it current level would fall only on the nation's 10,000 richest families, than it has to helping poor people. In fact its whole philosophy is built around the notion that helping the poor is wrong. You think the poor don't know it?

As I have said here many times, I don't know what would be the best way to help poor Americans who live in dismally poor neighborhoods. But I am certain that doing nothing is only an invitation to trouble. In the long run, the way to end rioting and restore civilization to rotten neighborhoods is to be seriously committed to justice and fairness in ever part of life.

I am also certain that focusing only on violence, as if violence itself were the root of the problem, is shallow and foolish. Many of the acts that made life better for Americans have been accompanied by violence, from the Revolution on. The labor movement, which did so much to create the middle class America we idolize, was born in violent strife and succeeded only because the unions scared scabs away from the mills. A few years ago I did a close study of the Irish workers who took over the digging of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in the 1830s. They drove all the non-Irish workers off the line, and then took to fighting among themselves. When their bosses didn't pay them on time, they stole barrels of gunpowder and threatened to blow up the locks and tunnels they had just finished building. They were vicious. But when the state of Maryland finally intervened decisively and used the militia to break the Irish associations, the wage of a canal digger fell from $1.25 a day to $.85 -- a 32% wage cut for people already on the edge of hunger.

As Malcolm X famously remarked, violence is as American as apple pie. People keep doing it because sometimes it works.

Now it is probably true that these riots in Baltimore will accomplish nothing, except to make some white suburbanites loath black city dwellers even more, and chase a few businesses out of the city. Baltimore already has a black mayor and other officials who would help the city's poor residents if they knew how. But panicking about the "Purge" and endlessly re-running the same 5-minute video of kids throwing bricks at cops is neither helpful nor, to me, even interesting. Sure, arrest a few brick throwers, put out the fires, restore order. But tell me this: what are we going to do next?

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