On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray died in police custody. From the viewpoint of some Americans, this was the continuation of a pattern police causing the deaths of young black men. From the viewpoint of some other Americans, this was just another isolated incident.
The initial protests to this death were peaceful and it was hoped by many that Baltimore would avoid the violence that has marked other protests (including riots in Baltimore’s own past). This hope was shattered in an outbreak of violence and destruction.
One obvious concern is the identity and the nature of those engaged in violence. According to some narratives, the rioters are thugs or even outsiders who are simply taking advantage of the situation to engage in destruction, theft and violence. That is, they are opportunists and not protestors.
The United States has a well-established history of costly and pointless riots that are not protests. These are, of course, sports riots. One outstanding example is the 1992 riot in the aftermath of the Chicago Bulls vs. the Portland Trail Blazers. The damage was estimated at $10 million. There have been many other lesser riots, such as that following the 1999 Michigan State vs. Duke game that resulted in about $250,000 in damage (and whose iconic photo is a shirtless white bro “flashing the horns” atop a burned out car). My adopted state of Florida also sees substantial violence and property damage during Spring Break, although California does seem interested in getting into the spring break riot game.
Given that Americans are willing to riot over sports and spring breaks, it is certainly reasonable to consider that the rioters in Baltimore are not protesting the death but are motivated by other reasons—perhaps as simple as wanting to break and burn things.
There are, of course, some narratives that cast at least some of the rioters as being engaged in protest. That is, their motivation is not just to steal, break and burn but to express their anger about the situation in Baltimore. One way to explore possible motivations for such violence is to consider the situation in Baltimore. That is, to see if there are legitimate grounds for anger and whether or not these factors might provoke people to violence and destruction.
Baltimore is, in many ways, a paradigm of the brutal race and class divisions in the United States. It has the historical distinction of being the first city to pass a citywide segregation law (segregating each residential block by race) and the legacy of this law persists to this day in terms of Baltimore being a highly segregated city. In the center of the city, 60% of the population is black. The suburbs are, not surprisingly, predominantly white. Despite there being laws against forced segregation, the United States is still highly segregated. This does seem to provide some grounds for anger—unless, of course, it is assumed that most people are living were they wish and there are no unfair factors impeding people.
Baltimore also exemplifies the stark class divisions in the United States. 150,000 of the city’s 620,000 are classified as poor (the average income for a family of four being $23,492). The unemployment rate is close to 10%. As the American Revolution showed, people do get angry and violent in response to perceived economic injustice. Given the massive disparity between economic classes in the United States and their support by the structures of law and authority, what is shocking is not that there is a riot now and then but that there are not daily riots. As such, there seem to be sufficient grounds for anger. Naturally, some people claim that this poverty is because the poor are lazy—if they would only work hard for the job creators, they would not be poor. This view seems to fail to consider the reality of poverty in America—but it is a beloved narrative of those who are doing well.
Not surprisingly, Baltimore also has serious issues with crime. Drug addiction is a serious problem and the city was 5th in the number of murders per year in 2014. It is, however, 15th in the number of violent crimes per year. Crime is, of course, a complex matter. Some claim that this sort of crime arises from poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity (as opposed to the ‘crimes’ of the financial classes, such as melting down the world economy). There is, of course, a correlation between crime and these factors. Some claim that people turn to crime because of moral defects rather than these factors. This does have some merit—after all, a look at the financial sector and halls of power show evil behavior that is clearly not caused by poverty (except a poverty of the soul) and lack of opportunity.
Like other US cities, there is also an issue with how the police deal with the citizens. In 2011 the city paid $6.3 million settling police misconduct claims. Between 2011 and 2012 there were 156 such lawsuits. The number has declined to 156 from 2013 to 2014. While it is reasonable to consider that not all of these suits had merit, what happened to Gray does provide reason to suspect that there are grounds for being concerned about policing in the city.
When people think they are being oppressed and subject to brutality, they tend to respond with anger. For example, one can see the rage the fine folks on Fox express when they speak of the War on Christmas and how Christians are being mistreated and persecuted in America. One can only imagine the anger that arises when people really are subject to mistreatment. As such, there seem to be legitimate grounds for anger.
While the anger of those engaged in violence might be justified, there is still the obvious concerns about whether or not such behavior is morally acceptable and whether or not such behavior is effective in achieving goals.
On the face of it, much of the violence and destruction would seem to be difficult to justify morally. The main reason is that most of the destruction seems to involve community infrastructure and the property of people who are not responsible for what has provoked the protests. While the anger against the police is certainly understandable, the attacks on reporters and firefighters are clearly unjustified. The reporters have presumably done nothing meriting being attacked and the firefighters are trying to keep the city from burning down, which is certainly a laudable goal. Crudely put, if the violent (alleged) protestors are striking against injustice, they are (mostly) hitting the wrong targets. To use an obviously analogy, if Bob has wronged Sam and Sam goes and smashes Sally’s windows because he lives near her and cannot get at Bob, then Sam certainly seems to have acted wrongly—no matter how badly Bob wronged him.
It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done mainly to the innocent rather than the guilty. As such, the violence and destruction seem to be immoral.
A second issue, which can connect to the moral issue, is the effectiveness of violence as a means of protest and social change. Obviously enough, violence can be very effective in achieving goals—Americans can point to our own Revolutionary War and the wars won against everyone from the Apache to the Japanese. However, violence is generally only effective when one has enough power to achieve one’s goals. Since the rioters are up against not only the police but also the National Guard, it is rather clear they will not be able to achieve a victory through force of arms.
However, a case can be made that the violence gets attention and that it cannot be ignored. Peaceful protests, one might argue, sound nice but can be easy to ignore. After all, “change things or we will peacefully protest again” seems to have less power than “change things or there will be cop cars burning in the streets and the authorities will have to explain why they are losing control of the city.” Interestingly, many of the pundits who praise the property destruction that occurred during the Boston Tea Party are quick to condemn contemporary protests they do not like. These pundits also praise other violence they approve of, but do not seem to have a consistent principle regarding violence as a means of achieving goals.
Obviously, a strong case can be made against violence, such as that famously made by Dr. King. When there is the possibility of redress and justice through peaceful means, then non-violence seems to have an obvious advantage over violence: people are not hurt or killed and property is not destroyed. However, the fact that a major American city is now patrolled by the National Guard indicates that there are deep and profound problems in civil society. These problems must be addressed or the obvious consequence will be more violence.