Massive riots and civil disobedience have engulfed the City of Baltimore, Maryland a week after the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department. Images of burning buildings, teargas-flooded streets, and rioters throwing rocks at riot gear-clad police officers filled both social media and news outlets Monday afternoon.
Protests began the weekend of Gray’s death, with hundreds of demonstrators gathering in downtown Baltimore to protest the string of injustices committed by the Baltimore Police Department. The peaceful protests soon turned violent when protesters began throwing rocks at advancing police officers. Business’ windows were smashed and cars were flipped over. Things quickly got out of hand and Baltimore devolved into utter chaos shortly after Gray’s funeral on April 27, with looting and riots consuming the city. This prompted Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to declare a state of emergency and dispatched the Maryland National Guard to Baltimore.
The details of Freddie Gray’s death are still somewhat scarce at the moment, pending an investigation by the city. All the public really knows is that Gray was arrested on the morning of April 12 after an altercation with the police. According to reports, Gray ran as soon as he saw the police officers. While Gray did have previous run-ins with the law—most of which were due to drug offenses— he was not wanted by police at the moment. The officers gave chase, tackled Gray, and arrested him for possessing a switchblade (something that is not illegal in Maryland, but is illegal in the city of Baltimore). Witnesses on the scene claim that they saw the officers beat Gray with batons, forcefully held him down by his neck, and bent Gray’s knees backwards, resulting in a broken leg. In a video of Gray’s arrest, one could see Gray’s legs dangling as the police drag him into a police van. This is contrary to police reports saying that Freddie Gray had been arrested “without force or incident”. Within thirty minutes of his arrest, the police called paramedics to take Gray to the hospital due to a “medical emergency”. Within an hour, he was in a coma.’
The following week would be hell for the Gray family. Freddie underwent surgery in an attempt to save his life, but to no avail. Freddie remained in a coma after 80% of his spinal cord was severed at the neck. He also suffered three fractured vertebrae and a crushed voice box. He died exactly a week after his initial arrest on April 19, 2015.
Six of the officers involved in the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray were suspended on April 20, a day after Gray’s death. “We know our police employees failed to get him the proper medical attention in a timely manner multiple times,” Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said about the suspension of the officers.
According to reports, Freddie Gray had trouble breathing and requested an inhaler shortly after his arrest. Gray’s breathing problems would be the least of his concerns after riding in the police van.
“I know when Mr. Gray was placed inside that van, he was able to talk,” Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said at a Monday news conference. “When Mr. Gray was taken out of that van, he could not talk and he could not breathe.”
As the sun came up early Tuesday morning, the damage left behind by the riots still sprawled the city. Violent rioters replaced by peaceful protesters, bricks replaced with brooms as the citizens of Baltimore began the clean-up effort.
On Tuesday, President Obama addressed the riots and tension that erupted in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. In a press conference from the White House, Obama condemned the riots saying in part that “there’s no excuse” for the riots that have broken out. “It is counterproductive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing.”
The rioters weren’t the only ones that the President criticized in his press conference. Obama also said that “there are some police who aren’t doing the right thing,” pointing to the tension between law enforcement agencies and African-American communities that have been boiling for decades and is now rearing its ugly head into the public view “it seems like once a week now.”
“This is a slow-rolling crisis,” Obama said. “This has been going on for a long time. This is not new and we shouldn’t pretend it’s new.”
To these problems, President Obama offers the solutions of increased education funding, criminal justice system reforms, and changes to police tactics, such as requiring police officers to carry a body camera. In order to make these proactive changes a reality, it requires “that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns” – referencing one of the most poignant images of the riots shown by the media.
According to the President, the media’s focus on the looting and rioting takes away from the conversation of the underlying problem that causes these riots. “They were constructive and they were thoughtful. And frankly, didn’t get that much attention,” he said of the peaceful protests. “And one burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way, I think, have been lost in the discussion”
Obama’s comments have resonated with many, myself included. Every time I log onto any type of social media or image board, the topic of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of the BPD and the riots take center stage. While comments criticizing the riots litter my Facebook and Twitter timeline, there are little comments on why these people are out there rioting.
People criticize these riots as unproductive at best, and detrimental to the anti-police brutality movement at worst. After all, civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. would have never resorted to violence to get his point across. Through nonviolent protests and signs of civil disobedience, MLK and his supporters convinced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. In reality, it was the fear of a violent black nationalistic movement arising that really convinced politicians to support these monumental pieces of legislation.
As the Civil Rights Movement gained steam, some supporters began to question King’s nonviolent approach. Large crowds of African Americans and supporters of Civil Rights marched throughout major cities and participated in sit-ins at segregated restaurants, often enduring both verbal and physical abuse by those unsympathetic to their cause and the police, but very little was changing in terms of laws. This led to the rise of Black Nationalism, a fringe group which had been disillusioned by King’s nonviolent tactics. Whereas King and his supporters advocated for integration into white society, Black Nationalists, such as pre-1964 Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, advocated for complete sovereignty from white society. The existence of Black Nationalists, who urged African Americans to arm themselves and condoned the use of violence in self-defense, frightened white politicians. They understood that if they did not give in to the demands of the peaceful majority led by King, they would push even more people into the fringe and potentially face a violent uprising.
While Martin Luther King Jr. is often cited as one of the champions of nonviolent protest, King had this to say about riots in a 1966 interview with CBS:
I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
A half a century later, and King’s words still hold true. While everyone sits atop their ivory tower condemning these riots, many of them do not understand that these riots did not simply happen over the death of one man. Rather, these riots are due to a culmination of abuses and injustices at the hands of not only the Baltimore Police Department, but also police departments throughout the county. These abuses and injustices more often than not go unattended by the government. Despite the massive protests held late last year for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, very little has changed in 2015: police still seem to kill people and break the law with impunity. Federal and state governments have long ignored the cries and pleas of the public, crushing any protests that try to show these grievances, yet everyone acts surprised when push comes to pull and these people say “enough is enough”.
How the officers will try to justify nearly decapitating an already incapacitated man is beyond me. Some people will try to bring up Gray’s criminal record in a feeble attempt to justify his death; according to them, he had brought it upon himself. But his criminal record only explains why he ran, not why he’s death. The fact that Gray’s death happened outside of the public’s view has only further complicated the issue. There is no videos that either corroborate the officers’ yet-to-be-announced explanation of what happened in that police van or that hold the officers accountable for this brutal murder of yet another African American male, so the public and Gray’s family may never truly know what happened. Regardless, I truly hope that Freddie Gray did not die in vain and that his death brings about positive reform to the law enforcement system.