A week ago a young man named Freddie Gray was killed in police custody for doing nothing more than making eye contact and running from police in Baltimore. Earlier this year, a man named Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer for running away from him after a traffic stop in Charleston.
While some may want to debate the subtleties of these occurrences and ask why these men were running, it absolutely doesn’t matter. Running away is not a crime punishable by death. Running away is the only way to remove yourself from a dangerous situation. There’s nothing criminal about running away, especially from a group of people who have proven in the past to be abusive to someone who looks like you. Killing a human being who presents no danger to you for simply running away? That’s murder.
In a discussion of recent events, I was shocked when someone asked me about Freddy Gray’s character. Was he a criminal? Did he have a criminal record? Again, I have to say, it doesn’t matter. Running away from police when you’ve done nothing wrong, whether you have a criminal record or not, is not punishable by death. Had Freddie Gray had been a white man, no one would have asked me if he were a criminal, indicating that somehow he was at blame for his own brutal murder.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a culture where our young men’s lives are valueless. I don’t want to be part of a society where people fear and blame poor people for being poor. I don’t want to live in a city where I can be pursued and violently restrained by the police – and even murdered with no recourse – after doing nothing wrong. I don’t want to live in a city where police are trained to have zero tolerance, to handcuff and beat first and ask questions later. I don’t want to participate in an economy that thrives on prisons filled past 60% with people of color, when they make up just 30% of the population in the US. One in three black men can expect to go to jail in this country. Does this sound like a just place to live?
White people have the luxury of distancing themselves from all this to an extent. We can pretend that none of these problems exist because they don’t affect us in our daily lives. I know a lot of white people who don’t get #Black Lives Matter – they find it offensive. Why shouldn’t all lives matter, they ask? When I try to explain that if you are white, your life already counts in this country and has since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, they don’t believe me. Prison statistics alone back this up, unless you really believe that one out of three black men really deserve to serve time. I guess it depends who you choose to associate with and where you get your news. Mainstream media thrives on tragedy and fear. The fact that you’re reading this right now proves it.
In an impromptu speech, later republished by The Guardian, David Simon discussed the reality of Baltimore as a divided city. “There are definitely two Americas,” he said. “I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.”
Simon’s The Wire was about this very issue: the people who are considered to be worth less than the rest of Americans and how they dealt with their own economic irrelevance. Although this speech was published in 2013, it has an eerie sensibility given today’s events.
“You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor,” said Simon. “And it has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.”
According to Simon, this is an economic problem. He believe that we have to decide to come together as a society to elevate our collective worth, not just a few of us but for all, or else “somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.”
Right now Baltimore news headlines are traumatizing a rapt and disgusted audience with “State of Emergency,” “War Zone,” and “Riots Erupt.” These headlines, and the destructive acts of rioters, looters, and police are destroying the progressive collective future that Simon suggests. All media agencies thrive on this fear and rage and it’s a tragedy, the destruction and violence happening right now in Baltimore. The national guard has been brought in, the mayor has instituted a curfew, and lives have been lost. Many of our friends are hunkered down in homes and studios, full of fear, while sirens wail and fires burn. What is happening is awful, but I need to remind you that the people committing these crimes are rioters – not protesters. These people are taking advantage of a chaotic and incendiary situation; they are fueled by incomprehensible rage and some by greed. Many of them are teenagers who do not comprehend the magnitude of their actions, and many were prevented from boarding buses to get home today when schools let out. The individuals wreaking havoc in Baltimore tonight have given up on a better collective world because they have nothing left to lose and decades of rage and frustration to vent.
Please remember: on the afternoon of Saturday, April 25, an amazing thing happened in Baltimore. Thousands of people, white and black, young and old, rich and poor, marched together to protest decades of injustice and violence. They carried signs and walked peacefully. They asked for justice for Freddie. They asked that the police be held accountable for violent abuse. They asked for a better life through progressive economic policies for the young black men of Baltimore.
If you want to watch the news, fine. If you want to watch all of the videos and twitter feeds posted by first hand witnesses, fine. They all add up to the same pathetic and untrue eyewitness conclusion, though, that ‘these people’ or ‘those people’ are disrespectful, violent, and not deserving of our consideration. These headlines suggest that there is no hope for Baltimore, that we will continue to be divided in two cities: one that values our youth and the other that incarcerates it.
Be angry about the damages and violent acts. Be angry about the useless loss of life and economic opportunity that is part of the daily reality for many in Baltimore. But please do not let these events swallow the purposeful protest march that happened in Baltimore on Saturday. Do not forget that Freddie Gray should not have died. Do not forget that the culture and practices of the police in this country need to change. Please feel outrage for Baltimore City right now, but not over broken windows and burning cars. Feel outrage for the wasted loss of life and resources, of economic injustice and a city divided. Feel outrage for Freddie Gray and the many others who suffer mistreatment and murder at the hands of those who have been hired to serve and protect.
Author Cara Ober is Editor at BmoreArt
All photos reprinted with permission from TLC Baltimore: Theresa Keil and Larry Cohen