Processing Baltimore’s Events In The Last Two Weeks Will Be Tough But Essential
In the last two weeks following Freddie Gray’s death from spinal cord injuries suffered while in police custody, Baltimore has been riven with civil unrest, both protests and riots. While the focus of the aftermath of Gray’s death should be on the initial peaceful protests, a number of media outlets have ignored them in favor of sensationalizing the riots from earlier this week. On the ground organizing has been an essential part of the aftermath, and while a few have taken to criminal activity, many, many more have worked to rebuild Baltimore’s communities. While protests continue in the city, we must continue to provoke discussion as to why this cycle of violence continues in seemingly perpetual motion.
To understand the root causes of Baltimore’s civil unrest, we have to take a step back and understand the context Gray and some Baltimore residents experience daily. Sandtown-Winchester, Gray’s neighborhood, is 97 percent African-American and one of the many economically depressed areas of Baltimore. More than half of the neighborhood’s residents are out of work, the median income is below the poverty line for a family of four and a third of its buildings are vacant Compared to Baltimore’s average, Sandtown-Winchester has twice as many families receiving welfare and roughly half of the median household income. And as you can see on these maps, the inner harbor and a sliver of the northern suburbs are doing well economically, while vast stretches of east and west Baltimore with majority and significant African American populations are struggling with households earning less than $25,000 per year. In short, while parts of Baltimore have done very well in the last twenty years, the city’s leadership has failed to deliver those economic benefits to its most vulnerable residents.
People have and will argue that the events of Baltimore are not a racial problem because, while Baltimore is more than 60 percent African-American, the mayor and the police chief are both African-American. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the systemic criminal justice issues contributing to Baltimore’s issues. Since 2011, the city of Baltimore has spent $5.7 million to settle numerous police brutality lawsuits since 2011. In addition, Sandtown-Winchester “has more people in state prisons than any Baltimore neighborhood,” 458 people out of a population of 14,000. And last week, the New York Times chronicled the 1.5 million African-American men (ages 25 through 54) “missing ” from their communities due to incarceration and an increased early mortality rate. Baltimore ranked 6th in “places with most missing men” at 19,000.
While we can and should condemn the violence against local businesses and property, what it comes down to is ending the series of officer-involved deaths plaguing our country and communities with seemingly impunity. With that being said, it is worth taking a look at how our progressive leaders are addressing these important issues:
President Barack Obama:
“We can’t just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades.
If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only have to help the police, we’re going to have to think about what can we do — the rest of us — to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids; to make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons; so that we’re not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony record for a nonviolent drug offense; that we’re making investments so that they can get the training they need to find jobs.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid:
“We are all saddened by what we’ve witnessed unfold on the streets of Baltimore. A man is dead who should not be dead. His name was Freddie Gray. […] So instead of turning a blind eye, let’s work together and take this problem seriously. There is bipartisan work being done on criminal justice reform and that is a good start. Ensuring that populations are not unfairly targeted for incarceration will be a positive step. But we also need to be investing in inner cities and rural areas, and ensuring that jobs and training and educational opportunities are available where they are needed most. Looking out at the year ahead, the only bill on the agenda I see that does anything to create jobs is the highway bill. That is not enough. We need to do more. It’s up to us here in this Capitol to create jobs. Republicans and Democrats must work together to make sure that America continues to be a land of opportunity for all of our fellow citizens.”
BOTTOM LINE: There is a stark reality sweeping across the country that many of our cities and towns remain painfully divided, whether it be along racial lines, between law enforcement and our communities, or across the huge socioeconomic gap that continues to widen. We haven’t just seen young black men and women lose their lives at the hands of police; we’ve seen the ongoing degradation of our communities because of a struggling economy, lack of access to a good education, and the failure to ensure your zip code doesn’t determine the opportunity you have to get ahead in America. We can’t solve this scourge until we address the inherent, but obvious inequalities in our country. It’s past time for us to get to work.