The recent unrest in Baltimore is certainly an important event, but it probably won’t lead to large-scale changes anytime soon.
Lots of people have been talking about the civil disturbances that rocked the city of Baltimore this week, and not without good reason. They clearly are connected to the recent controversies surrounding instances of police brutality towards African-Americans, and the events in Baltimore were sparked by the death of Freddie Gray who died after receiving a spinal cord injury while in police custody.
Much of the commentary around these riots is focused on the moral implications of what happened to provoke them and how society should best respond. For example David Simon, a noted author and creator of the hit HBO show “The Wire”, issued a desperate plea for calm after his adopted home town was beset by a wave of arson and pitched battles between youth and the police. While The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece sharply critical of city officials and civic leaders, like David Simon, who urged non-violence. There have been lots of other reactions as well.
The questions of what is the correct way to respond to this outbreak of violence, and how to address the issues that caused it are incredibly important. But the big question in my mind, and I say this as a person who lived in Charm City in 2006-07 and worked in environmental politics, is what will actually happen in response to these events?
Sadly, I doubt much serious change will come out of this week’s chaos.
Many people have drawn comparisons between this week’s events in Baltimore and last year’s conflagration in Ferguson, Missouri. But that comparison isn’t helpful here. Ferguson was a small majority African-American city that had always been dominated by a white minority in politics and law enforcement. Baltimore is different. It is a major American city that is diverse in its political and legal institutions. As Michael Fletcher pointed out in The Washington Post earlier this week:
Baltimore is not Ferguson and its primary problems are not racial. The mayor, city council president, police chief, top prosecutor, and many other city leaders are black, as is half of Baltimore’s 3,000-person police force. The city has many prominent black churches and a line of black civic leadership extending back to Frederick Douglass.
So more diversity in law enforcement or politics isn’t the problem—or the solution—for Baltimore. The city’s problems are ones of economic devastation and a high level of social pathologies across the board. As Fletcher writes:
The federal government has said that Baltimore has the highest concentration of heroin addicts in the nation. Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, once home to Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway, has more recently distinguished itself as the place that has sent the highest number of people to prison in the state of Maryland.
It does not stop there, despite ambitious city efforts to build new housing and focus social services in Sandtown. More than half of the neighborhood’s households earned less than $25,000 a year, according to a 2011 Baltimore Health Department report, and more than one in five adults were out of work—double the citywide average. One in five middle school students in the neighborhood missed more than 20 days of school, as did 45 percent of the neighborhood’s high schoolers.
Reforms of the police might be vital to prevent future outbreaks of violence as well as a moral imperative, but that raises the question of why the city’s leadership hasn’t acted already. I believe the reason police reform hasn’t happened in Baltimore is that it isn’t popular with the city’s political power structure or its electorate.
The recent riots and peaceful mass demonstrations that preceded them might give the impression that all of Baltimore is occupied by a hostile police force, that the population has risen up en masse, and that some kind of revolution is imminent. But for many middle and upper class Baltimoreans, black and white alike, the police are a mostly positive force. The riots occurred predominantly in the incredibly impoverished and forgotten African-American neighborhoods to the west and east of Baltimore’s recently revitalized downtown. Hampden, the historic white working class neighborhood where I lived from 2006-07, didn’t make the news at all. It’s been pretty much the same for the leafy middle and upper class neighborhoods throughout the city’s northern areas.
This is hardly a phenomenon unique to Baltimore. Back in 2001 none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about a similar phenomenon in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, a prosperous and majority African-American suburb of Washington, DC. As he pointed out back then:
Police brutality may help Al Sharpton garner a spot on “Rivera Live,” but the black uppercrust sees little point in putting the police on trial here in Prince George’s County, or anywhere else in the nation for that matter. Like their white counterparts, African-Americans will countenance a few police thrashings if that’s the price of keeping their Jags from getting jacked.
As a result of the uprisings, the City of Baltimore may now be willing to institute a major reform of its police force, but it lacks the resources to remake the city without help. Baltimore is a rustbelt city that was devastated by the wave of deindustrialization that swept through America after World War II. It was also ground zero for the phenomenon of white flight and suburbanization that further depopulated and impoverished major American cities in the second half of the twentieth century. And while it’s seen a bit of a rebound in the last 10 years, this recent round of disturbances probably won’t be growing the tax base or luring large scale private investment any time soon.
Could the State help out? Yes. Maryland is a fairly wealthy state by our nation’s standards. But Maryland’s political dynamics make stepping in highly unlikely. The conservative rural and exurban parts of Maryland have never favored Baltimore, and the powerful and liberal DC suburbs have never viewed Charm City’s problems as their responsibility.
The Federal Government could step in and try to boost jobs, health care, education, and housing for the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore, and personally I would love to see such a change in national policy. But the last time that was tried, during LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s, it proved to be quite unpopular at the ballot box, in no small part because of riots throughout American cities.
Change is urgently needed in how we treat and care for the less fortunate living in the forgotten corners of America, but despite the massive unrest and destruction, it may not come soon or at all. If enough Americans cared, paid attention, and started doing the hard work necessary to make social change happen, it could, but that requires courage, leadership, and motivation—things that as a nation we are lacking. I doubt much will change, but I’d love to be proven wrong.
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