A lot of things have to go wrong for protests to turn into sustained violent confrontations with the police–as in Baltimore today. The reports on the repeated protests against police
violence last week emphasized that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators were determined to be non-violent, and that scattered attempts at provocation by a few provocateurs–maybe from out of town–were isolated from the much larger protest actions.
The death of Freddie Gray was the last straw–until the next last straw. Picked up with a knife, Gray died because police delayed in getting him medical care–a fatal error local authorities have already admitted–and an investigation continues. But Gray’s death comes in the context of a police force that has paid nearly $6 million in civil settlements for beatings and abuse, mostly to young black men who were not charged with crimes. (See the Baltimore Sun investigation.) And it’s not just the money, of course; each beating wounds not only one victim, but the relationship between police and the community they’re charged with protecting. And it’s not just policing; years of gentrification and development of the Baltimore waterfront haven’t spilled over to produce good jobs, schools, or services in most of Baltimore.
At this moment, the reports are that local authorities received “credible threats” that an alliance of criminal gangs was going to go after police. The police showed up at Freddy Gray’s funeral prepared for a riot–a riot they ultimately got. Speaker after speaker at the funeral called for peace–and justice. At the moment, neither appears close.
A boy trying to shot put a rock at a police van must be terrifying to police, who know that someone bigger may be pushing something bigger. The police surely know that the world is watching and that there are all kinds of ways that they can’t respond, but they don’t know who else is out there and what other weapons the few rioters might have. They see vandalism and they see officers wounded. I don’t know if they see a way out.
We remember how much we take for granted about public order. In a city of more than 600,000, how many people does it take to bring havoc to the streets, to poke and prod officers with riot gear into reaction and overreaction? Mobilizing neighboring police forces and the National Guard, imposing a curfew, and promising to deploy a panoply of violent means to one-up the rioters, Baltimore police announced their determination to keep order:
“You’re going to see tear gas. You’re going to see pepper balls. We’re going to use appropriate methods to make sure we can preserve the safety of that community,” a spokesman, Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, said at a news conference. (New York Times)
Some brave Baltimore citizens, including clergy, also tried to control the moment, putting themselves between rioters and police, and urging the young people to back off. It is, after all, their community. And this might have had some effect.
Police preserve the social order when they can separate a relatively small number of miscreants from the larger community, and when that community is convinced that the social order is worth defending. At the moment, however, many peace-loving citizens of Baltimore are hard-pressed to throw their lot in with the police.
Meanwhile, a baseball game at Camden Yards is canceled (read the reaction of the executive vice-president of the Baltimore Orioles, John Angelos, who emphasizes that there are bigger issues than baseball at play here). School is canceled tomorrow. I’m sure almost everyone in Baltimore wants the riots and the fires and the rocks to stop, but I’m not sure going back to the normal before Freddie Gray’s death is any kind of goal.
The police interpretation of the gang truce as a violent mobilization is a stretch. Of course the truce was anti-police, in the same way all the protests are anti-police, that is, against police violence and police acting like an occupying army. The problem is police who can imagine only two states for the public: utter submission and docility, or violent rebellion. There are accounts out of Baltimore of the police provoking a riot, because a riot supports their stance that police violence is appropriate.
Policing a poor underserviced neighborhood (see Petula Dvorak’s Washington Post commentary today, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/will-freddie-grays-death-change-anything-for-a-desperately-poor-part-of-baltimore/2015/04/27/d0e6f6ca-ed0d-11e4-8abc-d6aa3bad79dd_story.html) is hard under any circumstances. It’s got to be much worse when your department has earned and firmly established reputation for differential policing by race, violence, and brutality. It doesn’t take every (or even most or many) officers to win that reputation. Given the department’s record, police had every reason to find warnings of violent protest credible. And Baltimore citizens had every reason to view a phalanx of police in riot gear at a funeral provocative.