I tried to avoid it … I really did try … but alas, I find that I must weigh in on the situation in Baltimore, if only to silence those who believe that it is a simple black-and-white issue with simple good vs. bad components and an equally simple solution. The few facts that are known are as follows:
• On April 19th, Freddie Gray, an African-American male, age 25, was walking on a Baltimore street when a police officer made eye contact, which prompted Mr. Gray to run, though he was not wanted for any crime at that time.
• The officer gave chase and arrested Mr. Gray who did not resist arrest.
• Mr. Gray’s leg was apparently injured, though it is not known how this happened.
• Mr. Gray was put in a police van for transport to the police station.
• On arrival at the police station, Mr. Gray had mysteriously acquired three fractured vertebrae and a crushed voice box. The police van had made at least two stops between the site of the arrest and the police station, but it is unknown (or unreported) what transpired during those stops.
• Freddie Gray died later that day of severe spinal cord injuries.
• The six police officers involved have been placed on suspension with pay.
More than a week later, still no information regarding the events during that fateful van ride have been forthcoming and no real action has been taken against the officers (sorry, but suspension with pay does not, in my book, qualify as a punitive action but seems more like a paid vacation … a reward, in fact). Understandably, the community wants answers to the question “what happened and why?”. Both the mayor of Baltimore and the Department of Justice are “investigating”, but no real information has been forthcoming. The frustration of yet another African-American victim of police brutality coupled with a lack of credible information has led to frustration among Baltimore’s citizens, which ultimately has led to protests, a few of which have become very violent and resulted in property damage and injuries to police officers. Those are the facts. Now for my take …
Let me be very clear at the onset that I DO NOT CONDONE RIOTING AND VIOLENCE. Based on past experience, I’m sure that some will still conclude that I am siding with the rioters. So be it. That said, while I do not condone the violent response, I understand it. John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Imagine that you are dining with a group of friends, everyone is talking and having a good time, when you suddenly inhale a piece of food and can neither breathe nor speak. You wave your arms, trying to get somebody to notice your dilemma, but nobody seems to notice. Eventually, as you are turning blue, you are probably going to smack the nearest person or throw a plate against a wall in order to be noticed, yes? The citizens of Baltimore are choking on this and need someone to notice, to provide answers, to show that it is, indeed, being taken very seriously, but they are being ignored. So, they are lashing out. This case in and of itself is horrific, but in light of the current spate of cases involving police brutality and use of unnecessary force against African-Americans, it makes for one of the most volatile environments imaginable. Even so, most of the protests in Baltimore over the past week have been peaceful in nature. Rioting, looting and violence are not the order of the day except in a very few areas. Just as with other recent crises that led to outbreaks of violence (Hurricane Katrina, Ferguson, Mo., etc.) those who are guilty of this type of violence are most often undereducated, unsupervised youths using the situation and associated protest movements as an excuse. Still, there needs to be some serious discussion between the citizens, city leaders and the law enforcement community, else the problems will ultimately lead to more serious and lasting discord. This situation is not going to just go away and the scars cannot begin to heal until a few things happen:
1. A full investigation is performed, the questions answered and made available to the citizens
2. Harsh punishment is applied against any and all officers involved in the brutality
3. An apology is issued to the family of Freddie Gray and to the community
4. A realistic plan is put forth and implemented to ensure that this can never happen again in Baltimore
There is yet one other aspect that needs to be addressed on a national level, and that is the role of the media. The media really should step up and take at least partial responsibility for the escalation of violence, not only in Baltimore but also in Ferguson, Mo., as well as numerous other hot spots in the nation over the past decade. As noted above, many more people were involved in peaceful protests in Baltimore than in violent ones. Did you know that? Probably not, since the media choose to highlight only the most violent situations. A little personal story here … when I was a teenager, I happened to be in a city that was hit by a hurricane. Damage was minimal for the most part, with only a very few homes or businesses destroyed, however electricity and telephone service were interrupted for several days (this was before the day of cell phones or the internet) . My grandmother, who lived in Chicago, was nearly worried into an early grave until telephone service was restored and she learned that we were all well and fine. The media, as it turned out, had found the 5 or 6 buildings that had been destroyed and reported continuously that there was “mass destruction and devastation”. It was a bald-faced lie, but I guess that reporting that 99% of the area that received only minimal damage wouldn’t have gotten nearly as many viewers, thus larger ratings, thus more advertising dollars flowing into the coffers. The same is the case in Baltimore today … the press is not interested in the people who are engaged in peaceful protest. You are familiar with the expression “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”? Just as in so many other situations, such as terrorism, to name just one, the result of the slanted media coverage is that is serves as an enticement to those who are seeking their “15 minutes of fame”.
So then, is there a solution to not only this case, but preventing similar situations in the future? I do not think there is a single panacea, but a multi-faceted set of changes in how city officials, law enforcement and the press operate, and equally important, in the response of citizens of the nation, not just of a single city. Two comments I have heard repeatedly that I find particularly galling and obnoxious are: “he deserved what he got … he shouldn’t have been running from the law”, and “Obama needs to talk to his people and calm them down”. Seriously??? So, running from the law is punishable by death now? No trial, no jury, no judge, just … death. I believe it was Cicero who first coined the phrase “let the punishment be equal with the offence”, or as paraphrased by W.S. Gilbert, “let the punishment fit the crime”. And President Obama needs to speak to “his” people? This sounds like a remark that might have been made in Alabama or Mississippi in 1950! Try “we need to help our people”. We are all in this together, people! Communication, open and honest, will be of more value than anything else I can think of. We are hovering dangerously close to a return to the racism and vigilantism that defined the 1950’s and 1960’s in this nation and I think we must all be willing to do our part to prevent that. Too many hateful and hurtful remarks have been bandied about on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites with no intelligent thought behind them. Too many falsehoods and half-truths are being reported both on mainstream and social media, and those who have neither the inclination nor intelligence to dig deeper believe only what they see or hear at any given moment, adding to the unrest and potentially adding fuel to the fire. If there is a solution it will require intelligence coupled with a more compassionate and tolerant culture than we seem to have now.
While I welcome comments and would very much like to hear the opinions of others on this issue, please note that I will not tolerate any comment that is racist in nature.