I’m a Marylander, but I don’t live in Baltimore. It’s been about two years since I visited Charm City. Yet Maryland is a small state, and many of us, regardless of how often we may get there, consider Maryland’s largest city, warts and all, a major component of the state’s identity.
All that by way of saying that while civil disorder in any city affects decent people, the perspective on the situation deepens when it’s happening close to home. (I’m just over an hour from Baltimore myself.)
What is my perspective on what’s being labeled as the riots in Baltimore last night? My answer to that will likely be as unsatisfying to you as it is to me; I don’t know.
To be frank, I can’t know, with any degree of sincerity, how to approach what happened, (and what may happen again in the coming days) because I have never been in such a situation as many of Baltimore’s poor, and predominately black citizens find themselves in on a daily basis. Nor do I know what, if anything, will make a dent in the problem.
I do know that the unrest didn’t show up without warning. I know it wasn’t a shock, and I know that the actions taken by both the more peaceful elements, and the more destructive groups is not a simple tit-for-tat for the as yet unexplained death of Freddie Gray. Whatever your take on the actions of Baltimore citizens in the last few days, you’d have to be uninformed to a near-mystical degree to conclude that all of this was not part of a culmination of events in Baltimore stretching back decades at the very least. The documented history of the Baltimore Police Department should give any civilized person pause. And that’s just the things people have discovered. No doubt there are at least as many incidents before the days of cell phones and social media that never did, and never will see the light of day, and yet have exacerbated the seemingly systemic oppression and marginalization of an entire demographic.
I also know a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V that I use in my own one-man show. King Henry of the English, portrayed by Shakespeare as “the mirror of all Christian Kings,” has treated the French people with compassion, despite being at war with them. He has ordered his army to do likewise. Yet when, late in the action, it comes to the King’s attention that the French have committed atrocities on the battlefield so heinous that even the laws of war forbid them, Henry takes on a whole new attitude.
“We’ll cut the throats of those we have, and not a man of them that we shall take shall taste our mercy.”
As I point out in my show, we see even a godly, noble character turn savage at one point. Why? Because a line has been crossed within his very soul. We all have that line, and while we may not know the exact nature of what we would do if said line were crossed, it’s safe to say we’d probably not be ourselves. I must at least consider that truth when I look at some of what happened in Baltimore, even the violent actions of the few. For just as an individual has a line, a society, a demographic, a neighborhood, a city and a civilization itself has a line. Much of what we see, yes, even the burning of cars and smashing of windows may, I think, be the result of a soul’s line being crossed too many times on too large a scale.
I do reject the physical harm of people, period. As for the destruction of property, I’d prefer it not take place, and I suspect I would not choose to go that route. But I cannot be certain I would never resort to it, nor can I permit myself to 100% demonize those in Baltimore that do so. Why can’t I? Because not only has my own line not been crossed thus far in my life, but my line is not their line, and I cannot ignore that.
Nor can I ignore the fact that people in such cities, in such social classes, and such races have suffered far more than an inconvenience or an irritation over the years. The recourse for such abuse has been few and far between. I’m not even sure if this is about correcting anything at this point. That’s why the statements of politicians about how citizens are destroying their own communities is a bit problematic; we need to consider that the people who are burning drug stores down are not those who will complain later that they have no drug store. Some of them may be the people, especially the young, who feel they have nothing left to do in a system rigged against them than to say, in as loud a voice as possible, “fuck you all.” That may not be helpful to the overall problem, but in their minds maybe they figure nothing is.
“What about Martin Luther King, Jr?” many well-meaning people have asked. “What about Gandhi?” Many a meme has sprung up over the last 48 hours quoting both men as a means to depict the events in Baltimore of last evening as barbaric. “Look what those famous leaders did without resorting to brick throwing. Shut up and do the same, instead of burning down the city.”
Let’s address that contribution to the discussion in two ways. First, peaceful protesters of the now nearly forgotten Freddie Gray death have in fact been active in Baltimore this week. Close to 10,000 of them in fact. Not to mention the peaceful march of arm-locked clergy through some of the violence. So the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi approach is not absent in all of this. It probably is not as sexy a story as is a city blowing up, and so it hasn’t been reported as often, but the approach is present.
Yet media interest aside, the non-violent approach of King and Gandhi has been utilized before in such situations, both in Baltimore over the years and in other major cities with similar problems. Yet despite some reforms, true lasting progress on such issues since the death of King himself has been sporadic and sadly temporary. The reasons for this involve socio-economic, political, and even spiritual truths too complex to get into in one post on a blog. Yet I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that while the non-violent methods of these famous men are still used, what is missing are the men themselves, and people like them.
King and Gandhi were exceptional men. Transcendent men in many ways. You get a few of those a century, probably. And they don’t descend from heaven fully made when they do show up. Both men were highly educated. Both men, though egregiously wronged in their lives did at certain key points have access to powerful thoughts, words, history, philosophy. While I don’t think one needs a college degree to be a hero, or to affect change in the world, I cannot help but wonder if there is some correlation between neighborhoods that lack educational and cultural opportunities, and those who respond to oppression in non-King type ways.
I can’t answer the question, but I at least ask it; can we really expect another Martin Luther King Jr. to just emerge under some of these conditions? Though the same horrific problems continue to exist and even get worse along racial lines in the country, we don’t live in the same world in which those two fine men lived. I continue to believe in the potential of non-violent resistance, but I can’t look at Baltimore and its problems and scream, “Go be Martin Luther King, Jr.” at them either. I dare say they are not as worried about emulating a great man at this point, as they are about being heard, feeling safe in their own homes, and being taken seriously by those in authority. If that’s the case, no amount of quoting someone, who to many of them is a historical figure, is going to satisfy the yearning that burns within them as the city itself burns.
As for myself, I tend towards non-violence. I don’t think I would be joining those who are burning the city, and I’d rather not see them doing it either. But I am also not a pacifist. By that I mean I believe that backed into a corner or pushed far enough, I suspect I could in fact use violence. Outside of direct, immediate threat to myself and family, I don’t know what that line is. I don’t believe it would be the same line as those breaking the windows. But then again, despite being poor, I am white, and have lived in rural, white, Frederick County, Maryland my entire life. Though I’m only an hour and 15 minutes or so from the epicenter of this recent destruction, in some ways I couldn’t be more far away from it. And unless I am willing to drive down there and walk into the streets and become Baltimore’s Gandhi, (a task for which I am grossly unqualified), I can’t simply dismiss every single incident of a broken window or a thrown rock as “thugs being thugs,” even if I don’t agree with their actions.
And lest we think it’s all about unemployed black people, let’s recall places like Vancouver, who rioted over not oppression, police brutality or anything else political, but over hockey, statistically perhaps one of the most white sports in North America. In fact you see white neighborhoods riot over sporting events all the time. Just look up “sports riot” online, and see if any images of mostly white crowds burning a city show up. (Hint: they will.)
Civil unrest isn’t pretty, whether it’s King’s non-violent kind, or that which we see in Baltimore, or saw in Ferguson. Like vomiting, it can be an unpleasant, off-putting affair. Nobody loves it, especially if it happens nearby. Yet it is rarely for no reason. It’s an attempt to purge the body of something that should not be there. Just as if an organism is vomiting, there is almost certainly something wrong internally that cannot be solved by holding our nose at the vomit, so does civil unrest like that in Baltimore indicate that there is something seriously wrong with the social system itself that cannot be corrected by memes. When it comes to this recent unrest, if the illness is not cured, one day the symptoms are going to be much, much worse than they already are.