Thursday, April 30, 2015

If could be worse. In fact it was.

April 1968. Via Ghosts of Baltimore.
Michel Martin at NPR remembers the riots following the 1968 murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., personally, from when she was a little girl in New York City: her father was that rare bird, an African American firefighter, so she has a wonderfully round perspective. It made her think to interview some veterans of 1968, a Baltimore cop and a Washington firefighter, both white, to put the current Baltimore disturbance in context.

One thing that stands out is how small-scale this disturbance seems in contrast to those days, when it was whole neighborhoods, not a few individual buildings, that were burning, and went on for much longer; there are areas in Baltimore that still haven't recovered from the property damage of 40-odd years ago, it's one of the urban-rot problems that makes the city such a mess. The current disturbance is awful, but it's nothing like the awfulness of back in the day. I think we really need to recognize this.

Also, the interviewees couldn't be led to acknowledge the reasons why it was so much worse back then: that progress has been made, and that advances in racial justice, especially the integration of the city government and the police force, have been part of the progress. It was fascinating how they refused to take the bait and just stuck with a silly-old-guy "you kids have it easy" tone.

It's equally true that one thing hasn't improved, and it's the one thing you'd think would have been the most affected: the uncontrolled violence of the Baltimore police force that took Freddie Gray's life, and which we've been hearing about from Mark Puente's reporting in the Baltimore Sun. Baltimore has done a tremendous job, since Kurt Schmoke's mayoralty in the early 1990s, in bringing black officers into the force, but it remains brutal, enough to have cost the city $5.7 million in payouts to mostly black victims.

Puente finds that most of the problem was part of a special plainclothes Violent Crimes Impact Section that has been disbanded under the new police commissioner Anthony Batts (the seventh African American to hold the job), who is well aware of the department's reputation and has vowed to fix it. We'll see. But of course Freddie Gray won't, because of the mysterious events that almost severed his spinal cord some time after he was arrested (with no probable cause) on April 19 and while he was in police custody, and that caused his death, at the age of 25.

Update: Now we have Peter Hermann at the Washington Post spreading the police story that Gray must have crushed his own larynx and sliced up his spinal cord, presumably in hopes of getting the innocent cops in trouble, just out of pure spite. I'm not even linking this bullshit story. For more, see Steve M. Meanwhile the Times reports that the official police investigation is done and will remain secret.

Freddie Gray and police van. Via Philadelphia magazine.
Glad to say, by the way, I had a troubled sense that I use the word "thug" here pretty frequently, but I shouldn't have worried; I seem to use it basically to refer to representatives of violent state power and the Republicans who cheer it on, and never for black kids acting out, however deplorable the results.

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