born in flames

I have more thoughts on presidents, war, and voting that I hope to get to soon. But at the moment the eruption of violence in Baltimore seems more urgent.

On Sunday I posted this well-intentioned Mic article to Facebook:

On Saturday, over 2,000 protesters marched to Baltimore’s City Hall to protest the death of 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray. Gray died on April 19 after suffering a spinal injury while in Baltimore Police Department custody a week earlier. At some point between when Gray was put into a police van and shackled and the time paramedics were called over half an hour later, something nasty happened.

According to Gray’s family attorney, his spine was 80% severed at the neck. Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez admits that Gray gave up without the use of force.

Since then, thousands of people have taken to the streets every day to demonstrate against the fate that befell Freddie Gray and countless other people who have been killed by police in America. But on Saturday night, a small minority of Baltimore’s residents decided to irresponsibly engage in property destruction and acts of violence — and the media lost its mind….

Despite the fact that there have been peaceful protests in Baltimore every day since Gray died on April 19, some folks seem determined to frame the narrative around the actions of a disgruntled minority.

The article makes some very good, worthwhile points about the way the violence is interpreted by the media, including all the usual notes about the difference between white riots (hijinks) and black riots (END TIMES!!!) and the fact that complex images are often misintepreted. This, for example:

riot drunk chair throw

went through the following permutation, as explained by journalist Brandon Soderberg:

here is a photo of me stopping a woman from going at protestors (she seemed very drunk) . . . saving her from herself.

that image is being sent around to suggest I was protecting her from protestors . . . .

you’ll also see images of @trustpunch and @ItsGiannaBitch trying to stop her. we were part of the protest. drunk lady was walking AT protest

another drunk woman threw a stool at me and someone else then kept yelling at protestors, walking at them hands up “Come at me”

But while the media criticism is invaluable, as of today it no longer seems tenable to say that this violence is the work of a rotten few. The rioters and window-smashers might still be a minority, but at this point they are powerful, driving force in what’s going on in Baltimore. This is not, for example, the brief, mild violence that interrupted demonstrations in Los Angeles after the Zimmerman verdict a couple of years ago. As yesterday’s photos show, what’s happening in Baltimore right now involves sustained, violent confrontation with police:





A slightly shell-shocked Shep Smith suggested that it looked like Palestinians fighting with the IDF. Which seems about right:


Of course, clashing with police is one thing; even white kids from the leafy suburbs did that, once upon a time:


Harder to take, for a squeamish white liberal at least, are the images of looting, which conjure the worst stereotypes imaginable and seem impossible to square with political protest:




In one sense — a strictly logical sense — it of course does not matter whether protesters are doing bad things. If they are correct about police violence and ongoing, systemic oppression, they are correct about that, independent of their own actions this week. But because humans are human, and because they have a hard time separating the message from the messenger, it is worth exploring where this violence — including the desire to commit property crimes against convenience stores and other businesses — really comes from.

This thoughtful post by blogger Radical Faggot attempts to locate all these acts in a logical strategy of disruption:

I’m overwhelmed by the pervasive slandering of protesters in Baltimore this weekend for not remaining peaceful. The bad-apple rhetoric would have us believe that most Baltimore protesters are demonstrating the right way—as is their constitutional right—and only a few are disrupting the peace, giving the movement a bad name….

Non-violence is a type of political performance designed to raise awareness and win over sympathy of those with privilege. When those on the outside of struggle—the white, the wealthy, the straight, the able-bodied, the masculine—have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not care, are not invested, are not going to step in the line of fire to defend the oppressed, this is a futile political strategy….

The political goals of rioters in Baltimore are not unclear—just as they were not unclear when poor, Black people rioted in Ferguson last fall. When the free market, real estate, the elected government, the legal system have all shown you they are not going to protect you—in fact, that they are the sources of the greatest violence you face—then political action becomes about stopping the machine that is trying to kill you, even if only for a moment, getting the boot off your neck, even if it only allows you a second of air. This is exactly what blocking off streets, disrupting white consumerism, and destroying state property are designed to do….

[W]hile I don’t believe that every protester involved in attacking police cars and corporate storefronts had the same philosophy, did what they did for the same reasons, it cannot be discounted that when there is a larger national outcry in defense of plate-glass windows and car doors than for Black young people, a point is being made….

A fine point. I also don’t think every person who smashed a convenience store window today (or even every person who threw a rock or set fire to a police vehicle) was motivated by political consciousness. But Baltimore and communities like it are sending us a very clear message, intended or not: they are in a permanent state of civic disaster:

Over the past four years, more than 100 people [in Baltimore] have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson ….

And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims—if charges were filed at all. In an incident that drew headlines recently, charges against a South Baltimore man were dropped after a video showed an officer repeatedly punching him—a beating that led the police commissioner to say he was “shocked.”

And while the Department of Justice declined to pursue civil rights charges against Darren Wilson in the Mike Brown shooting, the Department’s investigation of the Ferguson city government and police department revealed a scheme of policing-as-revenue-collection that would make the Sheriff of Nottingham’s hair stand on end:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities. Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.

The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved. City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement. In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.” Similarly, in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.” The importance of focusing on revenue generation is communicated to FPD officers. Ferguson police officers from all ranks told us that revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from City leadership. The evidence we reviewed supports this perception.

The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation. Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.

It’s also worth pointing out, perhaps not quite as a side note, that the businesses that were looted are convenience stores and check cashing stores, not Whole Foods and Bank of America. That, in itself, is part of the message.

Because even to the extent that it is not intended as a political message, what’s happening in Baltimore, like what happened in Ferguson, is a message. It is telling us what happens when you put your fellow human beings in, not merely difficult situations, but situations that are devoid of hope. It is not mere poverty that we are talking about here, but the disastrous consequences of centuries of personal experience teaching people that the civil society is not for them, does not protect them, and indeed is actively out to weaken, confine, rob, and ultimately destroy them.

Back when Ferguson exploded, I bookmarked this nice bit of writing from a few years ago, by Tumblr user ladycyon. It’s about, of all things, “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan’s theories of dog psychology. The author thinks Millan reads dogs all wrong, based on old research that did not take into account the impact of environments on complex mammal brains. This section, in particular, struck a chord with me:

The majority of Millan’s theories stem from research done on wolves “in the wild.” The problem with this is that for the majority of the last hundred years, up until 1975 (the year wolves gained endangered species protection from the government) it’s been difficult if not nearly impossible to find a wild wolf pack due to extensive efforts to eradicate the species. In an article featured by the Canadian Journal of Zoology, David Mech writes, “Most research on the social dynamics of wolf packs, however, has been conducted on wolves in captivity. These captive packs were usually composed of an assortment of wolves from various sources placed together and allowed to breed at will,” (Mech, 2). This meshing of random unrelated individuals created a very different social dynamic than those found in wolves in the wild; specifically concerning the occurrence of fights for dominance.

Adult wolves placed in a precarious social situation, will fight with each other, for control of food and resources, and – supposedly – rank in the pack, the strongest, most ferocious animals coming out on top. This is where the concept of an “alpha” wolf stemmed from . . . . The problem with this is the fact that wolves in the wild do not form packs in this manner. Mech writes: “Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organized with a “top dog” that fought its way to the top, or a male-female pair of such aggressive wolves, science has come to understand that most wolf packs are merely family groups formed exactly the same way as human families are formed . . . .” [T]hese family groups do not compete for dominance. The parents become the leaders of these groups, the pups following the parents naturally and learning from them. In other words, there are rarely, if ever, fights for dominance amongst wild wolves inhabiting the same pack. To base a dog training theory on this faulty concept of wolf behavior is bad science, yielding inaccurate and ineffective results.

Increasingly I think this is almost word-for-word true of humans as well. Put humans in precarious social environments, and they tend to behave differently — more violently, more aggressively, more fearfully, more selfishly. They “choose” short-term, risky survival strategies over more “rational” long-term planning.

We tend to think of acts like rioting and especially looting as the making of rational choices, but my suspicion is that the behavior changes tend to be sub-rational, a whole different pattern of responses that acts as a kind of emergency override of our more normal responses. Like wolves, we humans have one set of (cooperative, pro-social) behaviors that emerges in environments where those behaviors are likely to be rewarded. But we have another set that emerges in environments that are chaotic, tipped against us, or otherwise sufficiently unrewarding of good citizenship.

For the environment to foster pro-social behavior, then, I think it has to convince the individual that there is enough fairness and enough predictability in his environment that his pro-social actions — generosity and forgiveness, self-sacrifice, obedience to authority and moral codes, forbearance from violence, etc. — will have a meaningful effect. He has to believe that pro-social behavior on his part will generally invite the same from others, allowing for occasional mistakes. When that belief is lacking, a person (or any intelligent, social mammal!) feels what ladycyon calls “precarious.” And that feeling of precariousness, I think, might explain a lot of anti-social or seemingly irrational behavior.

I think Jay Smooth is getting at this when he talks about rioting in Ferguson and people “reaching their limit”:

But also, Ta-Nehisi Coates is approaching the same thing when he says that “having a boot on your neck, while deeply tragic, is not an ennobling experience.”

Baltimore is teaching us, if we can hear it, that contrary to the mainstream liberal narrative, the periodic eruptions of violence that arise in the protest environment are not the work of “bad apples,” of evildoers sneaking into what would otherwise be a festival of Zen calm punctuated occasionally by the joyous singing of spirituals. (Though if we think the first civil rights movement consisted solely of such, we misremember history.) Rather, violence and anti-social behavior are the natural reaction of a significant minority of people on the ground in these communities to their lived experiences.

There are several possible explanations for what is happening in Baltimore. One is the racist explanation — that black people are somehow more prone to violence and theft than other people. (Or the slightly more sophisticated cousin of this idea, which is that black people are such rubes that they’ve been misled by “race hustlers” into a resentment all out of proportion to their own experiences.) Apart from being the racist (in the most literal sense) explanation, it is also deeply contradicted by the long history of white political rioting and destruction of property, whether for good or for evil.

Then there’s Radical Faggot’s explanation — that this violence and destruction is strategic. That might be partly true, but I think there’s something else mixed in there.

And then there’s my explanation — that if you put humans into a hopeless, desperate situation, if you teach them over a long period of time through brutal experience that they are outside the polity and the protection of the law, then they will react accordingly. Not as a matter of strategy, or even as a matter of rational choice or moral decisionmaking, but purely as a matter of an organism changing survival strategies in a near-apocalyptic environment.

That is not to say that the explosive rage of the “precarious” is not often channeled by and merged with political consciousness. Here is Marvin Gaye talking about the moment when his own anger and desperation came welling up in the 1960s:

I remember I was listening to a tune of mine playing on the radio, “Pretty Little Baby,” when the announcer interrupted with news about the Watts riot. My stomach got real tight and my heart started beating like crazy. I wanted to throw the radio down and burn all the bullshit songs I’d been singing and get out there and kick ass with the rest of the brothers. I knew they were going about it wrong, I knew they weren’t thinking, but I understood anger that builds up over years — shit, over centuries — and I felt myself exploding. Why didn’t our music have anything to do with this? Wasn’t music supposed to express feelings . . . ? I wondered to myself, With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?

Gaye was never, to my knowledge, involved with rioting in the ’60s. He was a songwriter, and he was able to pour his heartache and rage into brilliant, beautiful political music. But arguably he died of the rage anyway, when his father shot him after the two men fought over a trivial argument between Gaye’s parents. This is not to say, obviously, that every domestic murder is the result of systemic racism and the alienation of black people from the society in which they live. But it is to suggest that systemic racism and alienation will raise, dramatically, the number of domestic murders in a community.

Often, when black activists complain about police violence, the retort is “What about violence within the black community!?” What, indeed, about that? Where does it come from? Why does it persist, despite universal condemnation within the black community? (As a side note — even the Crips and the Bloods are calling each other brother and speaking out for peace in Baltimore today.) The two kinds of violence — police violence and intra-community violence — are elements of the same problem. When we truly accept black communities and black people into our body politic, I suspect we will see less violence of both kinds.

Anyway, I’ve now spent a thousand words to say what Langston Hughes said better a century ago in a few dozen. So I’ll give him the last word.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

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1 Response to born in flames

  1. I’m so glad I get to read you insightful comments. It’s hard to believe how much our society has gone awry. Social and political oppression are invisible to the classes not experiencing it. I sometimes feel that what really needs to happen in all communities is the elimination of the “police” as an institution and definitely as a revenue system. Like hospitals, police should be aiming to put themselves out of a job in the end, not to perpetuate their own existence by stirring up political disturbances with force and riot gear, or taxing-via-fines.

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