On Monday, I saw more than one television commentator call the situation in Baltimore a tragedy. It is. But not because enraged protesters clashed with riot police in the street, smashed windows, and looted stores. Yes, cops’ cars were burning, some bodies were bleeding, and tear-gassed-eyes were streaming, but that wasn’t the tragedy. The tragedy in Baltimore is the travesty—nationwide—that Freddie Gray's terrible death is not strange at all.
When Ferguson erupted in riotous protest last August, I wrote eggshell-treading paragraphs in defense of aggressive confrontations with police, property destruction, and looting. Countless police killings of young black people have occurred since then, and the time is over to approach this gingerly. It speaks to a profound and awe-demanding heroism that black young people are standing up to police right now, having been told again and again that state forces can kill them with impunity. We're observing bravery; racists and reactionaries will call it thuggery, and traitors will demand resistance be a little more polite—no rocks, no fire please. Respect the law that desecrates you, uphold the property relations that oppress you, and don't forget decorum.
Institutionalized racism and police violence aren’t going anywhere fast. There will be time for debates, decisions, and revisions about protest tactics. We know the arguments by now, and the characters: the elder statesmen, politicians, anyone with a stake in the status quo. We will hear that riots disrespect the dead. We will hear that looting and property damage affirm narratives of black criminality and legitimize police violence. We can respond that police violence and the treatment of black skin as criminal could get no worse—it's open season on black life. We can point out, as writer Willie Osterweil did last summer, that looting and property damage are not senseless destruction, but are often (even without intention) deeply political challenges to property and white supremacy—two concepts intractably entwined in this former slave-holder republic.
Baltimore looters sacked a cash-checking store, a target both practical and political. These establishments function as a tax on poverty—charging those too poor, or living too precariously to have bank accounts, to even access the money they're paid. A CVS was looted and burned out too, and I cry no more tears for the chainstore than I did when Ferguson protesters ransacked and burned a QuikTrip.
You don't have to start a fire to support the fire-starters. The thousands of protesters who have rallied, shouted, and turned up again and again in more traditionally non-violent formats are righteously fighting, too. But to decry Baltimore protest actions on some faulty fulcrum of violence versus non-violence is unacceptable. Calls for an end to the riots are not calls for peace, but a return to violent order.
The situation in Baltimore did not "turn violent," as so many media outlets stated. It may seem an uncontroversial description of protest moments, like those in Baltimore now and Ferguson before that, to note a violent turn when events escalate to include property destruction and injury. But aside from my refusal to mourn inanimate windows and cars as victims of violence, there's an insidious perversion to talk of "turning violent" here, even if referring to human injuries. True, we did not see the protests align with some Kingian framework of non-violent activism. But how can a situation "turn violent" when it has already been violent? A context—our national setting—in which we need to scream and scream that Black Lives Matter is a state of ever-present violence.
The same critique applies to reports that police turned violent during confrontational protests, although far more commonly we see this framed in terms of police responding with violence or aggression. But even a rhetoric of police turning violent ignores that policing, as an institution in this country, functions as a force of consistent violence against black life.
This violence was never turned from. Yet the media consistently attributes the act of turning to violence to people who literally can't turn from it. We might better frame the actions by young, angry protesters in Baltimore as counter-violence. "Young black protesters in Baltimore respond violently to oppression and slaughter," would be a better standard-issue headline. Better still, "Baltimore protesters fight back."
I'm talking about meaning. And to say the situation in Baltimore "turned violent" is dangerously loaded with meaning—most harmful is the assertion of a terrain of peace onto which protesters brought violence.
It's worth noting how official and media narratives work to indelibly mark angry black youth as the primary violent actors. Consider reports this week that suggested police, on the Baltimore mayor's orders, purposefully gave demonstrators "space" to damage property. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released a follow up statement asserting that she had only ordered that space be given to peaceful protest. This is actually nothing unusual for protest policing in major cities with large police forces.
Inexperienced suburban police with military weapons, like those bumbling tear gas-firing junkies in Ferguson, move on crowds fast, create bad optics and escalation follows. Big cities learned the expensive, embarrassing mistakes of obvious protester abuse in Seattle '99, the RNC 2004, and Occupy. Some major metropolitan police forces have learned that, with enough cops, crowds can be better controlled by surrounding them, but with just enough space left so marchers believe they've gained ground. The shift is towards subtlety—dissent is no less policed. In Chicago during the 2012 NATO summit, police accompanied demonstrators for hours. I have more than once marched from Union Square in Manhattan to the Bronx—two hours on foot, perhaps, surrounded.
We get tired, we go home, normality resumes. This is why the actions in Baltimore, and the disruption to major infrastructure and city flows now typical of Black Lives Matter protest, is all the more significant. There's too much rage to contain. Effective police crowd control—the avoidance of major property damage, the minimal disruption of business and traffic, de-escalation of intensity—gets celebrated as the maintenance of peace. And once again, the myth perpetuates that we have a baseline state of peace, peppered with violent turns. Which may ring true for America's white and privileged. But the lie is exposed, over-exposed, glaring: people who have to assert that their lives matter exist in a state of constant violence. It's not just pointless, it's cruel to demand peace from those who cannot live in it.