Thomas F. Schaller
BALTIMORE: There are fires in Baltimore. This may add fuel to them, but so be it: Freddie Gray’s April 19 death while in police custody is almost entirely about race.
Sure, it’s about community policing policies and standards. It’s also about the economic disparities that paralyze many of Baltimore’s poorest residents and communities.
But those are proximate explanations for a shared, underlying cause: race.
I say that not knowing what results the investigation into police actions will yield. Perhaps there will be some perfectly reasonable explanation why Gray’s spinal cord was nearly severed. Maybe some of the officers responsible were black, just like the city’s mayor and police commissioner — facts upon which dismissive voices have seized to insist that none of this has anything to do with race.
But we do not need these details because protests are neither easy nor cheap. The lazy and apathetic aren’t easy to motivate, and the motivated aren’t easy to organize. Despite what we have heard, people do not protest for fun, out of boredom or to make some quick score.
Rather, the fact of social protest is prima facie evidence of political disgruntlement, and of an extant imbalance between those who wield power and those subjected to it. When these inequities persist and have no other form of expression, there will be unrest. And in this case, those suffering from Baltimore’s power imbalances are disproportionately black.
“This whole police community relations situation … is the civil rights cause of this generation,” Baltimore-area U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings proclaimed on one Sunday talk show. Sad, but true.
Tea party protesters weren’t violent, some might say. They did not set fires or taunt the police.
But neither were they disempowered or poor. In fact, the composite tea party profile is whiter, older and more affluent than the American population at large. Poor, oppressed Americans cannot afford to spend millions of dollars funding congressional and state legislative candidates, nor do they receive back-channel support from the Koch brothers.
There’s a maxim about how the weak protest using the means available to them: “When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bends and silently farts.”
In theory, citizens in a democracy have better options than peasants do. They have the vote — yet voting rights are under constant threat. They can contribute to candidates and parties — yet as economic disparity rises the pre-existing asymmetries in who can and cannot pay for access and power become magnified, too.
Soon enough, we won’t be talking about these underlying problems because Baltimore is burning. The fires provide those who want to do nothing an opportunity to conflate protests with rioters or whisper that we ought to fear the Black Panthers.
I’ve watched Fox News cover the story for hours at a clip without delving into the police-custody death that led to the protests. They’re too busy showing endless loops of cars burning, store lootings, attacks on law enforcement officials and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s foolhardy comment about providing space for protesters “to destroy.”
Rinse and repeat enough times and those angered by Freddie Gray’s death will be lumped together into one lawless and easily ignored mass. It’s already happening: By late Monday night, Mark Fuhrman — yes, that Mark Fuhrman — proclaimed on Fox that “peaceful protesters and rioters are interchangeable.” Really?
I condone none of the illegal behaviors that occurred in recent days. Stealing, starting fires and injuring law enforcement officers or fellow citizens is wrong. It’s also politically counterproductive. And those stealing toilet paper care little about whether Black Lives Matter, or about Freddie Gray, his family, police policies or broader questions of social justice.
Yet the story will become almost exclusively about them. We’ve witnessed this familiar, predictable pattern already in Ferguson and elsewhere: Look at how “they” act; “they” must deserve it. No need to state their race — the pictures tell viewers all they need to know.
A reader once emailed to ask me, “why is everything with you always about race?” That’s easy: Because there are so few issues where race isn’t a subtle, if not overt, factor in politics.
Immigration reform, unemployment rates, public safety, the Affordable Care Act, the delayed confirmation of the U.S. attorney general, community lending, drug sentencing disparities, the mortgage interest deduction, voluntary military service, voter ID laws, state Medicaid policies, federal Medicare policy — I could write an entire column about how each of these is systematically influenced by racial politics. Frankly, after eight years writing in this space I’m embarrassed I haven’t.
So better late than never: Freddie Gray’s death and the protests that ensued are about race. We remain a city, state and nation far from achieving anything close to racial parity or fairness. No matter who started them, that’s why the fires burn.
Schaller teaches political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His most recent book is The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House. He writes regularly for the Baltimore Sun.