“This city has looked like it had a riot since I was born,” Baltimore resident Vashti Presco said. “It wasn’t rebuilt after 1968, even though other cities had worse riots. That drugstore is probably never going to get rebuilt.”
Protests in Baltimore since the killing by police of Freddie Gray have been labelled as riots in the media. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has condemned those involved as “criminals” and “thugs”. President Obama condemned the protesters’ violence.
All are ignoring the many peaceful protests and erasing the brutal violence inflicted on the black community in Baltimore by a crushing combination of police brutality and grinding poverty.
As Nehisi Coates wrote in Atlantic: “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”
Freddie Gray died on 19 April, from injuries sustained when he was chased, arrested and taken for a “rough ride” in a police van. He had “caught an officer’s eye” and run away.
Freddie suffered a broken neck which left his spine “80% severed” and his voicebox crushed.
Police chiefs have admitted that the police failed to provide Freddie with medical attention and did not seatbelt him in the van. He was transported with his hands tied behind his back and his legs in restraints. Many activists say police deliberately take “rough rides”, driving vehicles erratically in order to injure passengers.
By the time Freddie received medical attention he was in cardiac arrest; he was in a coma before he reached the hospital and died a week later.
Soon after Freddie’s death the six police officers involved in his arrest were suspended and a criminal investigation was started. On 1 May, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against all of the officers. This included a “second-degree depraved heart murder” charge against Officer Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van in which Freddie suffered his fatal injuries.
Protests have continued since Freddie’s death, but changed character on Monday 27 April, the day of his funeral, in response to increasing police aggression and the calling in of the National Guard.
A curfew imposed by Mayor Rawlings-Blake made matters worse, and she was forced to withdraw it on Sunday 2 May.
On 27 April 75-100 school students gathered at Mondawmin Mall, a transport hub for students travelling to and from many local schools, in response to a “social media call out” for a “purge” (a reference to a film where crime is made legal). Police responded in full riot gear, closed the local transit station so the students couldn’t get home and confronted crowds with pepper spray and tasers. Inevitably students threw rocks and bottles at police in response. Reports say police threw rocks back.
Protests escalated throughout the afternoon and evening. A drugs store was “looted” and set on fire, one or two other stores were broken into and a few police cars set on fire. Property damage was, as with similar events, very limited. As Shawn Gude, who witnessed the night, wrote in Jacobin: “But of the entire scene, the most salient thing wasn’t the destruction wrought by protestors — the cop car demolished, the payday loan store smashed up — but by capital: the decrepit, boarded-up row houses, hovels and vacants in a city full of them.”
Police provocation, violence and paranoid over-the-top responses to protests have continued.
On Friday 1 May, 100 protesters gathered outside City Hall to defy the curfew, sitting down in a circle on the lawn. Within half an hour police moved the demonstration using physical force and arresting 53 people. In Sandtown-Winchester police used armoured vehicles to drive onto pavements to “disperse” crowds breaking the curfew.
On Saturday 2 May a march from Sandtown-Winchester to Baltimore’s prison ended with police arresting the entire march, including one legal observer and two medics.
This violence is the everyday lived experience for the black community in Baltimore. 109 people have been killed by Maryland police in the last five years, 71 of them in Baltimore city alone. 70% were black and 40% were unarmed. In the last four years, more than 100 people have won civil suits for police brutality.
During Rawlings-Blake’s time as Mayor, the city has been forced to pay $5.7 million to settle civil suits over police misconduct and brutality. A further $5.8 million has been paid to defend police who have been implicated in harassment, abuse, assault or murder of a black person.
Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed an assault, 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.
Baltimore is different to Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot and killed in 2014.
It is a major urban centre, with a black majority population which is reflected in a black majority in the city’s political leadership. It contrasts to severe underrepresentation of black people in Ferguson. Yet Baltimore Police Department is still overwhelmingly white.
The same issues of race-linked poverty occur in Baltimore as in Ferguson. Black children in Baltimore are nine times more likely to die before age one than white children; white and black neighbourhoods just six miles apart have a 20-year difference in life expectancy; median income for black households in Baltimore is $33,610 compared to $60,550 for white households and $73,538 for the general population in the rest of Maryland; unemployment for black men between the ages of 20-24 is 37%; and 24% of Baltimore’s population lives below the poverty line.
Decades of decline in manufacturing have left large areas of the city, and large sections of the population, without jobs. The jobs that the city claims have replaced manufacturing — in cyber security, life sciences and information technology — are seeking white collar, college-educated workers, mostly found in the white population.
In a court testimony Freddie’s mother said she had never learned to read, and that she had sniffed heroin daily from the age of 23. He and his two siblings grew up in a house saturated with lead paint, and they had problems typically associated with lead exposure: ADHD, medical and behavioural issues.
Having a black political leadership in Baltimore City has not dismantled institutional racism. It definitely has not pushed back the grinding poverty that affects black communities more than white. The situation in Baltimore is less clearly one of outright racism of a white cop against poor black communities.
As described on the American Socialist Worker website (no link to the British SWP), Baltimore is run by a black political establishment that is “fully integrated into the post-civil rights landscape — a landscape that includes massive levels of segregation, intense concentrations of poverty and astounding brutality alongside a new black middle class and political class.”