It’s a lot easy to focus on protester violence than to face the real roots of what’s happening in Baltimore.
Since the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries while in custody, protesters have taken to the streets of Baltimore, demonstrating residents’ collective will to resist police brutality and the systemic mistreatment of Black Americans. While many have been petitioning peacefully, there have been significant bouts of violence and rioting as well. And though many locals have been working to keep the city running, cleaning up the damage caused by protest groups and destructive opportunists, many in the media have seized on the chaos, delegitimizing the wide grievances of the movement as the simple-minded aggression of a group of “thugs.”
Even Baltimore’s Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, hasn’t seemed focused on the conditions that brought her constituency to this point, and has come off as unwilling to stand up for her city’s fed-up residents: “Too many people have invested in building up this city to allow thugs to tear it down,” she tweeted on Monday. But the last two days have also seen some of the city’s local councilmen out on the street, working with people, communicating with demonstrators, and correcting the assumptions and sensationalism of the press.
Councilman Nick Mosby, for example, was on the scene, engaging with protesters, negotiating with cops, and trying to talk down rioters. Confronted by FOX News reporter Leland Vittert, Mosby gave an insightful answer as to what the rioting means for the city.
“What it is, is young folks of this community showing decades old anger, frustration, for a system that’s failed them. I mean, this is bigger than Freddie Gray. This is about the socio-economics of poor, urban America,” Mosby explained, and continued to outline the roots of what was going on around them. Vittert then tried to shift the conversation to property damage, patronizing the councilman by asking if he thought the looting of a nearby store was “right.”
“Is it right for people to loot? No,” Mosby said. “I think you’ve missed everything I’ve tried to articulate,” he told Vittert, before reiterating his earlier point. Mosby went on to say, “It has nothing to do with west Baltimore or this particular corner in Baltimore. This can erupt anywhere in socio-economic deprived America.”
And Mosby wasn’t the only councilman out there standing up to a one-dimensional view of what’s happening in Baltimore. After President Obama and the city’s mayor both used the term to describe demonstrators, last night City Councilman Carl Stokes clashed with CNN’s Erin Burnett over the racially loaded implications of the using word “thug” in this context.
“No, of course it's not the right word to call our children thugs,” Stoke told CNN. “These are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us. No, we don't have to call them thugs.”
Burnett then accused Stokes of justifying the actions of the protesters, by rejecting the term. “So calling them thugs, just call them niggers,” he said, exasperated.
It is telling that in both of these exchanges, the reporter tried to turn explanations of the anger behind the demonstrations into an endorsement of looting and violence. The media will always focus on the most sensational aspect of a given story, and it takes concerted effort to keep the narrative from folding in on the worst instincts of both participants and observers. It’s important to remember that these reductionist narratives only serve those who do not care about the issues that brought about the situation, or worse, seek to ignore, or even perpetuate the underlying evils.
The only way to undermine narrow, simplistic, or ultimately racist narratives is to—as these councilmen do—just continue to reiterate the important issues at the heart of this protest, correct those who would misconstrue the facts, and point out the hypocrisy in the way many Americans see what’s happening in Baltimore. Of course violence and looting are bad. But they are lamentably inevitable symptoms of the much more persistent, insidious, and destructive disease at hand, which is systemic injustice.