Protesters in Baltimore celebrated a victory last week after Friday’s dramatic announcement of indictments against six police involved in the death of Freddie Gray. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, acknowledging public demands for justice, stated that officers illegally arrested Gray without probable cause, and then ignored his pleas for medical help.
Paul Jay of Baltimore-based The Real News commented that the false imprisonment charges she announced have major implications for legally-acceptable probable cause: “They’re saying that that’s illegal to just grab somebody because they run and throw them into a van … in the context of Baltimore it’s quite a remarkable step. … It’s the beginning of some accountability, and that’s a big step compared to impunity.”
As well as the Baltimore protests, national attention on police shootings of unarmed young black men has changed the political landscape. Video footage of police violence has subverted the ideological narrative portraying African Americans as criminals, a narrative that shored up white support for police. The political elite now fears the erosion of state legitimacy, not only in African American communities, but among whites as well.
Tensions continue despite the indictments because citizens don’t trust the justice system to convict the officers, and have little confidence their political leaders can address the community’s larger problems. A massive multiracial celebratory march filled Baltimore’s streets after the announcement, but the Washington Post reported: “Residents also expressed concern over whether, in the long run, conditions would improve in the impoverished Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where about half of working-age adults are unemployed.” The New York Times noted: “Amid the celebration, there was an undercurrent of anger, not only over police treatment of black men, but over the lack of jobs and recreation centers, as well as dilapidated housing for Baltimore’s poor.”
The huge class divisions in Baltimore have come forcibly to national attention. The city, which once supported a million people working in shipyards and the steel industry, suffered industrial devastation and massive depopulation after the relocation of manufacturing industries beginning in the 1970s. This led to grinding poverty, unemployment and drugs concentrated in African American communities on the east and west sides. Successive politicians have attempted to put the lid on social problems with aggressive broken windows/zero-tolerance policing of black communities, building up intense hostility to the militarized police. More recently, money has been poured in to revitalize the downtown Inner Harbor area for tourism and affluent whites, adding to resentment of black political leaders for not addressing the problems of unemployment and housing.
Paul Jay pointed out that the city’s elite has ignored chronic poverty and boarded-up housing in African American communities because “they want poor black people to get the hell out of the city. It’s a form of ethnic cleansing. … The driving factor is real estate speculation. There are thousands of houses that people are sitting on. The city’s sitting on them, [Johns] Hopkins is sitting on them, and the only thing that’s really stopping gentrification right now … is the school system is so bad you can’t get people to move into the city.” They want instead people “who will then come and pay a lot of money for renovated housing.”
The course of events shows clearly how these antagonisms were sparked into riots. Overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations all the previous week calling for justice for Freddie Gray – with little or no coverage in the media – ended in fighting on Saturday April 25 after drunken baseball fans’ racist provocations enraged a group of protesters outside Camden Yards, where they had gathered ahead of a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. A phalanx of police swept down to clear the street, leading to clashes with the remaining demonstrators, some of whom used a metal barrier to smash the windows of police cruisers.
The following Monday, the day of Gray’s funeral, police claimed there were threats of gang members targeting police and cancelled school buses, leaving students no way to get home. Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther leader in Baltimore, explained: “They [the police] closed the [Mondawmin] shopping center down, then … they let a high school out, then they closed down public transportation. So the students were released from school but they could not get on the metro system to go home or to leave the area. So they were stuck in that area and then massive police presence pushed them down to another area.” That is when the CVS got looted and burned – because of the intense anger of the youth being coralled by riot police and armored vehicles. “People are getting revenge, and they are just getting started,” Quatiarra Bonaparte, a 14-year-old schoolmate of some of those involved, told the Guardian.
It was in response to the chaotic violence on Monday night that gang members from the rival Crips and Bloods decided to join forces to defend the community, using their authority with the youth to protect them from police and keep others from rioting. According to the Guardian, as protesters prepared to defy the curfew on Tuesday, a confrontation was averted “only thanks to members of the notorious Bloods and Crips gangs, who teamed with community activists to push hundreds more protesters, who had demonstrated late into the evening, back to their homes as the curfew loomed. ‘It ain’t about me being a Crip,’ said Sin, 15, who wore lipstick and hair braids in the gang’s distinctive blue. ‘It’s about us coming together and making our community better’.” Another gang member told the Real News: “This is about people in poverty and people that are oppressed, regardless of what color you are. We have white Bloods. We have white Crips. It’s not about color. It’s not about race.”
This awareness of the need to come together to safeguard local communities is part of a national shift in consciousness: black lives matter, and protesters are asserting they need their own resources, not state forces, to safeguard them. DeRay McKesson, a leader in the movement for police accountability in Ferguson, told the Baltimore City Paper: “It’s this idea that protest is disruption, that protest is confrontation, but it’s also community. What happens is that you see people come together who never would have come together otherwise.”
Washington Post commentator Eugene Robinson looks to the state and federal government to fund the bulldozing of decayed housing to help inner-city Baltimore escape its poverty, social despair and dysfunction. But rather than top-down state intervention, the reconstruction of Baltimore neighborhoods must be the work of the community itself. The danger is that simply demolishing the run-down housing will lead to the black community being forced out and dispersed, as happened in New Orleans after Katrina, for the benefit of real estate interests who will construct high-rent luxury apartments.
That’s why the initiative by the One Baltimore United coalition should be supported. Spokesperson Todd Cherkis explained the project to In These Times: “We estimate that there are 40,000 vacant housing units in the city,” he said, pointing out that many of them are abandoned buildings now controlled by municipal agencies. Using local labor to rehabilitate these buildings could make a big dent in unemployment and the shortage of affordable housing. Neighborhoods need to be rebuilt by members of their own community, so as to raise their self-confidence and defeat the sense of hopelessness.
What the protests have achieved, above all, is to make Baltimore a beacon in the fight for police accountability, making the use of police to suppress social problems an issue for all Americans and not just the African American community. The court cases, however they go, will be held before a jury and everyone will see and hear the evidence. This gives the public transparency and marks a turning point in the struggle.