Like, I suspect, many of you, I’ve been riveted by the horrifyingly familiar scenes from Baltimore that have been dominating news coverage of late. For one thing, the rioting and protests have been taking place in Baltimore, a town we all think we know from the HBO TV show The Wire. It makes sense; The Wire depicted Baltimore as a failing city, ripped apart by racial conflict, with a brutal (and ineffective) police force and unresponsive bureaucracy and hopelessly underfunded education system. And David Simon, the show’s creator, has emerged as a voice of reason urging non-violent protest as potentially transformative. I watched Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, George Stephanopolous on ABC, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and Larry Willmore’s show, all this morning, and every one of them referenced The Wire. So we feel like we know what’s going on. We think we know Baltimore. I love–we all love–The Wire. But it’s fiction. Jimmy McNulty isn’t a cop in the real city; Carcetti’s not the Mayor. I don’t find the familiarity of Wire references in any sense comforting.
What I’m left with are questions. Way more questions than answers, but questions to which I think we all, as Americans, are entitled to answers. Here are a few that have occurred to me. You undoubtedly have more of your own, and better ones than mine.
1) Why wasn’t the homicide of Freddie Gray treated as any other homicide? Why is this not a murder investigation? I understand the difficulty of getting cops to investigate cops, or getting prosecutors to prosecute the people they work with every day. But an unarmed man, without ever being accused of any crime, was chased down and placed in police custody. And his spinal cord was severed. That’s a homicide, and it might well have been a murder. Six cops have been suspended. That’s a start, but it appears that we might need some kind of Justice Department involvement. How about this: place all shootings of civilians by police under the jurisdiction of the FBI? Federally prosecute all such cases. Because this has to stop.
2) Why are police shootings in Europe so rare as to be non-existent, while every week, it seems, some police somewhere in America are involved in a homicide? Is there a difference in the way police are trained over there? Because the common denominator in all these deaths seems to me to be situations in which the police insist on asserting their authority over a civilian. Eric Garner wouldn’t cooperate. Walter Scott ran away from a cop on a routine traffic stop. (I don’t count 12-year old Tamir Rice, killed in Detroit. That one was just flat out murder). I understand that police officers need to exert control over a situation. But are they effectively trained in how to de-escalate? I know that the police have incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs. I know cops. They’re good people. I honor their work. But there have been way way too many violent and lethal incidents. Calm people down. Acknowledge their humanity. Running from a police officer should not ever, ever be a death penalty offense.
3) Rioting is bad. Looting is bad. But let’s face facts: black people riot because an explosive incident brings long-standing oppression to the surface. (As Larry Willmore put it, ‘that’s the history of America: oppression leads to rioting, over and over again. Starting with the Boston Tea Party’). White people riot because their favorite sports’ team won a championship. And while I love calls for non-violence, like David Simon’s, I find Ta-Nahisi Coates’ perspective even more compassing. The homicide of Freddie Gray must be seen in a larger context of systemic police violence in Baltimore.
4) When Jon Stewart said, on his show yesterday, (I’m paraphrasing) ‘if we can spend a trillion dollars building schools in Afghanistan, why can’t we rebuild our inner cities and their schools and institutions’ the crowd cheered. And George Stephanopolous said ‘whenever politicians say what you just said, crowds always cheer. But then it never happens.’ So okay. We’re in an election. I’ll vote for anyone who says it: ‘let’s rebuild our schools and our cities and our infrastructure. Take half of our annual defense budget and use it at home.’ If that means that I’m voting for Bernie Sanders, so be it.
5) It’s not enough, anymore, to watch TV and feel bad about what we see. We need to fix this. We need action.