As Baltimore erupts in fiery protest following the death of Freddie Gray, the city joins scores of others who have recently challenged the role of police in community.
With the disproportionate representation of black males in the correctional system and the videotaped deaths of those approached by police for seemingly petty infractions, the longstanding concern for a criminal justice system that differentially treats communities of color, is finding new relevance in cities across the nation.
But as young and old, gang-affiliated and religious alike take to the streets of Baltimore in unified protest, somehow the public unrest has garnered more attention than the issue itself. It seems the fight for justice shouldn’t be a fight at all.
Labeled as “looters” and “thugs,” even in the very moment a community mobilizes to denounce their victimization, they are simultaneously recast as criminals, undeserving of the autonomy to freely express public discontent.
Now, my purpose in saying this is not to condone violence but to examine the ways we characterize communities of color, particularly around public displays of anger, and to look deeper at the role policing practices play in the tensions building in cities across America.
First, the idea that African-Americans are strong, aggressive, and prone to violence are antiquated stereotypes that continue to plague the public image of African-Americans today. So despite justified cause for outrage, the media often lazily resurrects these archetypes of blackness instead of investigating the source of community distress. This is both dismissive and misleading. It dismisses the understandable concerns of African-Americans by denying them the humanity of basic emotions and misleads the public by playing into the drama of stereotypes that distract from the issue.
Second, to cast the community as violent miscreants and the police as authorities of order, is to ignore the reality that both groups stand face to face at the line of protest, in confrontation with the other — and that confrontation has been violent, on both sides.
Baltimore has a long history of police misconduct and those abuses have been well-documented in Baltimore local news and recently in national outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic. So it is problematic to disavow police of any responsibility in the tensions unfolding in Baltimore and beyond, because much of that tension stems from prior police conduct. It is also important to note that when police are outfitted in riot gear to patrol neighborhoods shield-first, it may incite conflict between the authorities and the community demonstrating for respite from police control and violence.
But ultimately policing practices are driven by local and state public policy, and it is that policy that criminalizes poor, communities of color and gives police license to penalize insignificant infractions. Those infractions lead to incarceration rates that cumulatively threaten the cohesion of black families, the strength of the local economy in black neighborhoods, the voting power of majority black districts, and the upward mobility of young black males seeking to enter the workforce. The mass incarceration of African-Americans may also impact child and community health.
So as we critically look at the role of police in communities, we must also investigate the policy environment that makes that role possible. Because while the police are the front lines of the justice system, they are certainly not the extent of the problem.
And as tensions unfold across the country, we have to shift the conversation to the reasons for protest. Instead of dismissing demonstrators as thugs defiling the sanctity of American business, perhaps we should look beyond stereotypes to uplift the sanctity of their lives and acknowledge the exasperated plea of a community seeking justice. Sometimes that plea is venerable in its non-violent supplication, and sometimes it is marred by the violent frustration of a community long-ignored. But aren’t we all, both the civil and uncivil among us, deserving of justice?