I know you might hate this, but I'm going to do it anyway. I'm going to write this as a mother, as a grandmother, as a card-carrying citizen of the United States, as a goddamned human being.
I'm white, but if you dare hold that against me you're no better than those who hold color against anyone. We're going to talk about those stupid vandals who rampaged through their own Baltimore neighborhood the night before last, looting, burning, destroying nearly everything in sight. They were black kids and they used the funeral of a young black man as an excuse to raise so much hell we'll be adding Baltimore once again to the list of the worst riots in the U.S.
So far, as of this writing, there have been no reported deaths--thank the light above for small favors. But vicious, creepy thugs willfully savaged an entire neighborhood, and I submit the only thing poor Freddie Gray's funeral had to do with it was opportunity. It was their big chance to blaze their way in, using righteous protest as a flimsy excuse to riot.
Rumor has it that they were mainly teenagers, that they used social media to get the word out, that a movie fueled their fervor for vengeance. There are reports that the police themselves showed up at the school campus in riot gear and wouldn't let the kids get to their buses to go home. They went to the neighborhood instead.
Some of the people who have lived through the cop-on-black violence in West Baltimore abhorred the rioting but tried to find ways to explain it beyond simple vandalism. TaNehisi Coates knows the area and the police activities well. He writes:
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. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
But it wasn't just the police and the politicians pleading for nonviolence. Freddie Gray's family begged for it. The preachers in the community prayed for it. Neighborhood families hoped against hope for it.
If the thugs had stuck with setting police cars afire, with throwing bricks at police officers, I might have understood, but still not condoned, that kind of disrespect. They see the police as the enemy. But they didn't stop there. They didn't even start there. Their intent was to riot. To disrespect the community.
For 48 hours, since the riot began, we've heard non-stop talk about the reasons why. I won't go into all of them, except to say that the Baltimore police are known pigs who seem to thrive on punishing black people, and Freddie Gray, the young man who didn't deserve to die at their hands, did die at their hands. Horribly. They broke his spine, curled him up into a ball and stuffed him into their paddy wagon. They ignored his need for immediate medical care. He died in their care and nobody but him has so far paid the price.
If I lived in that neighborhood and knew what I knew about the police and about this case and about the hundreds of other cases where justice was as cruelly denied, I would want someone's hide. Not literally, of course, but I would want retribution. I would want somebody to pay. I would protest. Loudly. I would not shut up. I would be just like the thousands of people in that neighborhood who finally have had enough and want something done now. But I, along with those thousands of others, would have respected Freddie Gray's grieving family enough to grant their wish for peaceful protest.
Freddie Gray's funeral sparked the riots, even though his parents and his twin sister begged for peace. Begged for it. Said it out loud many times: "Please. No violence. Please."
But within hours of Freddie's funeral the mourners' remembrances of the slain young man took a back seat to the nightmarish witnessing of a full-blown incendiary riot.
The rioters (do not call them protesters) busted out windows and doors of small businesses, made off with the goods inside, and looted and vandalized a CVS drug store. They commandeered a police car, severely injured the occupants, and set the car on fire. They rampaged through a liquor store and a check-cashing store. The CVS went up in flames. More cars burned. Then more buildings. Through the night, fires roared.
And--get this--when the fire truck arrived to put out the fires in this neighborhood where families live, one of the punks pulled out a knife and spiked the hose. Twice. The water meant to put out the fire spewed like a swell fountain into the air, far from its directed target. I'm guessing the punks around him thought it was pretty cool, too. Nobody--I mean nobody--said, "Uh, not the fire hoses, idiot."
Yesterday the community came together to clean up their streets. Mothers, fathers, small children. The elders. They're trying to put their lives back together again. They're heartbroken. They're ashamed. They're angry. They know how this will look. NBC news correspondent Rehema Elllis reported that she saw women standing in front of the burned-out CVS store weeping--weeping--because they spent years trying to get a pharmacy to put down roots in their neighborhood. What are the odds that CVS--or any pharmacy--will build there again?
This is the harm that riots do. Riots aren't protests. There is no good outcome from riots. They're remembered into eternity as the crazed response to a bad situation, and when it happens in a black community it's the black community that has to answer for it. The thugs, the vandals, the looters need to get that message. Making excuses for their criminal behavior doesn't just let them off the hook, it gives them license to keep their destructive anger alive.
Toya Graham, the mother who whupped her son in front of the cameras yesterday to keep him from joining the looters showed us the way well-placed anger wins the day. Her raw desperation, hard as it is to watch, is about as heroic as it gets.
"'That's my only son and at the end of the day I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray'. . .
'Graham says after she got her son home they both watched news coverage of the demonstrations and riots on television. As images of her reaction started to go viral, Graham says comments started appearing on her son's Facebook page, many in support of her.
'Friends and everybody making comments and saying you know, you shouldn't be mad at your mother, you should give her a hug,' said Graham. [She] hopes the incident will serve as a teachable moment for her son."
Thugs will be thugs and to hell with them. They almost destroyed this community. Almost. But the beauty of it, if there is such a thing, is that the people who live there aren't about to let them. If something positive finally gets done in the community of West Baltimore, don't thank the rioters, thank the people in the neighborhoods who, in spite of the destruction, choose to rise from the ashes and work to build anew.
(Cross-posted at Ramona's Voices)