The Biggest Mystery Of Baltimore’s Riots

How did a city where blacks are well-represented among the city government and police erupt in riots not seen since Martin Luther King Jr. was killed?

Demonstrators climb on a destroyed Baltimore Police car in the street near the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray, April 27, 2015. Chip Somodevilla / Via Getty Images

Baltimore burned in April 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis. Echoing previous efforts at determining the source of black uprisings that swept the country in the 1960s, the Maryland Crime Investigating Commission concluded that “the riot in Baltimore must be attributed to two elements — ‘white racism’ and the economic oppression of the Negro.”

Fifty years later, Baltimore is burning again, following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a mysterious and ultimately fatal spinal injury while in police custody. As in 1968, authorities called out riot police and the National Guard, taken aback by a wave of rage they believed they could contain. Only now it is the city’s mostly black leadership struggling to understand how matters could have escalated so tragically beyond their control.

The Baltimore of 1968 was a city where blacks and Jews had long been excluded from housing by racist laws and customs, where city officials consciously and deliberately destroyed black neighborhoods, where the New Deal was used to plunder the meager wealth of blacks while building a new era of prosperity for whites, the largest city in a state where segregationist George Wallace came within striking distance of President Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary just four years earlier. David Simon writes in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets that in 1965, the few black officers on the force faced overwhelming racism within the department, and a study by the International Chiefs of Police found the Baltimore police force to be one of the country’s “most antiquated and corrupt” with a “nonexistent” relationship to the black community.

“We have asked that Negroes be loyal— that they believe in democracy, that they believe their lot will be changed,” Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin wrote in 1966. “And they have believed in democracy—they have been loyal—they have been patient, and their lot has changed; and yet for great numbers of them, the real impact of the aforementioned progress has not been felt.”

Monday’s riots in Charm City mark the end of an era where black outrage can be mollified by greater representation while stark inequalities persist. Today Baltimore has a black mayor, black police commissioner, and a police force evenly divided between black and white officers. Baltimore is no Ferguson, Missouri, a majority black city where black residents were inexplicably shut out of the city government, business elite, and police force. Instead of a beacon of hope, black representation has become a bitterly ironic symbol of how little has changed.

Yet Baltimore still erupted this week, a casualty of America’s unearned optimism about our own progress against racism and poverty, and the longstanding strategy of integrating blacks into a power structure that nevertheless upholds stark racial inequalities. In the history of black urban uprisings, Baltimore is one of very few cities that burned despite substantial black representation in the city government and police force. And that bodes ill for the belief that harmony can be achieved by elevating a few blacks to positions of power within a system that leaves so many impoverished. American cities cannot avoid unrest by simply placing black people at the helm, as long as progress for so many is ephemeral. An unjust system remains unjust no matter the ethnicity of its caretakers.

Conditions for Baltimore’s black residents have been dire for years. According to a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative, 7 out of 10 Baltimore residents who are incarcerated in state prison are from neighborhoods where nearly half of residents between driving age and retirement are unemployed. Most of those residents are black. The average median income there is $32,050, nearly $10,000 less than the city average of $40,803. One in seven houses in these neighborhoods is abandoned. As Mayor McKeldin wrote in 1966, loyalty, patience, and faith have not translated into prosperity.

The relationship between black Baltimore and its brutal police force remains dismal. Baltimore has shelled out millions of dollars in hundreds of cases involving citizens savagely beaten by police, according to the Baltimore Sun, including “a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.”

All of this remained invisible to the rest of the country until the conflagration in Baltimore on Monday. To dismiss Monday’s riots, as President Obama and Mayor Rawlings-Blake did, as merely the cowardly behavior of vengeful “thugs” is an act of vanity, a refusal to acknowledge festering wounds left untreated for decades.

Fifty years ago the National Commission on Civil Disorders concluded: “To continue present policies is to make permanent the divi­sion of our country into two societies; one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other, predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs and in outlying areas.”

As long as we ignore that prophecy, it will not matter how many black women we put in police uniforms, in mayor’s offices, or in the White House.

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