What’s Next for Baltimore?

As I write this, the National Guard and local police are enforcing a curfew in Baltimore.  The curfew began at 10 p.m. and will be lifted at 5 a.m.

We all know why there’s a curfew, of course.  We’ve seen the videos of buildings on fire, cars being smashed, and violent clashes with police.  We’ve seen mobs tearing through the streets, ransacking and looting as they go.  We’ve read about the reporters who had their faces smashed in by rioting thugs.  We’ve watched a mother berate and smack her son for taking part in the madness.

We all know how it started too.  We know Freddie Gray’s name and we know he died after his spinal cord was 80% severed at the neck while he was being arrested by Baltimore police officers.

Tonight, as law enforcement officials patrol the streets of Baltimore, many hope that some semblance of order will be restored to the city.  Some will look to the picture of a young black boy handing out water bottles to the police and see hope for restoration.  Others will praise the courage of a Vietnam veteran named Robert Valentine for standing up to the rioters and telling them to go home.  Many will pray for the innocent victims who were caught in the crossfire.

But no matter what, all of us will have a difficult time comprehending the meaning of what we just saw.  The road ahead for Baltimore, and for all of us who seek to hold the police accountable for brutality, is going to be filled with the debris of burned down buildings and busted cars.  There will be anger.  There will be political posturing.  There will be high-strung emotions.  Consequently, it will be crucial in the coming days and weeks to understand Baltimore’s nightmare from a calm and level-headed perspective. It will be essential for us to know what is true and proceed from that basis.

Thus, here is what we know is true about Baltimore:

  1. The city of Baltimore has a rampant and undeniable problem with police brutality. For years, Baltimore’s citizens, especially minorities, have felt the heavy hand of a corrupt police force. Between 2011 and 2014 alone, the city was forced to pay out $5.7 million to victims of police brutality.  Given the scope of violence detailed in Conor Friedersdorf’s article, there’s no way to merely excuse Baltimore’s police violence problem as a result of a handful of bad apples on the force.  The problem is systemic. Freddie Gray’s death was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back and sparked a long overdue outrage.
  1. Experiencing deep anger, mortification, and sadness over Freddie Gray’s death is more than justified. In fact, people should feel these emotions when considering the recent history of policing in Baltimore, not just in contemplating Gray’s case. If you had the chance to read my letter to Franklin Graham, you’ll know that I’ve experienced these emotions when researching cases of police brutality all over the country.  Righteous indignation is a healthy response to such abuses of authority.
  1. Peaceful protesting is a legitimate way to express frustration with modern policing while honoring victims of police brutality. Granted, its effectiveness at solving the problem of police abuse is likely to be minimal at best, but at least it’s a healthy way to process one’s emotions. In Baltimore, peaceful protests preceded the rioting and as the dust is settling more peaceful protestors are re-emerging.  A lot of citizens are helping to clean up the city in the midst of conducting their protests.  These people are expressing their sympathy for Gray and their anger over his death in a proper way.
  1. Regardless of one’s motivation, destruction of private property and injury of innocent life is completely unjustified. No excuses, no exceptions. The rioters who wantonly destroyed private property, looted businesses, and injured a number of innocent people were engaging in activities just as evil as any clear-cut case of police brutality.  Just ask the reporters who experienced the mob’s wrath firsthand. Unfortunately, there are some people who will excuse the actions of the rioters on the basis of their cause or out of anger toward police brutality.  That reaction is completely and totally wrong–it promotes exactly the same sort of behavior that we oppose when we decry police brutality.  We must condone no one, whether they are wearing a badge or not, in violating another individual’s rights to life and property.
  1. Opponents of systemic police brutality are not akin to the violent rioters in Baltimore, nor is it possible to accuse them of supporting such violence. If you doubt this, see points #2, #3, and #4. Unfortunately, the Baltimore rioters just made the job of those who decry police abuse much harder by turning the national spotlight towards their looting and away from the systemic problem of police violence.  However, many who oppose modern policing tactics also condemn the rioters in Baltimore.  Therefore, it is intellectually dishonest to accuse all critics of modern policing of encouraging the violence in Baltimore (or Ferguson for that matter).

Ultimately, the issue of police brutality must not be overlooked as Baltimore attempts to recover from the events of the past few days.  I wish that Freddie Gray was only one of a handful of cases to discuss, but he’s not.  In Baltimore alone, there’s more problems with police brutality than should ever be allowed to happen in a country that calls itself the “land of the free.”  The wrong actions of a few looters must not be allowed to drown out the needed conversation for addressing widespread abuses at the hands of police officers.

Likewise, simplistic accusations that portray all cops as being racist, badge-wearing thugs will be unhelpful.  The same can be said for expressions of undying affection for the Heroes of the Blue Shield.  The problem is not that all cops are racist and the solution is not to worship the idea of the police.  The problem is that systemic abuses of authority result in far too many Freddie Gray’s and the solution is–well, that’s another article for another time.

Tomorrow, Baltimore’s citizens will face a new day.  Whether the unrest is fully under control remains to be seen.  But regardless of whether or not tonight’s curfew effectively restores order, the most important questions posed by the crisis in Baltimore will likely remain unanswered for weeks to come.  As we try to come to grips with the events of the past week, one simple fact remains: yet another tragic chapter in our national conversation on police abuse has been written.

I hope that someday we will be able to write the epilogue.