Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Three lessons from the Baltimore rioting, aftermath

The sight of riots, looting and burning buildings in a major U.S. city, in this case Baltimore, is largely unfamiliar to younger generations of Americans, and a frightening reminder of even-more-troubled times for their parents and grandparents. But if possible, let's try to move past the more sensational aspects of the case and talk it through:

1.) What's it all about?

The simple explanation is that this crisis was touched off by the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who was taken into custody and handcuffed by Baltimore police, but who later died from injuries somehow sustained in a police van. And while we still don't know how that particular death occurred, we do know that the issue of criminal violence perpetrated by some in law-enforcement is all too real. With the recent string of videotaped, highly questionable and even outrageous police shootings, what was once possible to dismiss has become too well-documented to ignore. Too many such incidents are not fictions invented by enemies of the police; they are real and disturbing.

As we have also learned in recent months, we have no real data on police-related deaths, and thus no good way to judge the severity of the problem.  If it seems to be getting worse, it might be because evidence is only now becoming publicly available. And as they teach MBA candidates in business school, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it."

In fact, given how data-intensive we have become in every other aspect of our micro-measured lives, you have to wonder whether the reason that we don't know is because we have chosen not to know.

We do know that in a survey of major police departments by the New York Times, fatal police encounters in Baltimore over the past two decades were double what they have been in other, similar-sized departments. That's deeply problematic. And last September, a major investigation by the Baltimore Sun revealed a disturbing record of physical abuse by Baltimore police that had cost the city more than $10 million in settlements and legal fees:

Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include 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.

Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.

And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims — if charges were filed at all. In an incident that drew headlines recently, charges against a South Baltimore man were dropped after a video showed an officer repeatedly punching him — a beating that led the police commissioner to say he was “shocked.”

The financial toll would have been much higher without a $200,000 per-case limit on damages under Maryland law. And again, charges against the victims of those police beatings were dismissed in almost every case. In other words, these weren't criminals who were being apprehended, and the evidence in the more than 100 cases in question was so clear-cut that the city either settled the case or lost in a jury trial. That suggests the existence of many other cases where the victim did not dare pursue court action or the evidence wasn't strong enough to overcome the justice system's inclination to support law enforcement.

So ask yourself? At what point in your own community would you rise up against such a system? Dr. Martin Luther King abhorred violence, on moral grounds as well as practical. He always counseled to meet violence with non-violence. But he also understood it as a raw form of communication. "A riot is the language of the unheard," as he put it.

2.) Does that in any way excuse the violent behavior of rioters and looters?

No, it does not. The individuals involved should be arrested and prosecuted. Destruction of property and attacks on police officers should not be tolerated. As King also noted, "The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it." Rioting invites defeat, he said, and while it offers an emotional catharsis, that catharsis "must be followed by a sense of futility."

Those in Baltimore viewing the smoldering, riot-damaged areas of their city this morning know that "sense of futility" described by King, and they know that whatever the answer, it does not involve arson, assault and other criminal behavior. Community leaders across the spectrum in Baltimore, including the family of Freddie Gray, have united in that message.

It's important to point out that while we have no head count of those who turned to violence, at this point they would appear to be no more than a few hundred. That's a considerably smaller number than the thousands who had participated in the previous two weeks in a series of peaceful marches and rallies demanding an answer in the death of Freddie Gray.

And if we are to attribute illegal police violence to the work of rogue officers who do not represent most in their profession -- and we should -- then we should also be willing to acknowledge that those who rioted and looted represent only a small, tiny fraction of those who live in their communities.

3.) Could such a thing happen here in Atlanta?

We would like to think that the answer is no. We would like to think that this region's civic, faith-based, law-enforcement and political leadership is strong enough to withstand that kind of challenge. We would like to think that we've built the trust and the lines of communication needed to ensure that people can be heard, so that frustration won't turn into violence. We'd like to believe that the nonviolent legacy of Dr. King still means something here.

Until Saturday night, a lot of people in Baltimore may have told themselves much the same thing.

But drive through some of the poorer sections of metro Atlanta, through areas that are invisible to most of those reading this, and you too may begin to have some doubts. Statistics do nothing to dissuade those doubts. In one recent study, for example, metro Atlanta was ranked highest in the country in income inequality, more than twice the national average; Baltimore wasn't in the Top Ten.

A separate recent study concludes that the Atlanta metro area ranks last in the country in economic mobility, behind even Detroit. Upward mobility in metro Atlanta -- defined as the ability of a child in the lowest-earning 20 percent to rise into the highest-earning bracket -- is less than half what it is in cities such as Houston, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, and it's low for white as well as black Atlanta residents.

Why? In metro Atlanta, researchers found, poverty tends to be geographically concentrated, and bad traffic and a truncated mass-transit system make it difficult for poor residents to break out of those neighborhoods to reach jobs. And if you think of the problem as an inner-city problem, your perspective on metro Atlanta is badly out of date.

In Cobb County, 45 percent of school children are now eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, up from 16 percent back in 1994. In Gwinnett County, it's gone from 12.2 percent to 55.7 percent over those same two decades. And in Clayton, it's doubled from 45 percent to 95 percent.

None of that means that riots are going to break out, either in those communities or elsewhere in metro Atlanta. But what we've learned in Ferguson and now Baltimore is that in a volatile situation, all it can take is a spark -- even an unjustified spark -- to make things explode. And you can never tell where or when that spark might come.

In short, the roots of this problem run deeper than the death of Freddie Gray, and deeper even than police violence. Likewise, the solutions are much more difficult and complex than merely enforcing the law and tossing criminals into prison. That doesn't mean that such steps aren't necessary and justified; it means that they won't be sufficient.

In discussing such issues, Dr. King liked to turn to a quote from Victor Hugo, taken in turn from his novel "Les Miserable":

"If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not merely he who commits the sin but he who causes the darkness."


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.