It is important to remember what prompted the problems we see this week in Baltimore. The event that started this latest series of widespread public unrest in another American city was the life-ending injury to Freddie Gray’s spine while in police custody.
If we allow the aftermath of that event to drown out the event itself, if we replace the initial problem only with theoretical discussions of the ethics of protest, then we do a disservice to Gray, to our communities, and to the forward movement of history.
To be sure, it is absolutely appropriate to talk about the ethics of protest, the right (and wrong) methods of civil disobedience, and all of us should do that, but not at the expense of Freddie Gray’s story and the systemic and deep-seated problems plaguing this country.
There are multiple narratives going on here, each of which need to be critiqued and reported on and explored, but few of them are non-stories.
Remembering Freddie Gray, conducting a thorough and honest investigation, reaching the closest approximation to legal justice that we can, raising questions of brutality and institutional racism; this is a narrative that should, perhaps, take precedence, because it came first.
Because it echoes of something that has been a reality in America for as long as America has existed.
I was struck by the inspiring band of clergy marching arm-in-arm through Baltimore and, ultimately, leading a procession of police. When asked about the “state of emergency” in the city, one pastor responded, “It’s been a state of emergency way before tonight in Baltimore City. An emergency of poverty. A lack of jobs. Disenfranchisement from the political process. It’s been a long time coming.”
There is a related narrative of police-public relations. In December 2014, 59 percent of white Americans had “a great deal of confidence” in the police (about 85 percent have some confidence); only 37 percent of black Americans had a great deal of confidence (about 75 percent had some confidence).
Last year, American police forces shot and killed at least 458 people (29 percent were black). Police in Britain did not shoot and kill anyone. (Certainly, this is partly attributable to the fact that we have over 300 million guns in American homes.)
There are other issues at play as well, of the American news cycle, of cultural and educational failures, of prejudice and scapegoats, of ethics and freedom.
These are complicated issues and we would do wrong to oversimplify them, to blame one party or another. Reality is not so easy. It does not lend itself to such singular calls as, “Blame the police…. Blame the media…. Blame black culture…. Blame white culture…. Blame the government…. Blame, blame, blame.”
This not to say no one is at fault. The problem is that the fault is almost certainly spread around.
All humans and human institutions have enough problems of their own; we do not need to make straw men of them in order to make them culpable of even more.
What seems clear to me is that we cannot demonize any of these parties. We can neither demonize Gray nor the officers, neither the media nor a particular culture – not because none of them have done anything wrong (maybe they all did), but because to make them demons is to say they are not deserving of mercy or justice, only whatever hell we can create for them.
If we do that, we have again changed the narrative. We have again distracted the people – and ourselves – from what is really going on: injustice.
We have detracted from one injustice by adding to it another.
Let’s not do that.
That is not a narrative that ends well.