Baltimore: On the domestic frontlines

The government and complicit media unabashedly invert the roles of aggressor and victim.

A protester watches as police enforce curfew in Baltimore [AP]
A protester watches as police enforce curfew in Baltimore [AP]

On April 19, 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray became the latest casualty of police violence in the United States.

Exactly one week earlier, he was apprehended for fleeing unprovoked from cops in a “high-crime area”. A stint in the back of a police van left him with a fatal spinal injury, although the precise details of the affair have thus far been shrouded in secrecy.

According to the Gray family lawyer, the young man was detained for “running while black, and that’s not a crime”.

But as I recently noted in a blog post for The London Review of Books, a handy US Supreme Court ruling has made it possible to conduct arrests without probable cause in “high-crime areas”.

Baltimore: Is the US government addressing social issues?

One of the many problems with the arrangement is that the court has not managed to define what, precisely, these areas are – and the ambiguousness offers an excellent alibi for police crimes.

Double whammy

Given the prevailing conditions of racist capitalism in the US, where the dehumanisation of blacks furthers the elite stranglehold on society, it’s not far-fetched to presume that “high-crime areas” generally mean black areas.

But the double whammy of race- and class-based oppression -mutually reinforcing phenomena – means a lot of non-black criminal behaviour slips under the radar.

Wall Street, for example, could very plausibly be designated a high-crime area, but you don’t see bankers getting thrown into police vans.

Meanwhile, proponents of the delusion that the US is a paragon of racial equality and opportunity will cite the skin colour of Barack Obama or Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as conclusive evidence.

This evidence, however, fails to account for a certain critical fact – which is that the ascendance of such individuals to key leadership positions hasn’t entailed a departure from the status quo, but rather its reinforcement.

In addition to ‘running while black’, numerous other routine activities appear to have joined law enforcement’s de facto list of punishable offences.


The Ferguson connection

Obama, for one, has presided over a system of widespread police unaccountability. In addition to “running while black”, numerous other routine activities appear to have joined law enforcement’s de facto list of punishable offences. These include having a toy gun while black and breathing while black.

When I attended the Saturday protests in Baltimore calling for justice for Gray, I was momentarily positioned next to a demonstrator with a T-shirt reading: “UNARMED CIVILIAN”. The shirt was a holdover from last year’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, whose murderer – policeman Darren Wilson – was soon cleared of rights violations.

On Tuesday, in typically conspiratorial fashion, Fox News released an exclusive report citing the findings of an anonymous data mining firm that does work for the government: “An analysis of social media traffic in downtown Baltimore … has unearthed striking connections to the protests in Ferguson.”

According to Fox’s summary, “between 20 and 50 social media accounts in Baltimore … were also tied to the peak period of violence in Ferguson”, possibly indicating “the presence of ‘professional protesters’ or anarchists taking advantage of Freddie Gray’s death to incite more violence”.

‘Outside’ agitation?

There is indeed a “striking connection” between Ferguson and Baltimore, but it has gone over Fox’s head: It’s the countrywide criminalisation of black people for daring to exist, and their recriminalisation for reacting logically to state violence.

Of course, the government and complicit media unabashedly invert the roles of aggressor and victim so that the police occupy the latter spot, while placing the onus of nonviolence on the real victims of brutality.

As Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at The Atlantic: “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.”

The repeated allegations by Mayor Rawlings-Blake and police officials that “outside agitators” are responsible for stirring up trouble in Baltimore have meanwhile failed to withstand the test of reality – though the claims have given protesters some good material to work with. At the march on Saturday, attention was drawn time and again to the fact that the majority of the city’s police officers aren’t from Baltimore, and don’t even live there.

A dangerous occupation

The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that: “If police forces across America continue to militarise and treat communities of colour as the enemy, they will increasingly be seen as an occupying army.”

This would no doubt be a fitting outcome in light of the training US law enforcement personnel have received from everyone’s favourite occupation experts: the Israelis, who condemn Palestinian rock-throwing as violent but not the mass slaughter of occupied civilians.

And while the US’ cultivation of its own domestic battlefield – and its own crop of folks with nothing to lose – might yield a high payoff for the arms, surveillance, and prison industries, the ethical cost to society will be much higher.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


More from Author
Most Read