Justice, Baltimore style

We must not fall for the dominant blindness to increasingly illegitimate state violence.

A Prince t-shirt sold at a concert in Baltimore [AP]
A Prince T-shirt sold at a concert in Baltimore [AP]

“Are we gonna see another bloody day? 

We’re tired of cryin’ and people dyin’ – 

Let’s take all the guns away.”  

With Prince releasing “Baltimore” song on Twitter, the massive civil unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore enters the fertile soil of popular culture in earnest – and thus announces the commencement of a far more fruitful period in beginning to understand the full dimensions of what may turn out to be a new phase in the US civil rights movement. 

On April 19, a 25-year-old African American named Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Maryland, died in police custody. On May 1, Gray’s death was ruled to be a homicide, and legal charges were issued against the six officers involved in the incident, including that of second-degree murder.

Between April 19 and May 1, civil unrest engulfed Baltimore, reminiscent of the protests following the fatal shooting of another young African American, Michael Brown, by a police officer on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Thanks to the miracle of new media (and contrary to the overriding prejudices of the corporate media), we know for a fact that the overwhelming majority of these protests in both Baltimore and Ferguson have been peaceful, though occasionally they would burst into illegal or unruly outbursts.

Covering Baltimore: Race, riots and the media – The Listening Post

The simple fact of the matter is that on one side you have a massively militarised police force, and on the other, an almost entirely peaceful protest, occasionally marred by acts of violence. 

Categorical denunciation

In response to events in Baltimore and Ferguson, the US media (dominant corporate and defiant social media) soon fell into two ideological camps: Those led by Fox News who were determined to dismiss these protests as violent and therefore led by “thugs”, and those (mostly on the internet) with a more balanced representation of the facts.

Common between these two camps was their categorical denunciation of acts of violence – some condemned it while others contextualised them.

Today it is very clear that the main body of these protests in both Baltimore and Ferguson has been peaceful, principled, purposeful, and above all, political. Disregarding their politics and opting to exaggerate their occasional and entirely tangential acts of violence, is to actively and violently suppress them, deny them their legitimate cause, dismiss their veracity, and criminalise their politics. 

The aggressive politicisation of criminal acts such as the incident at the so-called “Mohammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland, Texas, and the criminalisation of political protests in Baltimore and elsewhere are two sides of the same coin. 

It is an exceptional irony of history that no one is more responsible for this criminalisation of political protest in Baltimore than US President Barack Obama, whose response to events in Baltimore is a textbook definition of both a selective use of the unfolding events and a hurried generalisation of it, building towards an abusive reading of the events.

Obama first selects a few isolated incidents and abuses them to characterise the whole protest, and he does so by way of categorically dismissing the whole rally, just before he condemns it before reading it properly.


“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday,” he said about the protests. “It is counterproductive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing. When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson. And they’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities. That robs jobs and opportunity from people in that area.” 

Civil unrests of the sort we witnessed in Baltimore are occasionally marked by social violence, which should immediately be neither condemned nor condoned but far more urgently decoded for what it is.

Obama first selects a few isolated incidents and abuses them to characterise the whole protest, and he does so by way of categorically dismissing the whole rally, just before he condemns it before reading it properly. 

It is in this context that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ response to these events in the Atlantic remains timely and powerful.

“When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality,” he rightly pointed out, “it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. 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.” 

Every state is founded on force

In his seminal essay, “Politics as a Vocation”, German sociologist Max Weber defined politics as the monopoly of violence.

“Every state is founded on force,” Weber cites Leon Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk, to which he then adds: “That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated… Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one.”

A Buddhist leader from South Asia prays at the spot where Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore [REUTERS]A Buddhist leader from South Asia prays at the spot where Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore [REUTERS]

From this premise Weber develops his sociology of authority, which he proposes resting on two pillars of inner justification (predicated on a political culture) and external means (politically justified violence).

The more a state has inner justification of its citizens, the less it needs pure violence to demand and exact it; and conversely the more a state has lost that inner justification among its citizens the more it needs pure physical violence to assert it. The aggressive militarisation of the police force in the US and elsewhere needs to be read in this light. 

A chief function of the corporate media in the US is to criminalise political protest by way of camouflaging the pure police violence that suppresses political protest.

Consider this encounter between CNN anchorperson Wolf Blitzer and a community activist in Baltimore. As you see Blitzer is forcing the activist to condemn the violence and thus dismantle the politics of the protest. The activist tries to dodge the question but he is trapped by Blitzer citing first Martin Luther King and then Obama against violent protest. Blitzer/CNN’s strategy works and the audience is left with the impression that these protesters are violent people. 

In the context of such political protest, occasional acts of violence should neither be condoned nor condemned but read as a coded political message. Forcing people to condemn it as the CNN anchor does, is no innocent gesture. It is to stigmatise it in a manner that depoliticises and ipso facto criminalises it. 

The events in Ferguson and Baltimore have the potential of becoming nationwide and perhaps (as an excellent piece in the New York Times suggests) even marking a new phase of civil rights movement in the US.

In the case of that eventuality, it is imperative for us not to fall for the dominant blindness to increasingly illegitimate state violence or remain passive in the face of corporate media criminalisation of political protest, but to keep our mind on the powerful politics of defiance that is beginning to give legitimate expression to a nation’s forgotten civil liberties through which demands for social justice are heard loud and clear – or more precisely in Prince’s lyrics:     

Does anybody hear us pray?

For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray

Peace is more than the absence of war …

If there ain’t no justice

Then there ain’t no peace. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

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


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