Baltimore and the emergence of a Black Spring

The fight against racialised poverty and the ‘degenerating sense of nobodiness’ in the US.

Protesters chant in front of police in Baltimore [AP]
Protesters chant in front of police in Baltimore [AP]

In the spring of 2010, we witnessed massive protests in the Arab World. The people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other nations in the region had had enough. They had enough of the violence propagated by the state, of the political and economic marginalisation that characterised their existence for generations, and they had enough of the unaccountable governmental agencies that inflicted harm with seeming impunity.

We were transfixed as images of these protests, dubbed the “Arab Spring”, flooded the airwaves in the United States and across the world.

The description of the Arab Spring could just as easily apply to the mobilisations in Ferguson, in New York and now in Baltimore. The similarities between these movements have not escaped the notice of many activists in the US.

For these activists, the protest movements in places like Baltimore signal the rise of a “Black Spring” – a kindred movement spurred by many of the same structural symptoms and subhuman conditions that ignited the popular protests in the Arab World. 

Between Baltimore and Benghazi

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

Some may suggest that this comparison is unwise or hyperbolic; that the people in the Arab World were protesting against autocratic systems that ruled by force rather than by the consent of the governed.

Certainly, there are important distinctions. Yet, the symptomatic and structural similarities between the Arab Spring and the newly dubbed Black Spring are striking. 

Poverty and the police state prevailed in Ferguson and Cairo, Baltimore and Benghazi. Soldiers and patrol cars closely monitored city blocks where unemployed youth roamed with little purpose and ever shallower prospects for the future.

Emaciated communities, rich in only nihilism and hopelessness, kept their residents trapped. For Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who sold produce to support his family, suicide was the only escape. He set himself ablaze, and shortly after, ignited a revolution that inspired popular movements throughout the region.   

In the Arab World, the intersection of poverty and stigmatised religion, sectarian status or tribe is at the crux of persecution. The economics of Arab dictatorships was simple: Emaciate the opposition as a means to capitalise power. Although lacking the racial dimension of the American dialectic, the process is similar to how white supremacy and the maintenance of racialised wealth and poverty functions stateside.

In Ferguson or Baltimore, the present-day circumstance of poor blacks is rooted in slavery, segregation and their contemporary manifestations including racialised poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, the mass incarceration of black men and women, the rapid shuttering of schools and the erosion of affirmative action.

The conditions that persist in Baltimore and elsewhere, have been fuelled by the corruption of the democratic process through felon disenfranchisement, voter identification requirements, and other forms of voter suppression.

In Ferguson or Baltimore, the present-day circumstance of poor Blacks is rooted in slavery, segregation and their contemporary manifestations including racialised poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, the mass incarceration of Black men and women…


Voiceless generations

These dynamics have produced generations of people who feel voiceless, who are structurally alienated from political and economic participation, and perpetually excluded from the “American Dream”.

Black communities in Baltimore and elsewhere have been fighting what Martin Luther King Jr called “a degenerating sense of nobodiness”. 

Racialised poverty is at the core of the protests in the US.  In the US today, 27.4 percent of African Americans live below the poverty line. The Baltimore neighbourhood the slain Freddie Gray once called home has a staggering unemployment rate of 58 percent.  

The stories on the streets of Cairo or Tripoli were no different. The youth jobless rates in Egypt and Tunisia were 25 percent and 30 percent before their respective revolutions. These figures were far higher for indigent, urban youth without college educations, who did not have the means to travel or relocate for work.

Residents within poor, black communities view policemen as enforcers of their dismal status quo, rather than agents seeking to protect and serve. The daily harassment, surveillance, selective enforcement of the law is at the core of the grievances laid bare by the protest movement.

These perceptions are very similar to how protesters in Arab nations viewed militarised state police – the strongmen of the state assigned to streets and street-corners to maintain their politicised – instead of racialised – poverty.

Similar problems, different responses

When images of the crowds gathering in Tahrir Square emerged and Tunisian protesters mobilised in the streets, Arab Spring protesters were largely lauded for their heroism by American media and governmental representatives, and the violent response by Arab states were roundly condemned.

Although resisting similar kinds of conditions, protesters in Baltimore and cities like it, however, have flatly been denied similar praise. Instead, they were called “thugs” and “criminals” when they took to the streets. In response, state and local governments deployed resources to contain and delegitimise the protesters.

To be clear, we do not endorse violence. However, the vastly different responses to protests in the Arab world and in places such as Baltimore give us pause for two reasons. First, this response represents a persistent unwillingness to see the conditions that give rise to the protests by black people and a refusal to grapple with the various forms of violence experienced by communities of colour.

Boys stand near a makeshift memorial for Freddie Gray in Baltimore [REUTERS]
Boys stand near a makeshift memorial for Freddie Gray in Baltimore [REUTERS]

When protesters and protest movements are framed as monolithically violent, the corresponding response is to stop the protests through the deployment of the National Guard without a corresponding deployment of resources to address poverty, joblessness, dilapidated educational systems and discriminatory policing that gave rise to the protests in the first place.

Condemnation of the protesters and not the conditions that are the subject of the protests is a rhetorical cloak that enables those conditions to continue unabated. 

Second, the use of terms such as “thug” to describe all protesters is part of a long, American tradition of attempting to stifle racial justice movements through the criminalisation of protest. Indeed, King, who is held up as the paragon of non-violence, was labelled a “criminal”, “a communist”, and a “radical” in his day.

Where do we march from here?

In the contemporary protest era, lawmakers have proposed legislation that would criminalise the recording of police interactions by members of the public and the NYPD announced the creation of a heavily armed strategic response unit designed “for dealing with events like our recent protests”. For obvious reasons, the criminalisation of protest should alarm everyone, regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum.

Across the US, black communities have staged protests against the killing of unarmed black men, women and children. Collectively, they cried out “enough” and demanded fundamental transformation of the social institutions that are ostensibly designed to serve them.

If the US is courageous enough to listen to the voices of the protesters and to see the root causes of the protests, then the Black Spring has the potential to blossom into real change for the black communities that have suffered from police violence and racial exclusion. 

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law.  

Priscilla Ocen is an associate professor of law at the Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.

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