Police on the streets of Baltimore. Demotix/Aidan Walsh. All rights reserved.The city of Baltimore is making national and international headlines as peaceful protests over the death of Freddie Gray by police have escalated into full scale rioting.
As images of destruction stream across the world, there is a rising demand to end the violence by any means necessary. In response, city and state authorities have declared a “state of emergency”. Republican governor Larry Hogan deployed the national guard to enforce martial law while beleaguered Democratic mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a city-wide curfew for all citizens.
These authoritarian approaches, while temporarily understandable, mask a far more worrying set of politics. Rather than solve the underlying causes of these problems, authorities both before and after these events have sought merely to treat its most visible symptoms.
Immediately following the news that Gray had died, the mayor’s office expressed frustration with the sluggishness of the official investigation but urged continued patience and cooperation. There was little, if any, substantive talk of using this incident to address the deeper factors of economic inequality, a culture of police brutality and racism, as well as an ongoing War on Drugs, that have all worked to set the stage for this tragedy.
This ‘wait and see’ approach was at odds with many, both inside and outside government, who felt the need for fundamental change. Councilman Nick Mosby declared to protesters massing outside the Western District police station that “Freddie Gray will not die in vain. I see change coming to Baltimore city. At the end of the day we can’t rest on anything less.”
Nevertheless, a dangerously narrow focus was even further on display in the aftermath of the violence. The mayor observed: “It’s a very delicate balancing act, because while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well”.
While Rawlings-Blake later distanced herself from criticisms that she condoned the violence, what was revealed was a new ‘politics of containment’ emphasising the need to minimize the collateral damage caused by rising anger and struggles against police brutality.
Yet as the riots in Baltimore show, this struggle cannot be so easily contained. Unless the country adopts a more constructive and sustained approach towards achieving radical change, such civil violence and official repression will only spread.
Protests against police brutality, New York. Demotix/Georgio Savona. All rights reserved.
A dangerous politics of containment
The death of Freddie Gray is far from an isolated incident. It is the latest in a long history of suspected police violence against the city’s population, especially its black and poorer residents. Between 2009 and 2014, alone, 109 people died in police-related confrontations in Maryland, with 31 deaths in Baltimore.
Significantly, this fatal legacy is directly linked to ongoing issues of unemployment and an authoritarian war on drugs that justifies enhanced policing. This ‘war’ represented a 'new segregation' of the population, geographically and politically separating these marginalized citizens from ‘mainstream society’.
Reflected was an entrenched politics of containment. The failures of the government to effectively resolve problems of inequality, poverty and racism in the 1960s and 1970s morphed into strategies to simply confine them to certain areas and specific populations.
This mentality has taken on new life in the wake of the recent protests over police violence over the past year. In Ferguson, for instance, police and politicians tried to deflect and downplay the death of teenager Michael Brown through official obfuscation and later demonizations of the victim as a ‘thug’ and protesters as ‘looters’.
As more cases of law enforcement brutality have emerged and more citizens have joined their voices in feelings of collective outrage as well as resistance, this strategy has been progressively replaced by one of containment. The new emphasis is on preventing these incidents from leading to radical challenges to the existing order.
While ‘mistakes’ were admitted, officials took pains to paint this as primarily individual cases of misconduct. Ideologically, it was often portrayed as a 'racial’ problem rather than an ‘American problem’. On the ground this meant, literally and figuratively shaping how, where and when protests could take place and in what concrete form.
In many ways, this has been a highly effective, though tragically regressive, approach. The filming, for instance, of a policeman fatally shooting a black suspect multiple times in the back was quickly ‘calmed’ and taken out of the public spotlight by the swift response by authorities to fire the offending officer and arrest him for murder.
Yet the case of Baltimore puts in stark relief the limits of this containment policy. The attempts to pacify anger by asking for patience until the completion of the ‘official investigation’ were rebuffed by citizens both nationally and locally. This is testament to the little faith left in police inquiries that time and again have acquitted their members.
Police on the streets of Baltimore. Demotix/Aidan Walsh. All rights reserved.
A national state of emergency
It is crucial, therefore to move beyond a politics of containment, both as an official strategy and a popular, though not always recognized, ideology. As the riots have worsened, leaders, public figures and community figures have increasingly called for ‘peace’. Even outspoken TV producer and social critic David Simon wrote: “There was real power and potential in the peaceful protests that spoke in Mr Gray’s name initially, and there was real unity at his homegoing today. But this, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a dimunition [sic] of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death.”
While not always intended, and eminently understandable given the circumstances, these sentiments reflect a dangerous ‘crisis narrative’ – one that reinforces a mentality of containment rather than demanding real and substantive change. It romanticizes the need to ‘return to normalcy’, implicitly idealizing the time before the unrest as perhaps flawed but ultimately acceptable.
Martin Luther King famously stated: “riots are the language of the unheard”. More recently, the critical philosopher Žižek similarly observed: “every violent acting out is a sign there is something you are not able to put into words”. While not necessarily articulate, the actions of the rioters have spoken volumes. Unfortunately, they do so in a way that allows those in power to draw on a ‘crisis narrative’ to promote the need for order, and in the process, legitimize further police repression to ‘quell’ the unrest.
Not surprisingly, then, the pleas for order have been publicly challenged. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the Atlantic: “The people now calling for nonviolence are not prepared to answer these questions. Many of them are charged with enforcing the very policies that led to Gray's death, and yet they can offer no rational justification for Gray's death and so they appeal for calm. But there was no official appeal for calm when Gray was being arrested.”
But mere contextualizations of the riots are not enough. They simply keep the discussion fixated in a place of reaction rather than transformation. It is imperative that arising from this unrest is a more forward thinking politics that actively acknowledges the unacceptability of present conditions and continuously demands that they be radically changed.
By focusing on the deeper factors underpinning this violence, both from police and protesters, new possibilities for solidarity can emerge: allowing law enforcement and citizens to recognize that they are victims, though to different degrees, of the same unfair economic policies that underdevelop communities while asking police to ‘preserve the peace’.
These events have tragically shifted the public’s attention away from the police brutality inspiring this violence and towards the more immediate need to restore order. The current reactive approach only produces a reactionary politics of containment. But the city of Baltimore was in a ‘state of emergency’ long before the rioting began.