Our hearts go out to the family of Freddie Gray, who not only had to bury a loved one today but also to cope with the violence that raged across the streets of West Baltimore in the hours that followed his funeral. The scenes that played out on the streets — teens throwing rocks and bricks, setting cars ablaze, plundering stores; police officers lined up in tactical gear, firing tear gas and pepper balls, some of them injured badly by the reckless violence — were not only at odds with the Gray family's expressly stated wishes but also with the hope for a true redress of their grievances and those of the community at large. We join with the Gray family in urging Baltimoreans to continue expressing the passions that his death stirred but to do so peacefully. Looting convenience stores, smashing police car windows and throwing rocks at officers accomplishes nothing but to confirm the ugly stereotypes that underlie the very injustices the demonstrators are trying to protest.
Today's events had the air of a self-reinforcing spiral of devastation. Teens circulated on social media a call for a "purge," a reference to a movie about a breakdown of all laws, and police responded with stern warnings to the public about the likelihood of violence and looting, prompting a number of businesses and institutions to close and send their workers home. The police then set up phalanxes around the Mondawmin transit center — a place where students congregate after school on an ordinary day because of the convergence of the Metro with several bus lines. Did the teens truly have ill intent when they arrived, or did the sight of the officers carrying shields and batons — not to mention television cameras — goad some into reckless and destructive behavior? Did the police's heavy response prevent more destruction, or did it amplify the tension?
We can never know, but the confrontation shifted the state of post-Freddie Gray Baltimore. The Orioles canceled their game Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, the National Guard stood by to intervene if necessary, and the city set a curfew. What had been the site of a sustained and peaceful dialogue about how poor, minority, inner-city residents are treated by the police suddenly took on the feel of an armed camp, with smoke, sirens and helicopters filling the air.
Now we have to shift it back.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the governor, members of the state's congressional delegation and other leaders are urging calm, as are many of the city's religious leaders. It will take more than that. It will take the thousands who have already marched in peaceful solidarity with the Gray family's cause, and the many thousands more who have silently supported them, to take back the movement, to drown out those few who choose chaos over order. The Gray family's attorney, Billy Murphy, suggested on CNN that the Freddie Gray protests pause until the city comes under control. That's an understandable sentiment, but if we are to not only restore the peace but also realize something positive from the memory of Freddie Gray, it will take more than silence. All the rest of us must speak out and do our parts to find solutions to the injustices that pervade the inner city where he lived and died.
It is possible. Even amid the mayhem, the city has shown signs of unity.
The Orioles were playing the Red Sox at Camden Yards Saturday as the first waves of violence broke out nearby, and officials were concerned enough at one point that fans weren't allowed to leave for about half an hour. Shortly after the game ended, John Angelos, the Orioles executive vice president and son of Peter Angelos, sent a series of tweets showing more solidarity with the experiences of the protesters than one might expect from a scion of one of Baltimore's wealthiest and most powerful families. "We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the US and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don't have jobs and are losing economic, civil and legal rights and this … makes inconvenience at a ball game irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans," he wrote.
The next day, as businesses along Howard Street worked to clean up, two as yet anonymous students from Morgan State University showed up at a 7-Eleven "with a mop, bucket and spray cleaners," according to a company spokeswoman. "They were on a mission to help," she said.
Some suggest that Baltimore has reached a tipping point in its reaction to Freddie Gray's death. Perhaps it has, but we need to remember that tipping over into chaos and violence is not inevitable. Whoever caused the destruction, whether they were out of towners or natives, we must remember that there are many more of us who are praying for justice through peace.