I subconsciously heard the 1989 Billy Joel anthem, "We Didn't Start the Fire" underscoring the angry crowds that trashed sections of Baltimore on the night of April 27. The lyrics exclaim, "We didn't start the fire ... No we didn't light it. But we tried to fight it." And so the crowds did, through their anarchic actions. Often, violence is the only avenue of expression left for the desperate and oppressed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once aptly noted, "A riot is the language of the unheard," and his testimony crackled to life in what we witnessed on our TV screens.
Many in the conservative media were quick to blow their dog whistles for the base, blaming the nightmarish events on fatherless sons, welfare mothers and ineffective civil rights leaders. But that's the easy way out. Pointing to the effects and not the true causes of a problem is a tactic of the blind, of those who refuse to see what the prime movers really were and are.
Multi-national corporations and other big businesses are the first culprits. Incentivized by lower costs in right-to-work states, lenient environmental regulations and our nation's ill-considered trade agreements, manufacturers abandoned the urban East and Midwest in droves — first for the South and then for places off-shore. Technological advances that substituted automation for people only compounded the problem. From 1959 to 1995, Baltimore bled more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs. The city once touted Bethlehem Steel, a GM plant, London Fog and Western Electric among its employers. They are all long-gone, and the city now suffers an 8.2 percent unemployment rate.
Next in line for blame is the military-industrial-congressional complex for its misplaced priorities and foreign adventurism. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion. Every tick of every single hour we Americans pay over $365,000 for the Iraq War, a misguided war of choice. According to the National Priorities Project, since 2003 Iraq has cost taxpayers in Baltimore alone a whopping $981.73 million. Just think of the new businesses this cash could have seeded; of the new homes and schools it could have built in Baltimore's blighted neighborhoods.
In fiscal year 2015, 54 cents out of every dollar earmarked for discretionary spending will be given to the U.S. military. That's $598.5 billion — the size of the next nine military budgets around the world, combined. Of course we need to protect ourselves from those who wish us harm, but at what cost? And, doesn't it bother you that we can afford to invest in Baghdad and Mosul, but not Baltimore and Philadelphia?
I next charge the greedy teachers' unions that are more focused on self-preservation than student achievement. They have long protected incompetent teachers in our inner city schools despite the irreparable harm they do. And they have fended off the competition of charter schools because of the threat they pose to the existing educational power structure.
The nation's misguided drug policy and our harsh sentencing laws are also at fault. We have less than 5 percent of the world's population, but a quarter of its prisoners. About 40 percent of them are African-American, though blacks comprise only 13 percent of the general population. Prisons are nothing more than crime schools, and we subsequently reap what we sow.
There are other guilty parties — police with their often brutal tactics and pattern of false arrests that alienate the community; miserly slum landlords; the willingness of whites to ignore conditions in inner cities, though they live just blocks away in gentrified neighborhoods; corrupt politicians, both black and white; deep-rooted racism, and the legacy of slavery that encourages an enduring culture of alienation and dependency.
Lastly, there are too few men in the lives of too many black children, mothers who have children by multiple partners, children who refuse to finish school and the lost souls who have slipped into a life of substance abuse and crime. All of them must also share responsibility for the existential crisis we face as a nation, a crisis that will continue to haunt us unless we seek lasting solutions.
There is an old Negro spiritual that says, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time." We need to do some deep soul-searching in the chambers of the Capitol, in our state assemblies, in our schools and in our homes. The challenge is to reevaluate our national priorities and change course before we face the fire next time.
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Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.