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Choices for Baltimore

As I write this I wonder whether my words will be rendered irrelevant by some new development in the unfolding story of Baltimore's April unrest, but I expect that one constant will remain; and that is how all of this will shape the future of our community. In particular, it remains to be seen whether we will repeat the mistakes made following the last time the peaceful arrival of spring in our town was interrupted by riot and flames.

Those of us who saw this city burned and looted in far more widespread violence following the assassination of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. cannot help but remember and compare. We saw the businesses and homes that had been engulfed and plundered, the running looters, the police commissioner on horseback and the armed National Guard troops. We found ourselves in a surreal war zone where order needed to be maintained with weapons, leaving us gripped by varying degrees of fear, anger and disbelief, and, ultimately, having to bear witness to the crumbled debris of neighborhoods that would never be the same.

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And when it was all over, there was our governor, Spiro Agnew, chastising black leaders for what he perceived as lack of intervention to limit the chaos; a demonstration of the law and order mentality that would help catapult him to the vice presidency. Of course there must be order, there must be law enforcement, and there must be consequences for acts of criminality. But there also must be some reflection on the degree to which the circumstances that can fester and culminate in violence and disorder are the result of larger failures of our culture. Surely there never is an excuse for violence or for turning peaceful demonstrations into an opportunity for theft and destruction. But what excuse do we have for the perpetual neglect of communities that our policies have been marginalized and decimated?

That so much of what was abandoned in the aftermath of the 1968 riots remains scarred 47 years later is a testament to decisions we made that have, in many ways, impeded progress toward justice and equality. In all of that time, despite the dramatic re-birth of our waterfront and the remarkable revitalization of many neighborhoods, conditions in parts of our city have worsened. Neglected neighborhoods that once offered structure and stability are plagued with family disintegration, poverty, substance abuse and violence. Racial segregation has evolved into economic segregation in communities where employment and opportunity are non-existent, and guns and drugs are plentiful. And with all of this comes the stigma of being a black resident of these places that fosters a tension-filled divide between predominantly black communities and law enforcement.

Six months after those 1968 riots, I was watching the Olympic Games from Mexico City. An African-American, Tommie Smith, won the men's 200 meters in a then world record time of 19.83 seconds. Australia's Peter Norman finished second, while another African-American, John Carlos, took the bronze. As they ascended the traditional three-level podium to receive their medals, it was apparent that something was different. Smith and Carlos were shoeless in black socks, and Smith wore a black scarf around his neck. Then, as the flags were raised and the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner" began, Smith and Carlos raised black gloved fists into the air, and both men stood with heads bowed until the National Anthem was completed. The image of Smith's right hand and Carlos' left, both outstretched against the night sky, burned into our collective memories.

And next to them stood Peter Norman, the white silver medalist; arms at his side, head up and eyes focused on the flag. And I finally understood what had happened in Baltimore during April. We had all been Peter Norman. Standing the right way and maintaining order. As if that were enough. And right next to us there had been all of this anger and pain. All of the frustration and anguish that came with being black in America. It had all boiled over in April with Dr, King's murder, just as it boiled over in the death of Freddie Gray.

If we want peace and order, we can try to maintain it through force and intimidation. We can insulate ourselves from our system's failings by isolating the poor and disadvantaged in neighborhoods that we are willing to write-off as hopeless, and enlist the police to keep the consequences of those conditions from spilling over into our lives. Or we can seek to achieve true peace by the fair and even-handed administration of justice; the creation of economic and training opportunities that offer a meaningful alternative to the lure of the streets; the adoption of drug and addiction policies that diminish the plague of drug-related violence; and working to develop a neighborhood culture and infrastructure that promotes self-worth and a sense of having a place in the American dream. The consequences of the choices we made 47 years ago remain with us. This time, after we establish order, we again will have choices to make.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is rdburke@ober.com.

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