Baltimore’s name has been invoked so much on the national stage in recent days that there ought to be a brand surcharge. But the parallels between Baltimore of 2015 and Minneapolis of today are too obvious to ignore: An African American man dies in police custody for no good reason. It happens at a time of highly-publicized incidents of racism elsewhere. There’s a history of bias, inequality and police misconduct. Peaceful protests are soon upstaged by less civil behavior, spreading to cities throughout the nation. Buildings are set on fire. Looters show up. And authorities are left with a conundrum about whether to use force or patience to quell the unrest, or to give ground. Later will come the prosecution of the perpetrators, a re-examination of police-community relations as well as the demands for better schools, drug treatment, decent housing and economic opportunity for the disenfranchised that, if Baltimore history is a guide, won’t get very far.
Granted, there are differences. The video evidence that police crossed a line in their treatment of George Floyd, who died pleading with his captors that he wasn’t able to breathe as a police officer’s knee pressed down on his neck, makes the brutality too apparent to dispute. This time, the question centers not so much on whether police acted wrongfully, but whether they will be successfully prosecuted. This time, there’s the added stress of a pandemic, which has only widened the gap between the haves and have nots, who are out of work by the millions. And this time, there’s someone in the White House with a soft spot for white supremacists, who’s throwing brickbats at the fragile efforts to calm the country.
“The Lamestream Media is doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy. As long as everybody understands what they are doing, that they are FAKE NEWS and truly bad people with a sick agenda, we can easily work through them to GREATNESS!” the president of the United States tweeted early Sunday afternoon, after calling the Minneapolis protesters " Radical Left Anarchists." That was actually an improvement over a tweet Thursday, when he labeled demonstrators with the racist term “thugs” and threatened death to would be looters.
Yet for those of us who lived through Baltimore’s unrest five years, after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man, died from an injury sustained while in police custody, it all seems scarily familiar; it’s just a new city, same playbook. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
The truth is that the circumstances underlying the response to George Floyd’s killing have long existed, and there’s not a half-decade but a half-century of urban strife to prove it. One can just as easily draw a line connecting the Watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles, which began with a traffic stop of an African American motorist; to the 1968 riots in Baltimore and elsewhere after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after an officer shot and killed Michael Brown; to Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death in 2015; to Minneapolis today.
Racism, plus hopelessness and frustration, plus police brutality equals civil unrest. What was true 55 years ago and five years ago is just as true now.
This is the moment when Baltimore should be sharing some collective wisdom with our northern neighbors, we suppose. The television networks have already come calling on Gov. Larry Hogan and former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on that subject. But their advice largely focuses on how to handle the immediate unrest or eventual prosecution of police.
“It’s very important to get it right and not just get it fast ... When you are dealing with charges against a police officer, we have seen historically the bar is so high on findings of guilt,” Ms. Rawlings-Blake said in an interview on CNN’s “Out Front” Thursday night.
“My advice to these leaders in other states would be to not let the situation get out of control,” Governor Hogan said Sunday morning, on another CNN show. He added later: “We’ve got to have these conversations and figure out what the issues are that we have to address.”
If any governor should have a handle on the issues, it’s Maryland’s. But on that subject, neither Mr. Hogan nor the city’s former mayor have much to say. Offering advice would imply that the underlying problems that fueled our fire have been resolved, and they haven’t — not a one.
There have been some helpful steps, such as the involvement of the Obama Justice Department in Baltimore police-community relations and the creation of the federal consent decree to essentially police the police, and body cameras are now standard issue for officers. But on the broad range of issues involving economic opportunity, housing and social justice? Baby steps, at best. There’s been a lot of talk, which is helpful to some extent, but when it comes to action, there’s a long way to go.
And let’s put some emphasis on that final point. Police misconduct can be punished, and riots can be quelled. Too much of the Freddie Gray aftermath focused on the decision-making of the moment. Should criminal charges have been filed within 12 days of his death? Should protesters have been treated less aggressively? More? Even ongoing efforts to improve police-community relations are a subset, albeit an important one, of the core problems exposed by the death of Gray.
What Minneapolis would be wise to focus on is the bigger picture of systemic oppression: What can be done about low-income, disenfranchised communities of color beset by problems associated with systemic racism, concentrated poverty, substandard housing, lack of jobs and the drug addiction and violence that so often arise as consequences? These are simmering maladies too many of us chose to ignore until some spark sets off a conflagration. A virus that kills 100,000? Washington, D.C., will recognize an emergency and appropriate trillions. The millions who have died because of inequality, beginning with the high U.S. child mortality rate? Crickets — until the protests start.
That was the lesson of Baltimore post Freddie Gray.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.