The stern politicians talking tough. The preachers invoking scripture, the grieving family asking for peace. The protesters marching solemnly, the looters shaming themselves. The police shoulder to shoulder, barely containing their anger and fear. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton parachuting into town. The television journalists with their urgent on-camera voices. Cars burning, windows smashed. The city and the nation watching as night falls and the crowds spiral out of control.
We don't know exactly how this story will end this time, except that it always gets worse before the anger and frustration peter out. Then the anger travels, like a road show, to another city where another senseless death will cause a new spasm of violence. Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby is correct. This can happen in any city where social and economic institutions fail the poor.
It all looks very 1968 to me, when the death of Martin Luther King caused cities, including Baltimore, to burn. Or the summer of 1968 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago when the violent nature of police was officially unmasked. Or the spring of 1970 when the course of Vietnam War and the deaths of students at Kent State at the hands of the National Guard caused drowsy white college students to erupt in furious anger at the government. Protests begin peacefully, then things fall apart fast.
Apparently we have learned nothing, and nothing has changed. Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. This country has remedied neither the hopelessness nor percolating frustration of the poor, nor the violent undercurrent of government authority. Cities perch on the brink of legitimate grievance until they tip over into violence.
Leaders, unwilling to learn from their peers, continue to delay or deny official responsibility in the name of due process, and the frustration grows. When there is no trust and no respect between citizens and police, delays look sinister.
I have little hope that this cycle can be broken. What happened in Baltimore was utterly predictable. There was no way that the dignified protests would not deteriorate into recreational looting, I don't care what post-Ferguson strategies were in place. It isn't simply that the looters are opportunists; it is also true that they feel they are owed, that the rules do not apply to them because the rules were written to exclude them.
It has been almost 50 years since the last riots, and the poor are still without hope. If anything has changed it is that the police are now more heavily armed. We have an African-American mayor and police chief in Baltimore. We have a black man in the White House. But the lives — the opportunities — of those on the ground level of this society have not improved, and you can not cordon off anger with Jersey barriers.
These violent protesters and the scampering looters are not blameless. Responsibility and dignity and respect for others are things you must claim for yourself. They are not denied to you because of the color of your skin or the circumstances of your birth.
But the tide of public opinion on which any hope for justice might ride changes swiftly when television provides the nation with wall-to-wall scenes of lawlessness. The insulated viewers will shake their heads, concluding that the young men in the streets are getting just what they deserve. Legitimate grievances will not be heard.
That's the other lesson that has not been learned. That's the other part of this tragedy that is so predictable.
Susan Reimer's column regularly appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at email@example.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.