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Baltimore is not Ferguson

- April 30, 2015

The following is a guest post from Babson College political scientist Stephen Deets, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Charles North Community Association in Baltimore.


A day after the riots in Baltimore, the news coverage is sadly predictable. We are told that the violence came after the funeral of Freddie Gray, yet another black man who died in an encounter with the police. We rehash arguments about the role of violence in social change and when it is justified and/or understandable. And we are reminded once again of the oppression and unheard voices of minorities in America’s cities. However, as much as we may want to map the events in Baltimore onto other cases, particularly Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown, there are key differences, and these differences indicate how complicated addressing some of these issues are.

Like Ferguson, Baltimore has a history of police problems, particularly between the police and youth of color. The NAACP and ACLU sued in 2006 for “zero tolerance policing,” claiming it resulted in a pattern of arrests that was so aggressive as to be unconstitutional. The city settled in 2010 and promised reform. Since 2011 the city has paid nearly $6 million in damages because of suits over police brutality.

However, unlike Ferguson, Baltimore has a majority African American city council, and both the mayor and police chief are African American. While whites are over-represented on the police force compared to the percentage of whites in the city, the police force is majority minority. In other words, the racial divisions are complicated by different socio-economic and cultural divides. As a result, there are times when those in power express impatience with people that they think should be more like them and are not. This was perhaps clearest Monday when both Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake and Council President Jack Young both referred to the rioters as “thugs,” a characterization that both later walked back.

This divide is important for understanding the events over past week. The protests over the Baltimore City Police has involved community activists, church leaders, organizations like the ACLU and NAACP, and others that have social networks that connect them both into the city and to local residents. While there are new faces prominent in the protests, particular members of the Gray family, the marches have been organized by a well-established social network in Baltimore.

The networks in the predominantly African American community were supplemented by mobilization by progressive organizations, including environmental justice groups and Occupy, which tend to be younger and whiter. In other words, the protests were not led by those who are unheard; they were led by those who are heard. Again, the contrast with Ferguson is noteworthy.

Where there was certainly high profile national activists and politicians from outside the town involved in protests, in Baltimore local politicians, including members of City Council and Congress, were quite visible. Throughout the past week, Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts have had a number of meetings with representatives of these organizations to talk about possible reforms. Given the nature of the network, it is understandable that the protests have been mostly peaceful, part of the focus at Freddie Gray’s funeral was a call for more community activism, and people quietly left the funeral.

Again unlike Ferguson, where violent protests directly spun out of protests against the police, the connection in Baltimore is more tenuous. The “riot” started at Mondawmin Mall several hours after the funeral. Earlier in the day, a message spread through social media networks dominated by high school students that a “purge,” a movie reference about lawlessness, was going to start after school at the mall.

Most Baltimore City high school students take city buses to and from school, and Mondawmin is major hub for many of the bus lines serving the high schools. Alerted to the potential for problems at Mondawmin, the police gathered in large numbers. Accounts differ on whether the heavy police presence contributed to sparking the violence. In either case, once the melee started, it quickly spread to looting in the neighborhood and then looting, smashing windows, and burning cars happened in other areas of Baltimore. Reports differ on whether the mood was angry or carnivalesque, as well as how much of the looting was simply crimes of opportunity.

Very quickly the divide between the “protesters” and the “rioters” became apparent. Freddie Gray’s death may have provided the structural opportunity for the riots, but it seems the individuals involved were largely different than the protestErs. As a result, Monday afternoon and evening the protester leaders, mayor, and police were cooperating to calm the streets.

The protest leaders engaged in several rhetorical strategies to separate themselves from the rioters. Family members repeatedly said that it was not what Freddie Gray would have wanted. A couple of city council members, most notably Nick Mosby and to a lesser extent Carl Stokes, called the rioting an expression of the frustration of poor youth about their lack of opportunities and lack of a means to express their anger. Pastor Jamal H. Bryant, who leads a very large congregation, has been visible in the Baltimore protests (and was arrested protesting in Ferguson), and who gave the eulogy for Freddie Gray on Monday, called for high school students and other youth to come to his church not only for training in non-violence but also to learn more about the what protests are really about. If anyone has been unheard and silenced, it is the rioters. Moreover, not only are others speaking for the rioters and framing a new narrative about the nature of problems in Baltimore, complaints about the police and police reform have at least temporarily faded.

On Tuesday, many of those who were the backbone of the protests were organizing clean-up efforts, packing lunches for kids (since schools are closed, there is a concern about what happens to the large number of kids who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school), and talking to local businesses about how to help them. Furthermore, the protestErs may have lost control of the focus on police reform. The question is what happens now. Baltimore activists and community leaders may be forced back into the true, but bland, “we need to strengthen our communities” and “we need more focus on youth,” which in a way represents the status quo.

The deeper issue is that Ferguson created an expectation for clear solutions; an idea that all that is needed is greater minority representation in the police and the city government. In a problem that Baltimore well demonstrates, scholars have long struggled over how attempts at ensuring minority voice may leave important segments of society feeling left out, especially recognizing how even in minority communities there may be disjunctures in networks, and how voice does not necessarily translate into influence, especially when the issues are less about laws and policies and more about norms and behavior.