Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Baltimore in Flames

I wrote this for the German weekly Jungle World.

               Baltimore became the center of national attention in April because of the events surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray by the police while he was in custody on April 19. Freddie Gray's death became the focal point for local, city-wide demonstrations that became larger and more militant in the week following Freddie Gray's death, until on April 25th there was a dual confrontation between demonstrators and bar crowds downtown and then demonstrators and the police, which ended in some property damage and the arrests of a handful of protesters.

Freddie Gray and Baltimore's West Side
               Freddie Gray lived on the near west side of Baltimore, in a poor black neighborhood like many others in the U.S. In the post-WWII period, in part thanks to industrial expansion and in part thanks to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, it seemed as if there might be a break with the old world of racial oppression grounded in the split between unfree black labor and free, waged white labor, which had begun with chattel slavery and continued with segregation. However, this break was not to lead to liberation from racialization. Capital flight and de-industrialization were already breaking up the post-WWII capital-labor productivity-wages agreement, leading to an increasingly generalized contingency of workers to access to waged work. This economic shift combined with white flight from the city to the suburbs meant that wealth production and taxable income left the cities. This dual movement re-instantiated racial division on a new basis, where black people became non-labor, radically contingent to wage labor, and the inhabitants of de-industrialized, impoverished urban areas. As these conditions progressed from the late 1960's to the 2000's, the underground economy based on the drug and sex trades expanded exponentially and the state responded with the militarization of the police and increasing incarceration of black people. Gentrification that began in the 1980's in some cities (in Baltimore only in the 2000's) only intensified the divide, justifying even more militarized policing.
               The police in Baltimore therefore were not doing anything new when they arrested Freddie Gray because he ran away when they rolled up. Nor were they doing anything new when they bent him like a pretzel during the arrest, broke his spine while in transit to the police station, and lied about it on their arrest report. The murder of Freddie Gray by the police is the latest in a long line of incidents.i The city of Baltimore has paid out approximately $6 million in settlements over the past four years to avoid criminal prosecution of Baltimore City police officers. According to the Baltimore Sunii, this is because “more than 100 people have won court judgment or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations.” On a national scale, the closest count seems to be from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reportiii in the Justice Department, which reported more than 4,800 “arrest-related” deaths from 2003 to 2009. Black people were just under 4 times as likely to die in custody as white people and almost twice as likely as Latinos. ProPublica did an analysis of the data from 2010-2012 and determined that in that period, young black men aged 15-19 were 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than young white men in the same age group.iv These numbers, as bad as they are, are based on very incomplete data sets.

Daily Protests
               From the day of Freddie Gray’s death on April 19th, there have been daily demonstrations attended by hundreds and, by the 25th, thousands of people from all walks of life.v The first real violence took place on the 25th in the evening near Camden Yards where the Baltimore Orioles baseball team was playing. There was a combination of some protesters ready for a fight, mixed with a series of hostile, racist provocations from drunken white sports fansvi and cops all too willing to use any misstep as an opportunity to wade into the protesters and arrest people. The mainstream media coverage only focused on the “violence” of the protesters, who had done little more than break some windows and “loot” a 7-Eleven convenience store. Arrested protesters, on the other hand, reported being maced while in the holding cells by officers.

A Provoked Riotvii
               The events that have become the focal point, the riots on Monday April 27th, actually had a somewhat indirect relationship to the protests. The conditions that led to the events on Monday were effectively created by the actions of the police.
In response to items posted on various social media that there should be a “purge”viii at Mondawmin Mall, a very poor city mall near where Freddie Gray lived and died. The mall was closed down and the students at Frederick Douglass High School across the street were let out early. Many students told teachers they wanted to get out of the area before anything crazy happened. However, instead of letting students get on buses and disperse, the police department re-routed buses away from the school, and took passengers off of the buses that were leaving the area, and effectively forced the students to stay in the neighborhood face to face with 200-300 hundred police in riot gear, who then moved on the students.
After a considerable amount of tension had built up, the students began to throw things at the police who had herded them into a corner. Once the dam was breached, all of the anger was released in a running battle that lasted well into the evening, eventually centering around the CVS drug store at Pennsylvania Ave. and North Ave. Over a dozen police were hurt and around 200 people were arrested. Approximately 15 buildings were burnt, and some looting took place, though not as much as you would think since there aren’t a lot of places to loot there.
Not only was the police role the riot not reported, but all we have heard from the Democratic President to far right-wing bloggers to Baltimore’s Democratic mayor is how horrible it was that these “thugs” destroyed property and hurt cops, but no recognition that the cops killed Freddie Gray; how the protesters ought to be peaceful even though this completely misrepresented the protesters as the same people as the rioters in order to discredit the protests; how black people have no right to be angry about police violence and institutionalized poverty and discrimination because “they” burned down a chain drug store.
However, the defenders of the protesters and rioters were often as unsatisfactory. Some of the anarchist-inclined Left, seduced by images of “riot porn”, uncritically read the riots as a kind of pure resistance, never mind the problematic celebration of destruction in “those people's” neighborhood under the assumption that “they” have “nothing” anyway, a view by no means shared by many people in the neighborhoods where rioting happened. The more progressive local politicians recognized a crucial “socio-economic dimension” to the protests and riots, but of course cannot account for this “dimension” as intrinsic to capital and so they can't really say why this “dimension” persists seemingly without end. The traditional Left called for “workers' solidarity” under the idea that “the race problem” is really only a “class problem”, as always unable to reckon with the irreducible specificity of racial domination. Finally, the largest Left-liberal milieu, espousing a politics of “white privilege” falls into line with Black Nationalist politics in hypostatizing racial differentiation. On the one hand, this politics cannot but offend a large layer of working class whites who in no way feel privileged in the age of capital's precaritisation of all labor, and on the other hand it provides cover for black middle class opportunism in the name of sublimating radical critique to obedience to “the leaders” of “the community”. It disarms radical critique in the face of the politics of ressentiment, of “white victimization”, which is frequently strongest among whites most likely to be economically and socially punished for close proximity to black people (e.g. the real estate industry really does drop property values in neighborhoods where black people move in, so poor whites who have scraped something together frequently draw the conclusion that the problem is black people, not a racist capitalism, the latter being much harder to do anything about.)

Solidarity Actions
On Monday night a state of emergency was declared and the Governor sent in National Guard troops to assist the police in maintaining “order”, that is, in maintain a situation in which poverty, state sanctioned murder, and business as usual is met with compliance. This has been phenomenally successful in stopping all tourism and business activity in the downtown area, but not the activity of protesters.
Despite the blockading of some neighborhoods by the police, with no logic other than to cut them off from the rest of the city, hundreds of people from all over the city came out to help clean up the area where the riots took place. Parents brought their children to talk with them about what was going on and why. Gangs called a truce (not to facilitate murdering police officers, as the Police Department claimed) in order to help stabilize the city. By the end of Tuesday night, it was also clear that those people from around the city were key in keeping the police from provoking new riots because the police started using tear gas and shooting pepper-spray bullets at people in certain neighborhoods, with seemingly little provocation.
It has also been great to see solidarity demonstrations in Seattle, New York City, Chicago, and other cities, but we also need to understand that these are not just acts of solidarity. These demonstrations are acts of resistance because Staten Island is Ferguson is Baltimore is America. The brutality of the police in relation to these demonstrations has been higher than normal, as have been the number of arrests.

An Indictment!?
               No doubt the most singularly surprising outcome of all this was the actual indictment, on May 1, of the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death. This probably would not have happened without the constant pressure of people in Baltimore and around the country in the last year.
               As a result, the demonstration on Friday, May 1, was both surprisingly large (I would estimate at its peak somewhere around 4,000 people) and extremely well-received. We marched from downtown, surrounded by heavily armed police and National Guard units, with armored military vehicles, up to the neighborhood where the main rioting took place and back into the downtown area. Support on the way out was generally positive, but it was hard not to cry as we entered the community around Pennsylvania and North. There were already hundreds of people out in their cars blocking the streets, “Justice for Freddie Gray”, “No Racist Police” and all manner of other slogans on people's cars, posted on buildings, etc., but neither they nor we had any idea that these two demonstrations would come together. People on all sides cheered, got out of their cars and hugged marchers, honked their horns in support, took pictures together, marched together. Small children no more than 6 or 7 years old stood on top of cars, fists in the air, high-fiving people who walked by.
               Saturday, a similar march went to back, but this time instead f marching on, they stayed and literally held a street festival, with people dancing and carousing and paying no heed to the barriers that normally break people apart. This, much more than the very male-centered, adult riot, is what the powers that be should fear. This was a festival, however brief, against oppression. There were no “revolutionary heroics” to be found here, but something profoundly auguring a different future.

http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white. Given the limits of the data and its reliability, the difference could in fact be anywhere from 10-40 times more likely.

v Estimates for the April 25th March vary from 1200-5000 people.

Journalist Brandon Soderberg, who was there and who intervened in one instance, relates what actually happened here.

viii “The Purge” is a fictional film (now with a sequel) about the seizure of power by a right-wing government in the U.S. and how that government institutes a “purge” one night a year, in which everyone can commit any sort of crime they want, including murder. Hence the reference of “purging”.

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