Each of the recent well-publicized and widely condemned deaths of young black men at the hands of police, beginning last August with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has its unique circumstances. The unexplained injuries that led to the death of Freddie Gray on April 19 after his arrest by Baltimore police is distinguished, however, by the fact that the city’s leadership, from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on down to Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, has forcefully denounced the apparent heavy-handed tactics that ultimately claimed Gray’s life.
And yet, we have been saddened to witness Baltimore becoming another Ferguson — with its initial days of peaceful protests irretrievably marred by the violence and destruction all too familiar to viewers of the evening news. Beginning last Saturday night and continuing through the early part of this week, marchers and protesters in downtown Baltimore have engaged in opportunistic urban terror, which escalated from the smashing of windshields of police vehicles to the looting of business establishments and to direct, serious attacks on several police officers, at least one of whom was reported unresponsive on Monday.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has declared a state of emergency and a curfew is now in effect every night from 10 o’clock to 5 a.m.
“When the protests are not peaceful it becomes a distraction from the fact that Gray is dead and his family’s in pain,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. He couldn’t be more right.
What each of these racially charged cases seems to reinforce is that black men have limited opportunities when confronted by police.
If “you’re black in America, your life is always under threat,” Pastor Jamal Bryant said at a service Sunday at Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple. There is so much mistrust of police, said a friend of Gray, that many people think they are safer running from a confrontation with the law. “Why stop when you already know what they’ll do to you? Rough you up, throw you on the ground.”
This is, admittedly, a very different description of law enforcement than many of us have experienced. But the description is real. And even at a time when crime has dropped to a level not seen since the early 1960s, the incarceration rate is at a record high, and particularly so with black males.
The problem of black men subjected to excessive force by police needs to be addressed. But outright lawlessness is not the answer. The fact is that the level of violence we are seeing unfold puts us all at risk and only distracts from the need to change how the American justice system treats all of its citizens.