Finding our way back

State police in riot gear stand by as residents clean up debris from riots that occurred at the North Ave. and Pennsylvania Ave. intersection in Baltimore.
Photo by Melissa Gerr

It took about a week for Freddie Gray to succumb to his injuries, about the time it took for his hometown of Baltimore to descend from high-minded protest to outright looting, destruction and violence. As I sat down to write this, the Inner Harbor area downtown was practically deserted, the National Guard had been mobilized, the Mondawmin Mall had been ransacked, and a CVS pharmacy in nearby Penn North was reduced to ashes.

As Charm City becomes just another Ferguson, Mo., a landmark in the ever-moving story of apparent police brutality and the pent-up rage of inner-city America, the question has now become what can be done to reclaim peace and justice?

In the beginning of the protests — before fans at the Orioles’ 5-4 victory over the Boston Red Sox were forced to shelter in place on April 25, before the canceling of the team’s matchup against the Chicago White Sox two days later, before seven policemen were injured and one was reported unresponsive — representatives of Jews United for Justice joined forces with the thousands who peaceably protested what they called the “oppression” by Baltimore Police of poor black neighborhoods and the heavy-handedness that saw Gray suffer a severed spine at some point between his April 12 arrest and his arrival at the hospital a short time later. They called for police accountability, demanded a thorough investigation and, above all, agitated for a systemic rethink of how poverty and race, especially in the inner city, are dealt with by a seemingly unresponsive City Hall.

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue, the Reservoir Hill congregation that has taken a lead in multicultural rejuvenation of the country’s urban centers, was among the protesters calling for change two Saturdays ago. By the following Monday afternoon, he was lamenting how quickly the mood had changed. While he saw the initial descent into violence as somewhat explainable — not justified, but explainable as expressions of deep-seated anger — he blamed outside forces for trying to “co-opt the memory of Freddie Gray” in the widespread looting that essentially shut down the city.

The ideal represented by Burg and others of the Jewish protesters who stood side-by-side with residents of Sandtown — where Gray was from — is one that we all should share. They note that while the media frequently focuses on the aftermath of rage, far too little attention is paid to the underlying causes of that rage. In that vein, the use of body cameras to record police behavior and a reassessment of community policing in high-crime areas deserve to be considered.

But as Burg and other protesters have observed, there is no excuse to the kind of indiscriminate violence that has upended civil society and places the guardians of our security at risk themselves. However we ended up here, we need to find a way back.

My hunch is that our own tradition, deeply rooted in such notions as personal accountability, collective responsibility and justice that transcends social rank, has much to contribute. When that
conversation begins anew, hopefully Baltimore will emerge a more peaceful city.

The writer is the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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