Calling a Spade a Spade: The Brief Sign of Revolution in Baltimore

By Antwan L. Herron

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Arash Azizzada via Creative Commons

Looting? Rioting? Nice try. But, no. Call a spade a spade. If it’s freedom-fighting abroad, it’s freedom-fighting at home. If it’s revolution in Egypt, it’s revolution in Baltimore. That the powers that be this time around — president, governor, police commissioner, city officials, elders, cultural retainers, whoever — are American should not in any way discredit the tactics used in this historical piece of Maryland, a city that has experienced its fair share of, to put it mildly, police misconduct.

the mass explosion following the funeral of Freddie Gray and culminating in barbequed buildings and cars burned to a crisp, was no more violent or reckless or irresponsible than the police, policies, and physical environment

And that these powers are comprised of black city officials (unlike the establishment at the helm of Baltimore’s political machine during the ’68 protests) should not muddle how we view this moment (nonetheless, this inarguably adds a whole new dimension to the #BlackLivesMatter movement). For this observer, born and bred in the black proletariat of former “city of the century”, Gary, Indiana, the mass explosion following the funeral of Freddie Gray and culminating in barbequed buildings and cars burned to a crisp, was no more violent or reckless or irresponsible than the police, policies, and physical environment — the disingenuous peace — that made riots not merely a viable attention-getter or, as one King put it, a “temper tantrum,” but an inevitable protest strategy.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Arash Azizzada via Creative Commons

Unsurprisingly, were it not for those thousands who mobilized and took to the streets, the semblance of peace in Baltimore may have continued undisturbed. In fact, were it left to the city mayor and commissioner of police — more concerned about protecting police officers than victims of police brutality, more preoccupied with spending state revenue (5.7 million is the cited dollar amount) to settle costly lawsuits against the Baltimore PD than building youth recreation facilities, job training programs, and housing the homeless — there would be no publicized uproar or backlash; no agitating the status quo; only conformance; only victim-blaming and perpetual accusations of a black community neck-deep in cultural pathology (you know … absent fathers, welfare queens, black homicide, the usual) to explain away systematic problems.

If this seems familiar, the victimizer lecturing the victimized on how to appropriately respond to victimization, it’s because it is. Remember that “unwise and untimely” line from the Birmingham jail letter, back in ’63?

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Arash Azizzada via Creative Commons

So, too, is the media’s attempt to define acceptable, non-offensive blackness, the key ingredient being smidgens of respectibility politics. What else is the “peaceful protestors” v. “thugs” bifurcation but the “brothers” v “niggas”/”field negro” v. “house negro” debate by another name. Of course, distinguishing “good Negroes” and “bad Negroes,” (or “hoodlums” or “criminals”) while never the full story, has always been politically convenient, and has, again, hijacked our glimpse into the revolutionary fervor in this post-civil rights, so-called post-black struggle era.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Arash Azizzada via Creative Commons

Over the next few days, until [fill-in-the-blank] Police Department in some other city in some other part of the country murders another unarmed, twentysomething black male, adding another chapter to this century long horror story, cultural analyst across the spectrum (and I include myself in this) will look to Baltimore’s black past to understand its present, and predict its future. They’ll emphasize that Baltimore’s problems did not begin on Monday, that the visual pollution and “property damage” predate recent events. All is true. Equally true is that, despite the popularity of these issues at the moment, America undoubtedly suffers from severe ADD; so, before the nation turns the cameras off, we better keep throwing out multiple formulations of the same context clues about this uprising.

Points such as:

What is looting to a community that, prior to April 28, owned little,, but owed much; and a nation-state that leaves unpunished the greatest purveyors of theft this century has seen, that embodiment of plutocracy itself, Wall Street. I mean, the scale of stealing practiced by these Versace-suited rioters have had effects that far surpass anything the average “opportunist” (as some of the Baltimore protesters were labeled) could ever hope to manage, within his or her five seconds of fame, on the 24 hour news circuit. While it may not seem unremarkable to compare a shopping cart full of hastily assembled goods to the accounting malpractice of financiers and loan sharks, believe me, there is a helluva difference between the two.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Arash Azizzada via Creative Commons

And what is arson in a city choked-full of charred souls that serve to perfectly match the decrepit substandard housing, vacant properties (United Workers put the number at 40,000), and striking homelessness (Did I mention the 40,000 vacant properties?) which, calender month after calender month, go unnoticed.

And what is non-violence in a city whose poverty rate, according to a 2014 Wave report competes with Johannesburg, New Dehli, Shanghi, and Ibadan.

Get where I’m going with this.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Arash Azizzada via Creative Commons

Bottomline: What we witnessed in Baltimore is not merely or primarily the signs of young people gone astray nor the wish fulfillment of black cultural pathologists. It is the result of an atmosphere so rife in political negligence and disempowerment, so disrepected, so beset with deep pain, so burdened and hampered by structural oppression, that an incident as minor as issuing a jaywalking ticket had the potential to set things off. It just so happened that the about-face turned to a 25 year old black man mysteriously killed by spinal cord injury while in police custody, was about as much as any human being in good conscience could stomach. But, Gray was the fissure, or, better yet, the conduit through which the larger systemic problems briefly touched on above were channeled. Larger problems, such as lead poisoning from low-income housing, that disrepect his memory more than any footage of a charcoaled CVS ever could.

Ultimately, that’s what this brief sign, this moment, this seemingly spontaneous outburst, was about.

But ..

Moments come and go. The going of this moment began Tuesday night, when Baltimore police in concert with the National Guard, and in a bid to restore law and order, “successfully” enforced a ten o’clock curfew to clear its streets. For the most part, local residents, looking to offset the negative publicity marring their city, complied. Just like that, the soul-flames petered out, or so it seems.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Arash Azizzada via Creative Commons

As expected, the itch to protest spread, with New York, Denver, and others joining the fight, showing support and solidarity. Baltimore proved that when push comes to shove, rather than descending into protest-fatigue, we’re capable of escalating our outrage to a new level of struggle. It hasn’t mastered how to play it’s hand, but it also hasn’t folded.

 

10305613_10204262781628000_7666762883058023005_nAntwan LaMar Herron is a professor of African American Studies, activist, social critic, and NAACP theater nominee. His articles focus on class, culture, race, and human identity.

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