The unrest in Baltimore, stemming from the horrific and inexcusable killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, has brought out the worst in most of us, and the best in a few. Unrest is the word I choose because it encompasses a lot of different things. There is the fully warranted peaceful protesting, the marches, and the refusal by people across the nation to let the issue drop. But there’s also the violence and looting. It’s all a part of bodies in a state of unrest.
Unfortunately this complex situation, with roots that go back to before the birth of the nation and factors as recent as the Internet, has been boiled down by Facebook to “You’re with them, or you’re against them.” This is an unfortunate oversimplification, because it forces us to act against our own nature.
Let’s dispense with some obvious points: racism exists, and it’s horrible. Some outlets, such as the eternally helpful explainers at Vox, have deployed the straw man that there are people out there who really pretend there is no such thing as racism. Everyone is aware of the existence of racism. The disagreements begin when we start debating how much it affects the lives of people today and whether systemic centralized response is the best course of action.
Another point: not all protests are created equal. The Web is pretty much awash in people making false comparisons to other protests. Either it’s “Well, Martin Luther King was able to affect change without looting, how come these thugs can’t?” or it’s “Well, the rioters in the Arab Spring needed to burn some things down to overthrow their despots, and we all applauded that, why not now?” The answers to these questions should be obvious: MLK was murdered, and 50 years later we have a lot of the same problems, so one could argue that his non-violence did not work that well. Alternatively, the rioters in Egypt were overthrowing a tyrannical authoritarian, so of course they needed violence. The people stealing items from a burning CVS are not even trying to change leadership; all the leaders in their city are liberal minorities. There just aren’t always obvious parallels between two situations.
Point the third: just because an expression of rage is justified, does not mean it’s still the best course of action. Constantly throughout the unrest we’ve heard people equivocating, “Well, if you were dispossessed, disillusioned, etc., wouldn’t you riot?” Maybe. But I’d also walk out of every store in town with my favorite item if law and order didn’t exist. That I understand an emotion doesn’t mean it’s an advisable course of action.
All of this is to say, the root of our problems is in de-individualizing each other. Some protestors are looting, so all the protestors are thugs. Nonsense. Some of the police are violating rights, so we should throw out the rules of law. Rubbish. My grandfather pulled himself up by his bootstraps, so all these people should be able to as well. Hogwash. Racism is real and affects all people of color, so anything done in response to that inequality is righteous. Not everything.
Every time we take a short cut to understanding, by applying what we know about one to the whole group, we dehumanize the whole group. The truth is racism is a human construct that is difficult to conquer and is not going away any time soon. Not everything we do in response to this inequality is justified, but doing nothing to avoid getting our hands dirty isn’t an option either. Making it a case of us versus them and then choosing a side will only make things worse.
Gray’s memory is best served by the brave protesters who stand in between the police and those itching to explode in violence, trying to have their voices heard. Maybe we can best honor it by listening.