Protests over the tragic death of Freddie Gray continue in Baltimore, and like clockwork dogwhistle words like “thug” and misdirection like blaming the breakdown of the “family structure” are on the upswing. Whatever debates one wants to have about tactics, we must not forget a crucial fact: people are reacting viscerally to years of violent oppression, oppression that deserves far more attention and outrage than what’s being directed now at mostly peaceful protests. Oppression that, in the age of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, and so many more, is clearly not going away without a fight, whatever dubious claims one wants to make about our “post-racial” society. Even just narrowing this to the question of Freddie Gray and the practice of “rough rides” is enough to get the blood boiling:
When a handcuffed Freddie Gray was placed in a Baltimore police van on April 12, he was talking and breathing. When the 25-year-old emerged, “he could not talk and he could not breathe,” according to one police official, and he died a week later of a spinal injury.
But Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries.
Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride. Others have also received payouts after filing lawsuits.
For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a “rough ride” — an “unsanctioned technique” in which police vans are driven to cause “injury or pain” to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson’s subsequent death
As usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers up an eloquent response:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
As Colette Shade demonstrated in a pointed and painful to read piece about visiting the straight-out-of-a-parody-of-rich-white-people Maryland Hunt Cup over the weekend, many of the people quick to condemn the “riots” spare little thought for the cause of the outrage. The media also hasn’t managed to muster much concern about the fact that more than 50% of the people in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood are unemployed. This country has a shameful legacy of racism and police brutality, and we must not let this hypocrisy stand and let the focus stray from where it belongs. Author and activist Michelle Alexander said it well:
I believe in non-violence not just as a tactic, but as a way of life. Yet I cannot stomach the indignant condemnation of young people throwing stones and looting stores when those same indignant politicians and media pundits muster so little outrage for the daily, routine violence inflicted by law enforcement on poor communities of color, including the literal war – a drug war – that has been waged in Freddy [sic] Gray’s neighborhood for decades. I say yes to peaceful protests, but no to blatant hypocrisy.