The last time that Baltimore was in flames was 47 years ago. After the assassination of Martin Luther King [Jr.] in April 1968, the East Coast city was a stronghold for the week-long riots that shook the whole nation.
That bloody national trauma — there were six dead and 700 injured in Baltimore alone — is not to be compared to the events of Monday night. The riots were localized and much less the expression of spontaneous anger but rather a deliberate provocation of criminal gangs which are particularly active in Baltimore, as is well-known by the viewers of the highly acclaimed U.S. television series “The Wire.” The large demonstration on the weekend following the funeral of Freddie Gray, the last prominent victim of racist police violence, was peaceful on the whole.
The unrest in the urban ghetto, however, shows the still inferior position of black people five decades after they were granted equal rights. Dozens of anti-discrimination laws have now been adopted; many African-Americans have achieved social and economic advancement; and open racism is taboo almost everywhere in the country. Americans have twice elected a black president, in whose cabinet Loretta Lynch has been drafted in as the first black female attorney general, the successor to Eric Holder who is also black.
However, for millions of young black men the chance of a dignified life remains closed; they grow up in broken families in districts dominated by crime, receive only a fragmentary education, cannot find a job and end up in prison — a vicious circle of poverty and violence which increasingly results in public protests like those in Ferguson last summer.
So why now exactly? Police brutality already existed beforehand. Perhaps Barack Obama’s election seven years ago has awoken expectations that could never have been fulfilled and this causes even more bitterness. The economic situation exacerbates alienation. The recession after the Lehman collapse in 2008 cost many people their jobs, especially in the construction industry; a cost that cannot be re-paid during the upturn. The gap between rich and poor is growing, creating a precarious situation without opportunities for advancement. Anger towards the police is an expression of deeper despair.
The riots of Baltimore could spread to other cities; a long, hot summer is threatening the U.S. This would mainly affect black people, whose neighborhoods would be devastated and businesses destroyed. The 1968 riots contributed to the formation of black ghettos and accelerated the decline of city centers, which was only brought to a halt over the last few years. Baltimore is a bad omen for Los Angeles, Chicago or New York.
A decisive action against police violence, such as the mandatory use of body cameras, could ease current tensions a little. But the main problem remains unresolved: The American dream is for many black people — and not only for them — simply an illusion. A society that would theoretically offer so many opportunities could easily leave some of its citizens behind. This will only be seen when the fires burn in these cities.