In America the state turns its back on the poor. This gives birth to new violence, to which the police respond with increasing brutality. The death of black U.S. citizens Garner, Scott and Gray suggests that the excess arises from the system.
Baltimore has long stood for the art of survival. In the second half of the last century, when the freight ships stayed away and the harbor decayed, the city transformed it into an amusement park; today tourists ride in paddleboats, are amazed by dolphins in the aquarium or eat crab. Baltimore demonstrated to the world how an industrial city reinvents itself when it loses its industry. The harbor especially stood for the epitome of that which, in America, is called “urban renaissance,” the rebirth of a city.
Now, since looters and arsonists move through the streets next to peaceful demonstrators, the situation would be better described as “urban self-destruction.” The occasion is — once again — the fate of a black man who did not survive an encounter with the police. The state’s violence fatally injured Freddie Gray, as it recently did Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island and Walter Scott in North Charleston.
America Turns Its Back on the Poor — This Destroys a City
The case of Freddie Gray tells of the condition of American cities. Baltimore is not Ferguson, it is not in the backwoods, but instead between New York and Washington. Even here on the East Coast the suffering of a lower class that cannot free itself from poverty, addiction and criminality has flourished for decades. The riot is now at least an occasion to remember America’s forgotten neighborhoods and the mostly silent hopelessness of their residents.
Freddie Gray grew up only a few miles away from the fine harbor, in public housing in the western part of the city. His mother was addicted to heroin; gangs ruled the streets. He was convicted multiple times for drug offenses and was never steadily employed. For many young black men, life starts this way. The grimness comes from the fact that one generation after another cannot escape this cycle.
This vicious circle began in cities like Baltimore with the disappearance of jobs in manufacturing and industry. Then followed the war against drugs and the mass imprisonment of young black men, who often had not even once committed an act of violence. Today, 1.5 million black men between the ages of 24 and 54 are missing from daily life; they died young or are in prison. Scores of children then grow up without a father, end up in gangs, sell drugs and themselves land in prison. Whoever has once been convicted often cannot find work anymore, and unfortunately being black still affects the chance of success. In many poor neighborhoods, unemployment is the rule, because there is no work or because the unemployed have given up the search.
Lead Actress of the TV Series “The Wire”
All of this is no secret. Baltimore was long the lead actress of the world-famous TV series “The Wire,” which documented its broken social structure. So long as all was quiet, however, the more influential parts of society forgot the self-perpetuating suffering. After the unrest of the ’60s, the white middle class moved to the suburbs and only passes by America’s poor communities on the city highways. At most, the topic is still interesting for ideological debate: The Right likes to claim that the Left first caused the collapse with their social benefits, because they let black men escape responsibility.
Although it may be true that too many young black fathers abandon their families, the state itself has stolen its way out of responsibility, since in some places it offers nothing more than shabby schools and the beatings of uncontrolled police officers. In Baltimore, the capitulation has on occasion become especially drastically apparent: Recently, the state of Maryland completely turned over control of Baltimore’s detention center to the rule of the gangs. Even judicial officers have defected to the actual power — to organized crime.
The first step to improvement lies therein, that America’s police officers rein themselves in. Their often militaristic and dismissive bearing does not only harm black Americans, but also affects them especially hard. Poor black people are practically under general suspicion. The courts in Baltimore have awarded victims of police violence nearly $6 million within four years, often because of broken bones. Although the country has been talking about police violence for months, police officers still kill, even though neither their bodies nor their lives are threatened —in the cases of Garner, Scott and Gray this is obvious. It suggests that the excess arises from the system. All states and the U.S. government must urgently get this under control. Or else, soon it will not just be Baltimore burning.