America has not yet managed to psychologically get over the destructive street protests in Ferguson, which were provoked by a white police officer murdering a black teenager who had committed a petty theft. Now a similar incident, only on a much larger scale, has occurred in Baltimore. Beginning on Sunday in the largest city in Maryland, which is located only 36 miles from the American capital, there were fierce clashes over the course of several days between black youth and police, accompanied by arson and looting. Only the enactment of a state of emergency and the National Guard’s deployment to the city allowed for the situation to be somewhat calmed.
Just as in Ferguson and many other cities, the cause of these latest protests is rooted in the unfriendly — to put it mildly — relations between law enforcement and black youth in impoverished neighborhoods. These relations are especially tense in areas where African-Americans constitute a majority — in Baltimore they represent two-thirds of the population — where there are high rates of crime — Baltimore ranks seventh among American cities in crime rates — and where whites are predominant in the local police force. The impetus behind the Baltimore unrest was the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. On April 12, Gray was walking down the street in a high-crime neighborhood and looked suspicious to a police patrol. While under arrest, he somehow suffered fractures to his neck and spine; he fell into a coma and died a week later in the hospital.
On April 23, a peaceful protest began in Baltimore against oppression and police brutality; the protesters demanded a quick and fair investigation and punishment for the perpetrators. And it cannot be said that these demands were not heard; six police officers who took part in Freddie Gray’s arrest were removed from their duties and the incident was placed under investigation. Officials promised to reveal the results of the investigation by May 1. However, young African-Americans do not particularly trust such promises. Following Gray’s funeral on April 26, a significant number of them, instigated by leaders of local street gangs, transitioned to more violent methods of protest, including rioting, looting and arson. The vandalism peaked on Monday. Thousands of young people burned automobiles, ransacked stores and businesses, and threw rocks and bottles at police. In response, police used smoke bombs, tear gas and even stun guns.
On Tuesday evening, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in Baltimore and ordered the National Guard into the city to quell the violence and looting. From April 28, a curfew was imposed on the city, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m; the curfew, however, was not followed particularly closely by the rioters from the beginning. However, on Wednesday the unrest was calmed, and in the stricken neighborhoods, people began cleaning up garbage and calculating the damage. According to official figures, 15 police officers were injured during the mass disorder, six of them seriously. The rioters burned 144 automobiles, including several police cars, set 15 buildings on fire, and burglarized several dozen stores; the losses are still being tallied. Almost 200 people were arrested. Baltimore schools were temporarily closed due to the disturbances.
Opponents of U.S. President Barack Obama blame the events in Baltimore on the ineffectiveness of the president’s social policies. However, things are not so simple. Beginning in the 1960s, under pressure from a mass democratic movement, American authorities began to conduct a regulated policy of desegregation and social mobilization of the black population. Not only was strict equality of rights enacted legislatively, but in addition, multiple programs were implemented that were aimed at equal opportunity. What’s more, affirmative action was carried out, designed to secure access for African- Americans to education and jobs. It cannot be said that these policies did not bring practical results. Social mobility in the black community increased significantly, and many black lawyers, doctors and influential businessmen appeared. The clearest example of this development was Barack Obama’s assumption of the presidency. In the midst of the disorder in Baltimore, an African-American woman, Loretta Lynch, became attorney general.
Nevertheless, complex, multilayered American society is affected not only by government policies; long-standing sociocultural factors also exert a powerful influence. A significant portion of the black population remains mired in an endless cycle of poverty, which does not offer any life options or stimuli, but instead creates a culture of dependency and dissatisfaction with living conditions. Among black youth, this psychological complex is often combined with a disregard for the law, idleness, and reliance on gang leaders. On the other hand, a longstanding subculture of white police officers exists, which is permeated with distrust and suspicion towards young African-Americans from poor, rundown neighborhoods, which leads to callousness and brutality in their relations with them.
Thus, a quick recipe for solving the longstanding problems of police excesses against the black community and destructive, racially-motivated riots clearly does not exist. We may be confident that similar incidents will be repeated in cities with adverse social situations.