From Ferguson to Baltimore, the Essential American Soul-Searching

Ferguson, Baltimore, same fight? It’s worth comparing the unrest that followed the death of two young black men at the hands of the police: in Ferguson (Missouri), Michael Brown, 18 years old, August 2014, and last week in Baltimore (Maryland), Freddie Gray, 25 years old. The similarities are striking between these two tragedies that are the most known among too long of a series of police blunders or suspicious deaths within the African-American minority community. But there are also differences, and paradoxically, they reveal the depth of the problem that the American society is facing.

In Ferguson, the police officer who shot at Michael Brown was considered, by local justice and a federal investigation, to have acted in self-defense. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray had been beaten by the police officers after his arrest while being transported in their vehicle, where he was not resisting and, according to initial accounts, he died from his injuries after having fallen into a coma. The six police officers involved have been suspended. Thus, it seems that in Baltimore, there is deliberate police violence.

The other important difference is that, contrary to Ferguson, the African-American community is well represented in the district and in the Baltimore police force. The mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is black; the chief of police, the prosecutor and half of the police officers are black. Thus, racism and discrimination are not the primary reasons for the angry outburst of the people.

‘A Slow-Rolling Crisis’

Its main cause stems from this “slow-rolling crisis” that Barack Obama pointed out on Tuesday, April 28. The American president has rightly differentiated between the behavior of the rioters and the looters who took advantage of the situation to vandalize a city already heavily hit by unemployment and delinquency, and the legitimate anger of the black minority community against police violence. He said the former should “be treated as criminals.” The president recognized that the others are reacting to this “troubling” issue stemming from police attitude toward blacks – especially males. As clearly emphasized by the president, “This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.”

It is, indeed, a history as old as the United States, and the color of those holding the baton, or the gun, doesn’t change anything. The urban riots and violence that happened these last decades have too often as a starting point the will to protest against the impunity of the police force and its treatment of the black community.

Barack Obama called for “a period of soul searching” throughout the country. The first black U.S. president has until now refrained from making coming to the defense of the African-American community a priority. Today, he’s almost at the end of his second term and has nothing to lose: This call is thus welcome. But the period of soul-searching that he invoked is also a test of the penal system which currently crowds American prisons with 2.3 million inmates – mostly black. With an astonishing candor, former President Clinton just conceded that the radical repressive policies of the 1990’s during both of his terms “went too far.” It’s time to learn from those mistakes.

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