It would be so beautifully simple if racist cops alone could be blamed for the death of 25-year-old African-American Freddie Gray in Baltimore or for all the other similar deaths in the United States. That may well be the case in some of them, but in the final analysis, the police officers are merely the executors in a system that has a goal of controlling its underclass.
It begs the question whether the recent news that the 25 largest hedge fund managers were paid a total of $12 billion for their services in 2014 alone may have had something to do with the catastrophic social situation in which many people now find themselves. Regardless of where they live — the slums of Baltimore, Detroit or wherever. The poverty rate today is higher than it was when Obama took office at the beginning of 2009 and it’s three times higher for the black community than it is for the white. Economic power is concentrated at the top.
The notion that being wealthy somehow obligates anyone to anything gets no traction among the privileged class — the fabled “1 percent.” This week, President Obama announced a private initiative for African-American children for which some $80 million has already been collected by bankers and corporate CEOs. That’s far from overwhelming when compared to the hedge fund billionaires listed at the institutionalinvestorsalpha.com website.
Governments are funding the police as a check against social conflict. Baltimore’s 620,000 residents, two-thirds of which are African-American, present an especially complex history. The neighborhoods are racially as well as socio-economically divided. One may safely assume that the police handcuff marijuana dealers in Sandtown where Freddie Gray lived more often than they do cocaine-snorting students at nearby Johns Hopkins University where tuition and fees run around $47,000 a year.
Since the unarmed African-American youth Michael Brown was killed by police in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri, touching off anti-racism protests across the nation, police overreaction has become more difficult to sweep under the rug. The death of Freddie Gray — whose “crime” consisted of running away from several officers — couldn’t be covered up. The officers who arrested Grey handcuffed him, threw him onto the floor of a police van and then drove through the city at high speeds causing him to be battered about in the vehicle and inflicting spinal injuries that later proved fatal. Part of the arrest was caught by a smartphone camera.
The media avalanche gained speed with crews filming in neighborhoods with which they normally don’t bother. Television stations love footage of burning limousines, demonstrators engulfed in clouds of teargas, helmeted police carrying shields and billy clubs, teenagers brandishing rocks and young plunderers storming out of shops with their booty even if that’s only an economy-sized package of toilet paper. The drugstore burns for what seems like the tenth time on the TV screen, reporters use terms like “mindless violence” and “destructive rage.” The smoldering stores seem to have become more important than the lifeless Freddie Grey.
Law and Order
In the left-of-center media and in the more responsible press, reference is often made to glaring inequalities in society. Something has to be done about these and it goes something like this: The consequences of disinterest in the problems and doing nothing about them will cost more in the long run than funding programs and providing educational programs to address the issues now. Most important are job training programs for the African-American community. Without them, the wall of racial division will continue to grow and the disadvantaged will become increasingly alienated.
The problem with that sentiment is that it dates from the year 1965 and was taken from a government report on the riots in Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood where 34 lost their lives and 3,438 were arrested. The rioting grew out of the arrest of an African-American motorist. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty” was supposed to change things. Then came Richard Nixon’s “Law and Order” campaign with its “War on Drugs” that was supposed to cure poverty. That sounded good to the “silent majority” of right-wing Americans who returned the Republicans to the White House by a large majority in 1972. The anti-drug contingent was expanded, police powers increased and penalties made even more draconian.
More police was always a bipartisan project in America, although presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was critical, saying, “There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.” She might well complain to her husband about that. In 1994, he signed legislation that resulted in an expansion of prison construction, the addition of 100,000 police officers and the introduction of the “three strikes and you’re out” rule that hung additional sentences on repeat offenders. During the Clinton administration (1993-2001) the number of state and federal prisoners grew by more than 650,000. Clinton’s “tough on crime” strategy filled prisons like no other initiative in U.S. history, wrote author Michelle Alexander on the subject of purported “color blindness” in the American justice system in her book “The New Jim Crow.”
Martin O’Malley, one of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic opponents, ex-governor of Maryland and ex-mayor of Baltimore, also has a good deal of aggressive policing baggage. In 2005 alone, he was responsible for 108,447 arrests in a population of 640,000 people. O’Malley’s supporters justify that record by maintaining that the crime rate was reduced. In addition, they also had to deal with the drug problem 10 years ago.
Police are constantly urged to react without force against street demonstrators. For its own part, this government permits police to use force on a scale hardly imaginable in Germany. That can only work because those targeted by police or even sent to jail come predominantly from the lower socioeconomic levels and have either African-American or Latino backgrounds. As the Baltimore Sun reports, the police have had to pay $5.7 million in damages to victims of police brutality since 2011. A total of 317 people have filed brutality charges against the police.
In Front of the Cameras
Those opposed to police brutality assure us “Black Lives Matter.” Yet no one in the United States knows for certain how many people die at the hands of the police every year. There are no official data. Two websites, fatalencounters.org and killedbypolice.net, calculate that in 2014 more than 1,000 people were killed in confrontational encounters with police. Both information services evaluate media and press reports but pass no judgments on actual events. The victim’s ethnic backgrounds are not always apparent. About 30 percent are calculated to be black and 50 percent white, according to The New York Times. It should be noted that African-Americans comprise around 13 percent of the U.S. population.
In some Baltimore neighborhoods cheers broke out when the indictments against the police were announced. But indicting them is one thing; convicting them is something else entirely. The defense team will no doubt file for a change of venue in order to minimize publicity. A conviction is by no means certain. The neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of charges in the shooting of Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. And in 1992 four police officers were acquitted of brutally beating taxi driver Rodney King in Los Angeles where the entire beating was caught on film.