We always try to make sense of what we see and hear. We tend to process this incoming information, through the filter that is our worldview – based on our experiences, knowledge, and understanding. The events confronting Baltimore today are a great example. Some people will see the violence and riots as an outcome associated with the protests over the murder of Freddy Gray and feel that law enforcement officers should crack down harder on thugs that threaten the peace. Others will see the same images and think that if Baltimore police and the city government were not corrupt, none of this would have happened in the first place.
What’s happening in Baltimore is not easy to process through a black or white view (pardon the pun). It is mired in grayness, and that never makes people comfortable. The communities that bore the brunt of the riots have a long history of over policing and negative encounters with law enforcement officials – which makes it incredibly similar to Ferguson, Missouri. To put it bluntly, there is neither respect, nor trust, within the community for police. They are not seen as peacekeepers or protectors – rather, as a predatory threat that could strike out at any moment. Is it any wonder that Freddy Gray ran after making eye contact with a police officer? [It should be said here that even today, after all that has transpired, we still have no idea why Freddy Gray was arrested or what he did to warrant being handcuffed, thrown in to a truck and ultimately die.]
Many are horrified that police have been taunted and injured by rioters. These same people, almost instinctively, share their support for law enforcement on their social media posts, characterizing the “agitators” as thugs that should be dealt with in the harshest of ways. Some see these views as covert racism, substituting “thug” for “the N word.” While not condoning the violence, or the destruction, of the rioters – they’ve not lost sight of the fact that Freddy Gray died while in police custody. They feel that the auto-adoration of law enforcement obscures the very reason people took to the streets in the first place.
Stepping inside the gray, immersing yourself in the grayness, you might see that there is just a whole lot wrong with Baltimore (along with every municipality in this country), our police forces, and the very social contract citizens have with their government.
Let’s start with the police – and acknowledge up front that they have a difficult job, and serve a vital role in protecting our communities. Without them, we would essentially live in a libertarian utopia, or chaos. The system breaks down for a number of reasons – not all of which are linearly linked. First of all, municipal funding for law enforcement, and the public legal system, is dependent on revenues generated by fines and court costs. Second, our legislatures and city councils are constantly passing new laws for police to enforce – each of which have monetary fines associated with them. So we’ve created the perfect environment for systemic corruption. Throw on top of it, the outsourcing for incarceration, and you have the perfect storm.
Even when police just do their jobs, communities suffer. People must be arrested, fed in to the judicial system, forced to pay or go to jail. The system demands this. If, all of a sudden, everyone simply abided by the law, the entire apparatus would crumble to the ground. Lost revenues would force layoffs. But that’s never going to happen – especially as long as legislators pass new laws for enforcement to snare unwitting citizens.
This doesn’t even take into consideration that – just like in any profession – there are just straight out bad cops. But the final piece of the puzzle – police unions – make it impossible to get rid of even the worst of them. Good cops know who they are – just like good teachers know who bad teachers are, or good soldiers know who the dirtbags are. This is just a fact of life. Not every cop is a hero, nor is every soldier a hero. Sometimes, they are just pieces of shit that get by because the system allows them to.
This makes Baltimore just like any other city in America. With areas of the city that are economically depressed and systemically repressed. The fact that riots took place shouldn’t be surprising – what should be surprising is that they didn’t happen sooner or more often. Our local governments and the apparatuses that serve themselves and not the citizenry have led us to where we are today. It’s a classic case of don’t blame the player, blame the game. Police are by and large simply doing their best to do their jobs and get home to their families after their shifts.
What we need to do is take a strong look at the root causes of the system and how the social contract has become null and void in favor of generating revenue. But to do so would require us to move from the security of our pre-formed opinions and jumping feet first into the uncomfortable gray – and no one wants to do that…