A predictable question trails closely behind their actions, a question that always reappears like the ghost of riots past, asking, simply, why are they destroying their own neighborhoods and setting their futures on fire? The question feels helpless, sometimes cynical, but it is exactly the right question. It should be asked, however, not in anger, but with compassionate curiosity. Because the truth is as ugly as the facts that fuel riots: Without a brick tossed or a building burning, we are hardly confronting the hopelessness of the future for these young people.
The unemployment rate in the community where Mr. Gray lived is over 50 percent; the high school student absence rate hovers at 49.3 percent; and life expectancy tops out at 68.8 years, according to analysis by prison reform nonprofits. These statistics are a small glimpse of the radical inequality that blankets poor black Baltimore. It’s no wonder that black Baltimore erupted in social fury.
It’s society’s fault. It always is. In this view, poor black people are always acted upon, and are never moral agents.
The thing is, from all appearances, what happened to Freddie Gray was outrageous, and Baltimore seems to have a serious problem with police brutality. This is wrong and must be dealt with decisively. No argument there. It cannot be right that a man in police custody dies of a broken neck, an injury he did not have when the police took control of him. The people of Baltimore — black, white, and otherwise — are right to protest this, and those who took to the streets to do so peacefully, and to demand justice, ought to be applauded.
But these thugs? Forget it. Dyson writes:
[Jesse Jackson] acknowledged the chaotic consequences in black communities of social injustice. “When there is darkness there will be crime and behavioral issues,” the minister said. “It is easier to fight the victim rather than the source of the darkness.” Mr. Jackson also admitted that the presence of new technology enhanced the quest for justice.
“In some sense what makes the difference today is his innocence, and the presence of a camera,” he said.
Smart phones have indeed aided the cause of justice, as we saw in the recent case from North Charleston, SC, when the cop executed that fleeing suspect. But it’s rich that Jesse Jackson brings up the technology issue in the Baltimore case, given that the Baltimore riots were sparked by a meme that went viral among high school students, announcing a flash mob downtown to “purge” the city.
I find this, from a Washington Post profile of Gray, revealing:
“We’re just hurt,” said Angela Gardner, 22, who had dated Gray, though not exclusively, for the past two years. “He was so loyal, so kindhearted, so warm. Every time you saw him, you just smiled, because you knew you were going to have a good day.”
Good ol’ Freddie. But wait:
Friends said Gray never held a real job and spent his days hanging out in Sandtown. Money he used to buy designer accessories from Prada, they say, came in monthly settlement checks from a lead-paint lawsuit against the owners of the house where he grew up.
One friend, the owner of Toak’s Progressive Bail Bonds, was also Gray’s bail bondsman.
“He wasn’t mean-spirited. He was always respectful,” the bondsman, Quintin Reid, said. “He was one of the little happy-go-lucky guys who visited his mom every day.”
He was a layabout who had a bail bondsman the way other people have an auto mechanic. Turns out he needed one. More:
Court papers describe a disabled mother addicted to heroin who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. The suit alleged that peeling paint from walls and windowsills contained enough lead to poison the children and render them incapable of leading functional lives.
In a report filed in court, one expert said that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading but that tests did not show a disability that would keep him from holding a job. He had enough skills to work as a mason, it concluded.
A court docket notes a settlement order in 2010, but the amount is undisclosed. Attorneys on both sides declined to comment.
Court records show Gray was arrested more than a dozen times, going back to when he was 18, mostly in Gilmor Homes and mostly on charges of selling or possessing heroin or marijuana. He had a handful of convictions, and his longest stint behind bars was about two years.
He had two pending drug cases when he died. In one, he was charged with a felony, accused of selling heroin by police who said they had witnessed hand-to-hand exchanges and found drugs in a small potato chip bag hidden in a drainpipe.
Hear me loud and clear: any and all cops who mistreated Freddie Gray must be held accountable in court for their actions. But let’s not lie to ourselves about who does more to make Baltimore a hell for its poor black residents. It’s not the Baltimore cops; it’s the Freddie Grays. The unwillingness of the Jesse Jacksons and the Michael Eric Dysons to confront the role that black individuals and black communities play in perpetuating this cycle of violence and despair makes them hard to take seriously.
“It is easier to fight the victim rather than the source of the darkness,” said Jesse Jackson. Do we even have to wonder what the Rev. Jackson considers to be the sole source of the darkness?
If every Baltimore cop, in every instance of contact with a community thug, observed perfect protocol, that would do absolutely nothing to prevent the Freddie Grays from preying on their own communities. (And do not be deceived: the victims of the Freddie Grays are almost always black.) Gray was a hoodlum. Even hoodlums deserve to be treated fairly by the police, who, holding a monopoly on force in this society, must be held to the highest standards of conduct. But Baltimore’s core problem is not police brutality. Baltimore’s core problem is Freddie Gray, and the culture that manufactured him.
“Society” can and must reform the police. But Society can’t do much of anything about the culture that generates Freddie Grays. The collapse of order within and among those inner-city communities and its members, of which fatherlessness is likely the chief effect, perpetuates the cycle. Most people know this, which is why they listen to what people like Jesse Jackson and Michael Eric Dyson say, and don’t take it seriously, because they understand that these men are talking around the problem.
How do we save the Freddie Grays from themselves? No idea. It can’t be done by federal programs alone (left-wing solution), and it can’t be done solely by bootstrapping (right-wing solution). It really does take a village to raise a child, but what happens to that child when the village has collapsed? Again, I don’t know how to begin to solve this.
But I know that scapegoating the Baltimore police — that is, blaming them for the entire social disaster that is poor black Baltimore, as distinct from holding them responsible for their allegedly brutal actions in this and other cases — is a dodge. It’s easy to blame the police, because it appears that they really are blameworthy. But if you think that arranging your emotions to focus spite only on the police is sufficient to end the conditions that created that hoodlum Freddie Gray, you are lying to yourself.
After all, who is the greater threat to the flourishing of West Baltimore: bad cops, or young men who sell drugs, have no gainful employment, and who cycle in and out of city jails? You want to talk about bad cops? Let’s talk about bad cops. But good ol’ Freddie and the community that calls a sociopath like him its dearest darling are inextricable from this crisis.
One last thought. In Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim Dante meets Francesca, a woman living in Hell for the sin of Lust. He learns that reading his own love poetry was part of what tempted her to commit the sin that damned her. It was not Dante’s fault that Francesca is in Hell — but he is implicated in her fate. Similarly, no one can deny that the history of racism in this country implicates white America in the fate of Freddie Gray. Everything is connected. That said, we will get absolutely nowhere toward harmonizing our badly fractured communities if all we do is blame Somebody Else, or some abstraction — White People, Black People, History, Social Injustice — for our own sins and failings, both individual and collective.