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Have Conservatives Lost Their Compassion?

Watching events unfold in Baltimore over the past several days has been dismaying, saddening—but so, too, has been the response of many conservatives to these events. Perhaps no post illustrates this response better than this one by Matt Walsh. Walsh’s contempt pervades this piece. It’s indicative of the supposed “conservatism” he believes in, the conservatism many people seem to have been espousing as of late:

This is not a movement, it’s just crime. Cops are in hospital beds today. Businesses are destroyed. Homes are in ashes. This town — my town, our town — is reeling because of what these vicious sociopaths have done, and are continuing to do. … Freddie Gray was a known drug dealer with 18 arrests on his record, yet people have the nerve to complain that we was profiled. Of course he was profiled. He was a thug. A perpetual problem. … The point is, you can’t convince the world that cops are out to exterminate black citizens when your most prominent case studies are men like Brown, Garner and Gray. If they prove anything, it’s that cops tend to get rough with guys who demonstrate a disregard for the law.

… These are individuals making violent and terrible choices. Emphasis on choices. And they’re making these choices largely because they’re mad about the state of their communities — but it’s their choices that turned their communities into hellholes in the first place. … The black community in Baltimore, and in every other city, can stop “protesting” some external boogeyman, and start taking charge of itself.

You want to lash out against what’s happening in your neighborhood? Good. You should. So get a job. Get an education. Get married before you have kids, and then stay and raise them. Move forward. Work for something better. Work.

Walsh is writing dogmatically about a situation in which he has little to no authority. Perhaps he grew up in Baltimore, but it sounds like his growing up years were not all that difficult. His greatest personal complaint in the article is that his wife and kids were unable to go to the zoo on Monday, due to the riots, and that he had to stop frequenting the mall growing up, because of gang activity. Those tribulations seem relatively mild.

But the two excerpts above prove what is perhaps most frustrating about many Republicans’ response to the riots in Baltimore, and to the police brutality situation as a whole: many use the crimes of the rioters to excuse the crimes of the cops. And this is an atrocious double standard.

As Bonnie Kristian pointed out in an article for TAC last year, police brutality in America is systemic—and the punishments dealt out for police misconduct are minimal. The city of Baltimore payed $5.7 million to victims of brutality between 2011 and 2014, and “more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil-rights violations.” Here is a list of some of these victims of police brutality:

A 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. … Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.

Then we have Freddie Gray’s story—which, no matter his crime or lack thereof, should demonstrate why protesters have been angry and upset. The Baltimore Sun reports:

When a handcuffed Freddie Gray was placed in a Baltimore police van on April 12, he was talking and breathing. When the 25-year-old emerged, “he could not talk and he could not breathe,” according to one police official, and he died a week later of a spinal injury.

But Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries. Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride.

… For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a “rough ride” — an “unsanctioned technique” in which police vans are driven to cause “injury or pain” to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson’s subsequent death.

Baltimore’s protesters have demonstrated a just anger: anger over the fact that police brutality has not been identified, punished, and rooted out. They have expressed anger over the deaths and grievances that their communities have experienced. While it is true that violence and crime are deserving of punishment, it is also true that the rule of law must prevail. Because brutality does nothing but encourage fear, anger, and loathing. As Matthew Loftus put it Tuesday,  “The police still resemble an ‘occupying force’ to many, and the frequency with which the power of the badge appears to corrupt officers is disturbing. … When Joe Crystal, a Baltimore police officer, tried to report a beating that his fellow officer gave, he found a dead rat on his car, showing that the departmental culture is interested more in self-preservation than self-improvement.”

While it is of course true that arson and destruction of public property are crimes, it is also true that the death of Freddie Gray could have been an even worse crime, one that as of yet has not been solved. Brushing over that fact merely fans the flames of outrage that rioters are demonstrating. As one friend put it on Facebook, people aren’t just rioting because Gray was killed—”they’re rioting because the punishment for the men responsible for killing Gray has thus far been constrained,” despite incriminating evidence released by the police department thus far, and “no significant action has been taken by the authorities. That’s why people are angry.”

But here’s the second point about Walsh’s article: he is certain that, merely by showing some initiative ( “Get a job. Get a vacation.”), the communities of Baltimore can quickly and easily fix themselves. This seems to demonstrate an incredible lack of empathy and ignorance of life’s difficulties. True, it’s incredibly important for individuals to exercise initiative, diligence, and perseverance—and people demonstrating such things can bring about amazing stories of reformation and progress. But we shouldn’t expect such stories to be the norm: we are deeply influenced and guided by our community, our home environment, the atmosphere in which we grow up. As Loftis writes, Baltimore’s poor communities “want to feel safe and don’t want to live in fear of the violence that drug dealing brings. … Violent perpetrators aren’t rats in a cage who kill less often when they’re less poor; they’re human beings who are part and parcel of the structural injustice that other community members experience even as they often fall victim to it.”

It would be easy for people like Walsh and me, who grew up outside such communities, to wonder and shake our heads at the unemployment and crime, the “lack of initiative” demonstrated by its inhabitants. But we really, honestly don’t know where we would be if we were in their shoes. We cannot imagine the personal difficulties and pains experienced by people like Freddie Gray, his family, and the people in his neighborhood, unless we have experienced them ourselves—or  can exercise the moral imagination necessary to put ourselves in their shoes, and try to exhibit a little empathy.

Conservatives have been called, in the past, “compassionate conservatives.” But during weeks such as this, sometimes it’s difficult to find the compassion. We seem eager enough to exhibit such compassion overseas, when condemning human rights abuses and other governments’ atrocities. We seem eager enough to reach out domestically via aid and charity, through church efforts and short-term mission trips.

But it seems that, despite all this, we often lack the imagination and compassion necessary to understand why people in our own backyard may riot in anger, why injustices may in fact be taking place next door, why people in our towns and cities may struggle to procure jobs or finish high school. We don’t seek to understand the difficulties that arise when strong communities deteriorate, when justice is obstructed, when violence is brushed over and ignored. We don’t seek to understand what it would be like to see a police officer and instinctively feel—not safety and comfort—but sheer terror.

Without seeking to understand, we will be left to condemn and vilify, like Walsh and his commenters. We will not seek to solve the problem, or help the people of Baltimore—instead, we will merely mount our pedestals and shout at them. We will see them merely as subjects of our wrath, senseless people without virtue or logic. We will ignore the countless local volunteers who spent yesterday cleaning Baltimore’s streets, handing out pizza and bottled water—people who truly did show initiative, who do care about their community. People who actually showed compassion.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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