It Was Only a Matter of Time Before Baltimore Became Part of the Story
From The ODA Blog
Everyone knew it was coming.
It was only a matter of time before Baltimore became part of the national story about black men being arrested and harmed by police officers under questionable circumstances. We can now add East Baltimore's Freddie Gray to the growing list of names that has come to represent social unrest in impoverished 2015 America -- Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner on Staten Island and Walter Scott in North Charleston. Each story is different but the common theme of race and class is there for all to see. Even the most poorly-informed Americans are beginning to understand there is something terribly wrong out there. There's a tremor on our city streets that's being felt all across the nation.
Our private perceptions of "urban unrest" (my carefully chosen euphemism for a topic so explosive I fear writing about it) are strongly influenced by when and where we grew up. For millions of "non-urban" (another clever writing device) Americans over a certain age, the image of a young black man in handcuffs is nearly always conclusive -- the man broke the law and the police responded accordingly. Such is the power of the news camera (and now social media) and the lingering effect of our upbringing and family context. Too often our view of America breaks along racial lines.
I grew up in a suburban white world that was highly ambivalent about the marches and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was ten years old when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. While there were some adults in my childhood orbit who privately believed he was right about ending segregation and other forms of discrimination, deep inside my family, church, and community, Dr. King was often the target of a "whisper campaign" that went something like this: "All I know is that wherever King goes, he stirs the pot and starts trouble." Such were the words of frightened and confused middle-class people who lacked the proper context and perspective to fairly evaluate what Dr. King was facing and doing.
Four decades later, our country is still seeing issues of race, class, and justice through opposing prisms. Despite the high-definition sound and pictures of today's looping cable news coverage, we're still struggling to understand what it is we're hearing and seeing. Questions abound. Are we reliving the strife of the 1960's? Haven't we made tremendous progress since Selma and the March on Washington? Wasn't the "Great Society" supposed to make this problem go away? Isn't this story really just about law and order? Why is this occurring at the same time we have a black President? What is happening to our country?
My main concern about the Freddie Gray story is that his tragic death will become the latest catalyst for social unrest and national division. "More heat than light" as preachers like to say. A June 2014 report from the Pew Research Center -- Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life -- finds that "Americans are increasingly living in ideological silos" and that "animosity [among demographic groups] has skyrocketed." Citing this same Pew study, noted political scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently wrote that the United States has moved "beyond polarization to a kind of tribalism that threatens the underpinnings of democracy."
Is Ornstein correct? Is this what's really happening on the streets of our most impoverished urban communities? Is our "social compact" in such disarray that we're now devolving to the level of primitive tribes? Time will tell -- and heaven help us if it's so -- but this much bears stating now before the great collapse occurs: if we only see Ferguson and Baltimore in the context of "law and order," we're going to miss the much bigger picture. If we allow ourselves to go to our separate corners in the ring -- police haters at one end and police defenders at the other -- we're going to miss the opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue with ourselves. In the final analysis, what's ailing inner city America can be greatly remedied with "living-wage" jobs and "dignity" work. That's because at the root of the problem, what's killing these communities and stirring the unrest in the first place is pervasive inter-generational poverty and its related social ills. Quite bluntly -- out of economic necessity more than moral failure -- Baltimore has become a city over the years where the "drug game" is on steroids. It's been on steroids since the cocaine deluge arrived from New York City in the early 1980's. And, it will remain on steroids until cooler heads prevail and leaders risk the consequences of leading. There are certainly no panaceas, but there is one overarching answer to the question of how best to help Baltimore: create more good-paying jobs. Jobs that feed families and offer dignity to parents. Jobs that give young men better choices than selling drugs on the corner. Jobs that give police officers a fighting chance to fulfill their mission of "protecting and serving." Jobs that enable parents to raise their children with dreams and goals. Yes, it's about the jobs!
If the story of Freddie Gray becomes just one more hapless account of pain and anger, if nothing changes for the better after the t.v. cameras go home, then Mr. Gray's death will be more than a personal tragedy -- it will be a societal catastrophe. What's needed at this hour as the country wrestles with Ferguson and Baltimore is a new wave of elected officials who value the good of the community over their own political destinies. To fix this crisis, elected officials are going to have to risk losing elections because they're going to have to stand up to donors and constituents. To create a new economic reality for America's unemployed and under-employed, the Congress, President, and the CEO's of Wall Street, are going to have to put America first in every decision that influences job creation. It's time for America to learn the most important lessons of Ferguson and Baltimore. The prevailing "push-and-pull" that pits police against the citizenry, and vice versa, is no way for a great nation to conduct itself. We're better than this. We can create the new job market that turns Ferguson and Baltimore into a national wake-up call. Or, we can choose to see these eruptions on our streets as simple law-and-order moments that have no bearing on the rest of society.
So far, Baltimore, you're doing yourself proud. You're making your point while maintaining your composure. A lot hangs in the balance. Follow Dr. King's lead. Be cool and calm and peaceful. This is your moment to lead the nation. Lead.
Open Door Baltimore, a nonprofit that fights poverty by working with businesses to provide living-wage jobs, is expanding beyond the beltway. To better reflect the organization’s larger mission, the board of directors recently approved a new identity and logo.Read More