What to Say After Freddie Gray

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What to Say After Freddie Gray

Published in The Daily Record, print edition June 1, online edition June 3, 2015

As its title The Big Picture might suggest, this column has always shied away from focusing too closely on issues local to Baltimore. But there come moments when talking about Baltimore is talking about “the big picture.” If I needed any confirmation that we’d reached such a moment, it happened on a recent vacation in San Juan. Making conversation, two different cabbies asked me where I was from, and as soon as I told them, they expressed condolences – and considerable awareness of our local troubles.

So fine, I’m going to talk about them here. The trouble is, what do I say? Not because I don’t have any point of view, but because – and I suspect I’m like a lot of other Americans – I have a lot of contradictory points of view. Let’s run it down:

  • Police riot control. If you were like me, you were watching the looting and burning of the CVS while the police nicely lined up a block away, doing nothing, and you were outraged. Later, though, you had to acknowledge that if the police had chosen that moment to intervene, lives would have been lost. So which was more important, lives or property? When you answer, bear in mind that the property lost wasn’t simply what was being stolen or burned at that moment. It included the jobs of the people who worked at the wrecked businesses, and the sense of security felt by Baltimoreans miles away, and the willingness of potential Baltimoreans to come here to invest or work or play. The looters were wrecking a commons. At some point, doesn’t that commons outweigh a few human lives? I’m not suggesting an answer; I’m just asking a question.
  • Criminal charges. Like many Baltimoreans, I was stirred by States Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s remarks. And it is hard to dispute that Ms. Mosby’s speech and her filing charges helped quell the riots. Only the most hypertechnical defender of the police can seriously maintain they did nothing wrong leading up to Freddie Gray’s death, even if we don’t know every detail yet. Does the police behavior merit criminal charges, though? There’s been quite a debate over that, one that only criminal lawyers (and I’m not one) seem to be able to engage in intelligently. But I do understand conflicts of interest, and I know that when Mosby’s detractors allege those, they are talking irresponsible nonsense. Filing criminal charges to support a donor’s civil suit? Come on! And I don’t trust the detractors. The vitriol hurled at Ms. Mosby in my circle of Facebook acquaintance comes exclusively from friends who, whatever their good qualities, say the most knee-jerk racist things.
  • Drugs. At the bottom of much of the talk about why West Baltimore exploded is the “Hamsterdam narrative.” (In The Wire, the police momentarily allowed a drug enforcement-free zone by that name.) The narrative goes like this: We’re going to have drugs, no matter what. Because of a massive failure in our city to retain heavy industry, there are few employment opportunities in some neighborhoods other than selling drugs. Policing in those neighborhoods is therefore almost exclusively focused on suppressing the main neighborhood economic engine. It turns the entrepreneurs who may be in many respects the neighborhoods’ best and brightest into criminals, and forces them into antisocial lifestyles which, were their trade simply legalized, they would not be constrained to embrace. And it pits the police against neighborhood youth, distorting the profession of policing in the process. Finally, the whole mess, including its inevitable upshot, expensive mass incarceration, distracts attention and detracts resources from a health care approach to drug dependency. I completely agree with this narrative; but I won’t say that I wouldn’t feel a little strange if we actually changed our policies to make the selling of heroin and cocaine as legal as the selling of alcohol. There’s no doubt that if we did that, some lives would be ruined; it’s just that there’s good reason to believe more lives would be un-ruined. It’s a matter of tradeoffs.
  • Criminal records. One of the problems in our minority neighborhoods much discussed in the wake of the riots was the low employment, which is largely blamed on the fact that an alarmingly high percentage of the otherwise potentially eligible workers there have criminal records. (See the previous point.) Yet if someone has done his or her time, that should ordinarily be a closed chapter. Employers should ordinarily not be able to ask about it or check an applicant’s criminal records, or be held liable for having failed to do so. And licensing authorities which are required to assure themselves that persons seeking to be anything from burglar alarm installers to lawyers meet the universal “good character” requirement should be barred from considering criminal records in making that assessment. Oh yes, there would have to be exceptions, but I believe we could get by with precious few (nuclear bomb makers and child care workers, perhaps). Would more bad apples get through? You bet; but because we have for the two generations of the “War on Drugs” abused our power to charge, convict, and imprison, our criminal records, even when factually accurate, remain unreliable guides to character. Again, there are no perfect solutions, but I’m confident the benefit we would all draw from unruined careers would outweigh the losses caused by the bad apples who would not be screened out.
  • Hitting kids. One of the strange things to come out of the riots was the approval heaped on a mother captured in a video literally beating her son because she found him taking part. At one time I would not have said this, but I do now: hitting your kids is never acceptable. Period. I recognize that finding your child taking part in an insurrection that might result in him being beaten or shot by police, or arrested and maybe suffering Freddie Gray’s fate after an arrest, would lead most parents to take desperate measures. So I am not condemning the mom, just disagreeing with her. I say there’s far too much parental hitting going on, and I think that parental example is part of what makes kids think it’s okay to be violent themselves.
  • Development. For years, we’ve been throwing tax money (often quite wastefully) at condo and hotel developers and auto race promoters and who knows who else to polish up our harbor zone. In that zone and other genteel ones, we’ve subsidized the bus rides of those who could already afford them. Meanwhile, in certain other neighborhoods, we’ve left boarded-ups, food deserts, lead paint, vermin, and unsubsidized mass transit – along with too many violent or negligent police officers, and too few cops who actually live in Baltimore. And then we wonder why those certain other neighborhoods explode.

The riots were like a bunch of Rohrschach ink blots, in which you could see almost anything, and almost any side of any issue. We’ll have to work with our confusion for awhile. But after that work we have a responsibility to reach conclusions and take action. Changes must be made.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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  1. Stefan Ehrenkreutz says:

    You cannot see the ‘big picture’ from close-up. You need to have a viable vantage point. San Juan sounds like a good idea.

  2. Gigi Wirtz says:

    Well said. Thank you for articulating the multiple reactions I think many people are grappling with. While my own feelings don’t echo every detail of your response, your admission to “contradictory points of view” resonates strongly. Would that everyone in Baltimore, including those in power, could openly express the difficulty of making choices, making decisions, in such a challenging, layered, nuanced situation.

  3. Pat Yevics says:

    Brilliant. I am so with you and you said it so much better