Baltimore Burns: The Riot of the System vs. the Riot of the People

Source: Newsweek

Source: Newsweek

The riots in Baltimore have, for the moment, seemed to calm down. What’s so unique about these riots, at least when compared to the riots of late (excluding riots caused by sports victories/losses) is they occurred before any decision came down concerning the police who murdered Freddie Gray. Without directly addressing the “rightness” or “wrongness” of rioting, I do have one question: Why is it that 47 years (almost to the day) after the 1968 Baltimore riots, we’re still facing riots of a similar caliber for similar reasons? In 1968 the riot’s trigger was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., while in 2015 the trigger was the death of Freddie Gray. But people don’t riot over the injustice of one death unless injustice is universally experienced amongst those in the community. They don’t riot unless they’ve grown tired of a system where justice does not exist. In 47 years, we’ve failed to create a system where justice exists for urban minorities (or minorities in general).

Violence begets violence, of this there is no doubt. Thus, if we wish to stop the violence of the protestors, we must first – and most importantly – stop the violence of a system that oppresses people. How that is done or what needs to be done is somewhat beyond my scope as I am not marginalized, I am not oppressed, and I speak from a place of privilege. What I do know, however, is that such a system must begin with the truth that all humans, regardless of skin color, are created equal and that such a statement is not a platitude, but a bedrock fact of existence. It means we must allow local community leaders to create a community wherein those in poverty have a way out of poverty (as it is, the majority of black children born into poverty will remain in poverty throughout their lives within the US).

While we must leave the problems of the community to the community, the system itself must look to reforming the schools, the economy, and most importantly, the police. A police force that is engaged in a “war on drugs” eventually looks at citizens as potential enemy combatants, and they look at the neighborhoods in their patrol routes not as places to protect, but as occupied territory. It shouldn’t surprise us then when citizens rise up against their military occupation and riot. While people can lament the “lack of black leadership” in condemning the riots – and such a complaint is empty – if we truly wish to stop riots, then we must first stop the violence imposed upon the urban populations in our cities.

From a Christian perspective, all violence is unfortunate and unwanted. Yet, we only paint ourselves hypocrites if we mock and chastise the rioters for their violence and remain silent on the violence they’ve experienced. It does us no good to point out the evil of burning a nursing home to the ground while ignoring that the Maryland police have killed 109 people since 2010. 70% were black and 40% were unarmed, meaning that while the majority of those deaths were probably justified, there’s reason to believe that many of them were not. The riots in Baltimore didn’t begin a few days ago, or when Freddie Gray died in the hand of the police; the riots began when otherwise good people chose to ignore systematic abuses against African-Americans and ignored the cries for justice.

As Christians we are to call for peace in all situations. Even in the most dire of circumstances where violence seems inevitable and even needed, we still hope for peace. Yet, this hope must extend beyond reactions to violence in the form of riots and also focus on the actions of a system that’s marginalized an entire group of people. Christ came to bring peace to the world, but part of that peace includes restricting an out-of-control system. If the second greatest commandment is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, how does it display love when we ignore the stories of injustice done to our black neighbors? If we love them we will seek justice and a system in which all men and women are truly free. The next riot is already on the horizon, but if we wish to stop it we need not more police, but more love that injects justice into a broken system.