Baltimore Explodes in Riots over Police Brutality

© Josh Sager – April 2015

On Monday, anger at police brutality exploded into violence, as Baltimore crowds battled with police and destroyed property. At least 15 buildings suffered significant damage and approximately 144 cars were burned. According to police, over a dozen police officers were injured during the protests (none in life-threatening ways) and over 200 people have been arrested.

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This riot was precipitated by the police killing of Freddy Gray—a 25-year old Baltimore resident who died from having his spine broken by police (who initially pursued him up for making eye contact) and being refused medical attention.

Peaceful protests have been ongoing for the last week but yesterday things changed. According to reports, there was rumor of a planned “purge” (referring to the movie franchise where laws are suspended for 12 hours a year and the population riots) circulated by high school students that rapidly escalated and grew into a full scale riot—currently nobody knows exactly where this call to violence originated.

Unfortunately, the actions of these rioters are so destructive and attention-grabbing that they will likely overshadow the real issues that must be addressed. Their selfishness now threatens to hijack the national discussion of police brutality, or even give police an excuse to justify their actions (“look at how ‘those people’ act if we aren’t in complete control,” “let us do our jobs or face another riot,” etc.). These rioters have absolutely no justification for their actions, and they should be punished for their crimes.

Responses to the Baltimore Bedlam

Put simply, some areas of Baltimore resemble a war zone that has just been stabilized.

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Streets are littered with debris and the burnt husks of cars while businesses are dealing with shattered windows, fire damage, and lost inventory from looting. A new senior’s living facility funded by the East Baltimore Baptist Church was absolutely destroyed in a massive fire. Public schools were shut down today due to safety concerns and may not open again for several days. Even if no future riots happen, it will take some time for the community to recover all that was lost in this episode of violence.

The government has reacted to the riots in several ways. On the state level, Baltimore was put under a state of emergency by Maryland Governor Hogan and the National Guard was been mobilized to hold order. Additionally, the city of Baltimore (through the Mayor) has declared a 10PM curfew for at least the next week.

Issues that Need Addressing

The underlying issues that created this situation are complex and multi-faceted, but there are some that are more important than others.

First, recent events have exposed the fact that many police departments across the country are unaccountable, callous, and a grave threat to the lives of those who they are hired to serve. We have seen police murder dozens of citizens—mostly African Americans—in numerous states, yet rarely face punishment. Starting with the Ferguson protests, the “Black Lives Matter” movement has illustrated these killings across the nation and exposed this ugly truth to people who don’t usually experience it.

The killing of Gray by police after they picked him up for LOOKING at them is just one manifestation of this pattern and, unfortunately, until we fix the issue of police violence, we will always be only several days away from a potential explosion like we had yesterday. We need a federal task force to combat police brutality, coupled with legislation mandating the use of special prosecutors and increasing federal oversight in cases of police violence. Additionally, we need to start holding the police to a higher standard and actually start breaking down the blue wall that has long protected corrupt or sadistic officers.

Second, this riot exposed the depth of the anger that is growing among people who have been oppressed by the police. While their actions are wrong, their anger is justified, and it is unlikely that it will be going away any time soon. Community leaders need to recognize this anger and channel it into productive, rather than destructive efforts.

If the anger of these rioters could be turned from burning down buildings to improving the community, they could become an asset in the future.

Third, the riot demonstrated the problem created at the nexus of poverty, hopelessness, and young men with nothing to do and a lot of anger. Throughout history we have seen these three issues lead to massive violence, regardless of what society is involved. Just to name a few examples: Europe saw the rise of fascism in the early 20th century (and Nazism after their economy crashed in the 30s), the Cambodian Khmer Rouge  killed millions, and Central America narco-gangs have terrorized entire nations and made them more dangerous than Iraqi war zones.

The areas of Baltimore that experienced the riots are among the poorest, and have massive unemployment rates (>25%). If we want to stabilize such areas and prevent violence, we must invest in them and promote opportunity (and not the bootstraps kind). We need to fund the schools, provide community programs, incentivize economic growth (ex. startup loans), and stop the mass-criminalization of people who are committing non-violent offenses just to feed their families.

‘Structural Looting’ of Black Communities Driving Protesters to Baltimore Streets

As media and police spin narrative of ‘protester violence,’ grassroots voices urge US society to focus on ‘structural oppression’ driving uprisings

bySarah Lazare

Baltimore protesters demanded “Justice for Freddie Gray” on Monday. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Harvey)

As people across Baltimore preparefor another day of mobilizations to demand justice for the late Freddie Gray, voices from the city’s grassroots are calling for broader U.S. society to dig beneath the police and media spin of “looting” and “protester violence” and listen to expressions of outrage and demands for deep change emanating from the streets.

“The systemic oppression we’re seeing is the result of decades of people ignoring the cries of black people in Baltimore,” Adam Jackson of the Baltimore-based grassroots organization and think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle told Common Dreams over the phone. “People are moralizing about trash cans getting burned. But you should moralize on why black people are being killed by police. Talk about structural oppression.””Property destruction is not as important as black life,” Jackson added.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Baltimore on Monday following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died after his spine was mostly severed while in police custody earlier this month. The mobilization erupted into an expression of outrage in a city with a troubling history of police violence against black people, including a high rate of killings by police. The Baltimore Sun reported last year that the city has paid “about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects,” most of them black.It was that police force that was heavily deployed against protesters on Monday, joined by U.S. military service members with the National Guard.

Late Monday, nation-wide news outlets quickly spread stories of “protester violence.” They were aided by questionable—and widely circulated—claims by police that an alleged gang truce posed a “credible threat.”But witnesses told a different story: of police violence and targeting of protesters, including children. Brian Arnold, a former Baltimore City high school teacher, shared a counter-narrative on Facebook that quickly went viral:I want to make this as clear as possible:Step 1: the police created a “credible threat” about some high school students gathering at Mondawmin to start trouble.Step 2: the police showed up in force and riot gear before the students got out of school at Mondawmin, which is a major public transit hub, and SHUT DOWN THE TRANSIT, guaranteeing the kids couldn’t leave.Step 3: the police started macing people and brandishing tasers.Step 4: the kids understandably responded to being stranded and maced by throwing rocks.Step 5: the media starts reporting it as “a riot” and “violent protesters.This is 100% bought and paid for by the police department. This is absolutely vile.”The cynicism inherent in trapping school kids is a reflection of police attitude towards those kids,” Arnold told Common Dreams, adding that, as a former teacher, he saw firsthand that police violence against children “is a prevalent issue in the community.”

Numerous accounts of police brutality emerged on Monday, including reports of law enforcement throwing rocks at protesters. But many from within this city, which is 64 percent black, charge that the violence goes far deeper.Laurence Brown, assistant professor at Morgan State University and member of the Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment told Common Dreams, “The narrative now is on the looting and rioting taking place. People miss the underlying structural issues that are happening everyday. I would call it structural looting in form of policy.”Brown explained that Baltimore’s history of “forced segregation and displacement”—through racial zoning laws and segregated public housing, to highway construction through black neighborhoods—drove “discriminatory wealth that disinvested the black community.”Police killings of unarmed black people are part of this larger picture, he said. “And now you have this national movement, but you also have a national outrage. Seemingly every week we see a new video of an unarmed black person shot and killed by police in America. If we don’t see a video, we hear a report. In this moment of national outrage, we’re at a crescendo where folks are fed up.”

“In this moment of national outrage, we’re at a crescendo where folks are fed up.”—Laurence Brown, assistant professor at Morgan State UniversityThe Baltimore-based human rights organization United Workers said in a press statement released Tuesday that the “systemic racism and poverty” plaguing Baltimore must be addressed.”Why do 40,000 properties sit vacant while 4,000 are homeless, and another 154,000 face foreclosure and eviction annually?” asked the organization. “Why do 62 percent of job seekers rep

Source: ‘Structural Looting’ of Black Communities Driving Protesters to Baltimore Streets | Common Dreams | Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community

Kansas Schools Shut Down Early to Pay for Tax Cuts on the Rich/Corporations

© Josh Sager – April 2015

Earlier this month, it was announced that two Kansas school districts would be shutting down early this year simply due to budget shortfalls. Last week, four additional school districts decided to follow the first twos’ example and shut down early in order to make budget. While many may be quick to blame these school districts for their decision to shut down early, the sad fact is that they are simply reacting to a far greater problem in the state.

Right-wing extremists in Kansas have eviscerated the state tax code, creating these education budget shortfalls, and forcing the schools to react. The money to operate these schools at full capacity, for a full school year, is simply not in the budget and districts are left with virtually alternative but to reduce class hours for the school year.

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Put simply, these school districts are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine who are signaling a potentially lethal problem. They are a concrete manifestation of the inverted Robin Hood beliefs held by the modern right wing and a prelude to our future, where the rich are allowed to opt out of funding the social contract and the poor are left without basic services.

Right-Wing “Small Government”

When the right wing talks about promoting “small government conservatism” a significant percentage of the population supports them reflexively without actually understanding what they are talking about. Ironically, these are the people who will be harmed the most from the right-wing ideology when it is implemented.

At a basic level, the modern “small government” ideology has two prongs: First, it promotes low taxes—particularly for the rich and corporations—under the assumption that this will generate growth; and second, it promotes minimal spending on social programs (ex. schools, fire/police, welfare, etc.) and infrastructure (ex. roads, bridges, etc.). In short, this ideology champions a regressive vision, where tax cuts for the rich are paid for by reducing spending that benefits the rest of society.

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The school closures in Kansas are just one example of this ideology in action.

Since the rise of the Tea Party, conservative anti-tax extremists (even more so than the average right-wing Kansan) have gained virtually uncontested control over the Kansas state government and have done everything in their power to create a “small government” utopia. The Brownback administration has cut taxes to the bone—reducing 2-year general revenue estimates by up to $1 billion across the state—by reducing the state income tax by 25% across the board, eliminating taxes on certain types of business altogether, and setting into motion a plan to reduce the top marginal income tax rate from 6.45% to 3.9%.

These cuts have been incredibly regressive and have sometimes involved offsetting the lost revenue from cutting high-income rates by reducing or eliminating low-income deductions. The following graph from CBPP illustrates this transfer perfectly:

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Because Kansas has a balanced budget requirement, the revenue that is lost by cutting these taxes must be made up through decreased spending. Modern conservatism is intensely anti-intellectual and considers itself a mortal enemy of the teachers unions, so cutting public education is an easy choice for them. After all, they and their donors make enough money to send their children to expensive private schools, so there is no real personal consequence to them for eviscerating your kid’s public school.

While education may be the first target for cuts, it is by no means the last. Public assistance to the poor is an easy second target, followed by public works operations, then public safety and regulators, and finally to public infrastructure (ex. libraries and roads). What remains after these cuts is then often privatized and profitized, or simply transformed to be less burdensome on the rich.

Basically, if a service primarily benefits the poor and middle classes while only marginally benefitting the rich, you can expect it to be cut, privatized, or transitioned to being funded through “fines and fees” that only users pay. Conversely, if a program only benefits the rich or corporate interests (ex. business subsidies), you can be fairly certain that it will weather these rounds of cuts with only minimal consequences.

Unfortunately, this ideology hits the non-wealthy in both directions—they don’t get their taxes cut significantly yet they also end up with a poorly-maintained public infrastructure and minimal package of public services. This impacts society across generations, as the decaying education system in these areas isn’t prepared to provide the education necessary for social advancement or economic improvement. The poor are trapped in a cycle of neglect and poverty, while the middle class have an increasingly difficult time holding onto whatever wealth they have accrued over the years. On the other end of the spectrum however, the rich get endlessly richer and the politicians grow fat and secure off of “campaign donations” healthy salaries/benefits, and high incumbency rates.

Unless they overturn these right wing economic policies and purge the extremists who pushed them through, Kansas will continue its downward spiral until it becomes little more than an embarrassing object lesson for the rest of the nation. If this happens, it will already be too late for many students to get a proper education, and Kansans will feel the impact of this deficit for decades to come.