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