We need to be careful. Our country is unraveling, right before our eyes. No longer can we treat the eruptions of violence in places like Baltimore as isolated incendiary incidents. If, as a nation, we don’t take immediate remedial action, which means a complete overhaul of a brutally unfair system, the grudges that have simmered for so many generations will explode wherever there are people who are oppressed by those who benefit from a grossly inequitable economic system.
It’s too easy to dismiss the rioting in Baltimore as the actions of some punks who went on a rampage in some sort of mindless delinquency. The innocent victims, the property owners who have seen a lifetime of work go up in flames, they are tragic collateral damage in a war that’s breaking out from within, aimed at toppling an oligarchical system that relies on a brutal police force to keep people in line, while the wealthy few steal their right to opportunity.
It’s also too facile to argue that violence is counterproductive. It’s obviously immoral. But, frankly, it does get people’s attention. Why else would public officials, at the urging of the frightened rich people who put them into office, suddenly pay attention to the irrefutable evidence that we’re becoming a divided state where thuggish cops all too often get their kicks by killing and injuring those who they’re supposed to protect.
The vast majority of those in law enforcement do an extremely tough job. They are conscientious about the role they’ve chosen to maintain a safe and fair society. But as we’ve seen time and time and time again, ad nauseum, far too many of them see their job and weaponized armor as license to act out their sadistic instincts, particularly against the poor in general, and blacks in particular.
There has been one huge difference this time: The prosecutor in Baltimore has charged six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest with various crimes in this “homicide,” including, in some cases, murder. It all happened quickly. Officials decided urgent action was imperative for whatever reason, whether it was the threat of more violence or simply conscientious law enforcement.
Police supporters will argue that their heavy-handed tactics are necessary in the desperate, violent neighborhoods they patrol. Without them, these communities would degenerate into lawless enclaves, they insist. Here’s the problem: Even with the police brutality, violence in crime reigns supreme in the poorer areas. Is that the only choice: oppression or lawlessness? Sooner or later the downtrodden will rise up in anger after they have had enough. That’s what we witnessed in Baltimore, and what we’re bound to experience in lots of other places.
No less an advocate of non-violence than Martin Luther King Jr. insisted that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” We need to listen if we will continue to hold together as a society. Instead of rolling in more and more paramilitary forces to crush a population that will eventually explode, we need to deal with the reasons they rebel. We know all too well what is required, to the point that politicians feel obligated to pay lip service to the need for reform. It includes entirely revamping a justice system that punishes the poor while protecting the wealthy. As it is now, those without means go to prison, while the prosperous few who commit their own crimes only accumulate more reward.
We need to turn our financial system upside down, insisting that those at the top provide the means for us to guarantee that every young person can have access to education, health care and nutrition. The jobs that are shipped to low-wage countries need to remain here, and profit-swollen companies must be required to keep them here.
Unfortunately, we have a government controlled by interests who will do anything to prevent these threats to their lives of luxury. Politicians are afraid to take action. They’d better.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.