Saturday, May 09, 2015

Canary in a Coal Mine

Police enforcing Baltimore curfew
Explanations, not Excuses

I started writing this almost two weeks ago, and things have moved swiftly since then.  What was first on my mind was trying to talk about the looting and violence that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray, the young man who died after having his spinal chord 80% severed, and enduring what was euphemistically called the "rough ride" inside a police van.

What followed was classic looting and burning.  The local CVS was looted and heavily damaged, which seemed to be the most common example we saw on TV.  For sure there were lots of young black men seen involved in the mayhem.  Immediately, both President Obama and the mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (a black woman) characterized the looters as "thugs."  I think at that moment, it was obvious they were trying to make a point, trying to separate the law breakers from all the other citizens of Baltimore.

Predictably, the situation deteriorated into a back and forth about the word "thug."  Before you could say 'Tupac,' one group was accusing anyone of using the word "thug" of racism.  Of course there were lots of examples of white college kids burning things down, white soccer 'hooligans' burning and rioting, and so on.  All true of course, but that doesn't excuse the behavior, of the kids in Baltimore, from the colleges, or the soccer games.

On one side of the discussion is a plea for 'personal responsibility.'  On the other side stands the stark reality of a hollowed out inner city full of lost promises, where nobody should be blamed for their behavior.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.  To keep it simple, what I think the looters are, since I can't call them thugs, is weak.  None of us are perfectly strong under any amount of stress; I know I'm not.  When we see rioting like that, we aren't seeing good citizens, but we are seeing signs of social/environmental stress.  No, you shouldn't trash a store.  But these things are not happening because the kids are inherently bad either.  The seeds of trouble in Baltimore have been growing and taking root for a long time.  Just like a canary in a coal mine, these troubles are a sign of something bigger, more serious.

You can't solve a problem if you won't see the cause.