– Eric Scott Pickard
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin King
The time was April of 1968, and Baltimore was on fire.
Martin King, the civil rights activist who really needs no introduction here, had been slain on 4 April, and across the United States there was rioting in the streets. In Baltimore, protesters clashed with police, Maryland National Guard personnel, and federal Army troops. The riots left six dead and some seven hundred injured.
Now, it is April some 47 years on, and Baltimore is once again burning. This time, the rage in the streets was induced by the death in police custody of 25 year old Freddie Grey. In both cases, a death and a response; but this narrative is, of course, too simple. Martin King’s murder was a symptom of the larger sickness of racism in the United States; not merely personal racism among individuals, but an institutional racism that pervades our society, from municipal law enforcement to the highest levels of government. So too, the death of Freddie Grey is a symptom of this same fault in the modern system, a system that cares more about the interests of capital and “mainstream” ( whatever in God’s name that even means) society then about the most vulnerable and oppressed of its citizens.
As the media and various pundits, almost none of whom have experienced the oppression of living in poverty, prattle on about the destruction of property or whether or not the rioting is justified, I should like to put a few stray thoughts together to offer a different perspective. I ask a few questions:
If you live in a community with almost no access to healthcare, do you have a reason to be angry?
If you live in a community with almost no access to grocery stores, especially ones that offer quality, wholesome food at a price that is affordable to your communities’ income, do you have a reason to be angry?
If you live in a community that does not offer access to quality jobs, or quality transportation to quality jobs, do you have a reason to be angry?
If you live in a community that does not offer access to quality education, do you have a reason to be angry?
If you live in a community that is segregated from other communities by race and/or class, do you have a reason to be angry?
If you live in a community where the government ignores basic upkeep of roads, utilities, and other infrastructure, do you have a reason to be angry?
If you live in a community where the police not only ignore your needs, but are often openly confrontational, up to and including committing acts of violence against members of your community, do you have a reason to be angry?
If you believe the answers to these questions to be “yes,” then know this: this is how vast numbers of people, in this country and around the globe, are forced to live. Whatever you think of rioting and looting, we must understand that this is a manifestation of a larger, institutional problem. There never could have been another outcome, given the conditions, now or in 1968. Do I believe burning the local stores will change anything? No, not particularly; the State will survive, no matter what happens in Baltimore in the coming days, or in any individual city. Change will have to come through a systematic shift in the way we organize our society. But am I angry? No. What I am angry about is that a young man died in police custody with no explanation. What I am angry about is that this was not an isolated incident; that it has happened before in Baltimore and happens constantly throughout the United States. What I am angry about is that those in the halls of power refuse to address the issues of systemic racism, poverty, and inequality. The looting? As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has said in the past, in our consumerist society, even in times of rage and anger, all people can think of to do is consume more products. The system has taught us to do this; it shouldn’t come as a shock, even in the climate of ignorance fostered by the mainstream media outlets, whose goal is the advancement of the capitalist system they endorse, protect and perpetuate.
As for the police cars? The Baltimore Police can and will buy more cars. There was only one Freddie Grey, and as much as the consumerist system would like to, you cannot put a value on a human life. This outcome was inevitable. Perhaps, before we begin wagging our finger at the justifiable anger of this community, we should take a look at the system of greed, authority, and corruption that stacked the deck and created the conditions that allowed this to happen in the first place.
Eric Scott Pickard is a co-founder of Free Radical Media and a poet, artist, and activist.