Point of View Columns

Not Only Baltimore is Burning

The death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody has sparked yet another conflagration in Baltimore. The death of Freddie Gray has created yet another wave of protests over yet another cop black man homicide. Ferguson, Staten Island, North Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore……the death dirge plays from coast to coast. And we continue to search for the reasons why.

We find ourselves asking once again why there appears to be a disproportionate number of deaths by cop in the black communities across this nation. Which in turn leads to the question of why there are a disproportionate number of arrests in the black community as well as convictions in the black community as well as more severe sentencing in the black community as well as the most onerous incarceration punishments in the black community? And why does it seem as if the criminal justice system is at war with the black community – the community that it is supposed to protect and serve?

The statistics are so appalling they tend to anesthetize and desensitize. This country has 5 per cent of the world’s population and 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. This country has more prisoners per capita than so-called repressive regimes in Iran, North Korea and China. And a disproportionate number of these prisoners are black. And most of these prisoners are men – most of them imprisoned when they are young black men. Forty percent of America’s prisoners are black although black Americans make up only twelve percent of this country’s population.

During the modern Era of American Incarceration which began in the 1970’s, millions of black men have been incarcerated. During this Era of American Incarceration, entire neighborhoods, communities and cities have been eviscerated as young black men aged 18-34 have been the subject of a bizarre sort of ethnic cleansing.

Over the past forty years these young black men have not been afforded the opportunity to be a part of American life. They have not been able to go to school or college. They have not been able to be traditional fathers, traditional husbands or traditional family members. They have not become entrepreneurs or employers or community leaders or participating citizens or voters. They have been disappeared for decades at a time and then returned as hollowed out shells of their former selves or of what could have been their future selves.

And they also return with a bagful of can’ts. They can’t get financial aid for education so they can’t get an education because they are ex-offenders. They can’t get public housing because they are ex-offenders. They can’t get employment because they have been in prison. They can’t get a loan to start a business because they have been in prison. In many states they can’t even get a license to drive a cab or be a barber because they have been in prison. They can’t. They can’t. They can’t.

It is no wonder that the death dance of violence and misogyny and nihilism has entrapped so many residents of the black communities of this country when so many of their neighbors, friends, fathers, husbands, sons and lovers are walking around with a bagful of can’ts. What should be a source of amazement and wonder is that there has been any success or progress in this toxic environment.

One can predict that more than a few conservatives will look at the footage of Baltimore on fire and blame it on President Obama. More than a few denizens of the right wing of the right wing will borrow a page from Richard Nixon’s playbook and use the images of an American city on fire as the justification for more punitive and harsher law enforcement. The echo of Nixon’s “law and order” clarion call will almost certainly be heard across this land.

And, of course, that will be like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. The cause of the fire is the repressive and regressive use of law enforcement that is unfair, racially biased and in too many instances, simply racist. The criminal justice system is the beast that consumes the hopes and dreams and aspirations of too many young black men (and increasingly, young black women).

And until that beast is tamed and controlled and trained to do what it is supposed to do – protect and serve………….all Americans – the flames in Baltimore will one day be seen as just the coming attraction for what will come.

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