In Defense of Uncivil Disobedience

by: Michael Shields

One man’s take on the upheaval in Baltimore. A plea for understanding…

baltimore

“I don’t have to condone it to understand it.” – Deray McKesson

Very little I will say here will be novel. If you are even minimally socially conscious, or in tune at all with the world around us, then there is a good chance the opinions I am about to express are something you have come upon already. This week perhaps. Usually when this is the case – where I believe that others have voiced my opinion, as or more eloquently than me – I let it be. The story has been told, and that is good enough. But that won’t abide any longer, and particularly not in this situation. All of us, who see the problem clearly and rationally, who are conscious of the injustices that are at the root of the uprisings which are occurring in Baltimore this week, have an obligation to make their voice heard. Silence is not an option. And so I speak.

In this vein, silence and peaceful protest were not an option for the aggrieved Baltimore residents whose voices have been raised since Freddie Gray’s suspicious passing on April 19th. For over a week they have been protesting in the non-violent manner in which government agencies, the general public and the police, see fit. And nothing happened. Not only did nothing happen, but the streets were remarkably absent of news vans and reporters. The skies were vacant of news ‘copters circling. And not a whisper was emitted from the 24 hour news cycles nationwide. Baltimoreans were speaking, and no one was listening. And then they got angry, and now – and only now – does the nation hear their cry.

Far too often the response that rattles about when people are rioting (and I am not referring to when one’s team wins or loses a pivotal sports game) is that the problem lies merely with those who resort to uncivil disobedience to get their point across. That the root of the problem is the rioters. This line of thinking is akin to looking at a fire, and assuming that simply extinguishing that fire will solve the problem. Maybe for the moment, sure – but to prevent further fires one must analyze how and why the fire occurred, and make the necessary changes. The problem isn’t the reaction, it’s the spark that caused it.

When the general response by a significant and empowered faction of the population echoes a resentment of the young “thugs,” eager for their voices, their plight, to finally be heard, something is off. When backlash to the rioters appears more anxious to speak on the behalf of damaged property than to stand up in defense of another young life taken unjustly, the wrong message is sent. This reaction, in fact, wholly justifies the righteousness of the exasperated manner in which those who have chosen to take matters into their own hands have responded. It forces one to realize that this illegal havoc must feel like the only option left for a group of people who have been so systematically deprived that whether in peaceful demonstration, or in violent upheaval, they are readily dismissed.

If you cannot empathize with the fed-up people of Baltimore it is a sure bet that you live in a town that isn’t populated exclusively by abandoned buildings, liquor stores, fried-chicken joints, barber shops, more liquor stores, check-cashing outlets, Chinese restaurants, churches, funeral parlors, and corner stores that push nothing but sugar water, candy, cigarettes, beer, chips, and lottery tickets. Chances are that your local park isn’t littered with condoms, needles, and shattered glass. And odds are in your favor that more than half of the residents in the town that you live in are not unemployed. Or that your neighborhood is not replete with toxic levels of lead poisoning young children. This is exactly the case in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived, and if none of this sounds familiar, it may be challenging for you to understand the level of frustration that could lead to what has occurred in Baltimore this past week. But it is crucial to try. Now more than ever.

It is fair to say that a large majority of Americans are isolated from the daunting realities of police brutality and persecution. So many of us are shielded from the economic devastation that is uniformly paired with an antipathetic and domineering policing and surveillance state designed to control this unjustly poverty-stricken population. While this is certainly the case, this is no excuse for indifference or for turning a blind eye. And certainly it isn’t fair to lay judgment. The brutal death of Freddie Gray, and the many others who have faced his heartbreaking fate, must be a reminder of the perils that inner-city black men face every single day. And Baltimore’s collective cry for attention, for help, must be a reminder of the level of utter scarcity that too many American citizens face daily. We do not need to validate or condone the actions of many of Baltimore’s citizens, but it isn’t too much to ask to try to understand what Black America is feeling, and what they have been going through – for far too long.

There is a good chance that the anger will subside, and life will go back to “normal” for those in Baltimore and throughout the country. This is what usually happens; the anger is repressed or pushed in another direction and we return to the status quo. But this incessant cycle must stop. And if not, there will be more pain, more death, and more riots. We must find a way to not only keep this conversation going, but to commence enacting real policy and changes that can begin to alter the course of our nation. We must stop judging the man whose despondency leads him to smashing a car window with a traffic cone, but rather the system that maintains this brand of hopelessness.

We as a population have been vigorously separated from the exact level of inequality that exists. The agony of the ghetto lies, deliberately, not in plain sight. But it is all-too-real, and it is high time to heed its anguished call. It is time to shift our collective focus from outrage, to enacting a real agenda for those American communities under siege. The city of Baltimore will be rebuilt. CVS will recover from their mild losses. But Freddie Gray and the hundreds of other young men and women murdered through police brutality will never walk the earth again. This is the crux of the matter. And now, as the oppression and struggle of the citizens of Baltimore is at the forefront of the national consciousness, it is time to stop pointing fingers, and instead ask, how can we help?

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