Beyond Baltimore

Liz Rebecca Alarcon is a One Young World Ambassador from Venezuela who lives and works in the USA. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Latin American Studies at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Liz has extensive experience in human rights and democracy strengthening initiatives, and has worked with civil society organizations in the US and Latin America to build sustainability projects in underserved communities.

The U.S. has been making headlines worldwide for all the wrong reasons. On Monday 26 April, Baltimore was the scene of riots after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young African American man who died after an unlawful arrest by police officers. He spent his last days in a coma after his spine was severed during a forceful arrest.

This tragic incident stirred a media frenzy. The story was all too familiar. Yet another young man of colour fell victim to police brutality. In the few days since the incident both Democrats and Republicans have been using dangerous language to narrate last Monday’s events. Breaking news banners on our TVs read “city under siege,” and “chaos.” Commentators exclaimed that the “riots weren’t helping anyone.” Baltimore police called for “calm” and expressed their goal to keep “non-violent protesters safe from the violent” ones. Baltimore's mayor called those that chose to utilise aggressive protest tactics “thugs.” 

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This narrative is wrong. And it speaks to a pattern of coverage that jeopardises the fight for social justice.

The media’s portrayal of the riot reduced it to irresponsible violence, thereby failing to inform the general public about the underlying and systematic wrongs that have preceded the riots for decades. Under the property damage and broken windows there is an even gloomier reality that rings true far beyond Baltimore.

The riots are a reflection of a community that is tired; tired of disenfranchisement. They feel powerless. On the other hand, those who feel that they have power within a system don't want to break it. Instead of telling us that schools in Baltimore are bad and looping images of broken windows, mainstream media should be asking “What are the riots telling us about the system? How can we all shift a failing status quo together?”

The easy answer is to pull out the race card. But this is not “just about race.” Baltimore has a black female mayor, a black police commissioner, and around half of the police force is composed of black officers. Three of the six officers charged with Freddie Gray's death are black. Thus, the message rioters are sending is that the system, whether it is run by blacks, whites, or whomever, is failing.

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Millions of dollars in settlements are spent each year by police departments to cover up police brutality. And many times, when police officers do go to trial for brutalizing detainees and suspects, for unlawful arrests, for racially profiling innocent people, among other abuses, they fail to be indicted. Or if they are found guilty, their sentences are light. The Baltimore riots are yelling loud and clear that the system is made to protect the police first, civilians second. Rioters are saying that they are guilty until proven innocent, and yet police officers that engage in brutality are innocent until proven guilty.

Mainstream commentary surrounding the riots claims that the violent behavior “is not the answer.” But they don’t offer one. And meanwhile, no one else is standing up to the abuse and misuse of the state’s monopoly on force. As this recent cover of TIME rightfully depicts, what has really changed since the peak of the civil rights movement in this city?

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How can one condemn the violence of rioters and demand peace, calm, civility and humanity from them - and not demand the same from the police? Instead of talking about the incident as a mere backlash to Gray’s death, we might better frame the actions by angry protesters in Baltimore as a form of counter-violence to what they live through every day.

Because Freddie Gray’s unlawful death is all too common.

The people in the pictures taken by local Baltimore photographer Devin Allen are represent the Baltimore that the sensationalist press refuses to recognise. This is the community that deserves media attention. This is the community who deserve to be protected by law and order.

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Is rioting the only answer? No. Are all police bad? Of course not. There are no absolutes. But we cannot move forward on this issue without having deeper conversations about police brutality against people of colour in this country. And that won’t happen until people care.

As President Obama said in his speech on Tuesday 27 April: "If we really want to solve the problem…we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they’re important.”

I hope we all pay enough attention to make headlines next time for preventing another funeral instead of attending one.