The anger in Ferguson, Missouri – even the violence – was more understandable and, in that sense, less upsetting than what we have been witnessing in Baltimore this week, in the aftermath of yet another black man dying in police custody.
In Ferguson, the majority African-American community felt aggrieved by its treatment at the hands of the city’s majority-white power structure. At the time of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, where two-thirds of the population is black, the police chief was white, and there were three (some reports say four) black officers out of 53 on the force. Ferguson’s mayor was white, as were five of the six city council members.
That racial imbalance is a recipe for breeding distrust and resentment. But it also contains the seeds of its own solution. The underrepresentation of African-Americans in elective office is an artifact, at least in part, of low voter turnout; the minority community cannot credibly complain of lacking an adequate voice if its members fail to exercise their franchise.
Thus the first municipal election following Brown’s shooting featured turnout approaching 30 percent, not exactly healthy but a dramatic improvement. Two African-Americans were added to the council, meaning that representation is now split evenly along racial lines.
To celebrate this result is not to suggest that white elected officials cannot fairly reflect the concerns of black constituents. It is to understand that a community that feels mistreated and disrespected by those in authority cannot be blamed for feeling resentful when so few of those in authority come from a background of shared experience.
The overbearing, overmilitarized police response to the protesters in Ferguson was all that much harder to take when the face behind the riot gear did not reflect the complexion of the community.
Which is why the rioting in Baltimore is so much more dispiriting. The city, with a share of African-American citizens similar to that of Ferguson, has an African-American mayor, an African-American state’s attorney and an African-American police commissioner. Its police force is about 40 percent African-American.
The city’s power structure is not just blacker than Ferguson’s – it’s smarter, though that may not be saying much. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake erred when she said city officials “gave those who wished to destroy space to do that.” Yet her fundamental, sensible point was that Baltimore was seeking to avoid a Ferguson-like pouring of gasoline on the fire of protests in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
Obviously, the chief responsibility for the riots rests with the rioters themselves.
How sad, decades after Watts 1965, Newark 1967 and Washington 1968, that another community would inflict this sort of long-lasting economic injury on itself.
On that score, kudos to the viral video mom who plucked her hoodie-wearing son from a group of rioters and gave him a good smack, or three. “I wish I had more parents who took charge of their kids tonight,” Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said.
But the reaction to Gray’s death is not just about assigning personal responsibility. It’s about dealing with the entrenched legacy of institutional mistakes by a city and police department that, whatever the race of those in charge, failed to treat African-American residents with adequate respect and, indeed, too often abused them.
A Baltimore Sun investigation last year revealed that the city had paid $5.7 million in legal settlements since 2011 involving 102 instances of excessive force. It spurred city officials to ask the U.S. Justice Department to review complaints about excessive force and other misconduct by Baltimore police.
One important question is whether the zero-tolerance policing strategy, pioneered by former Baltimore mayor and prospective Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, exacerbated those tensions by making arrests for offenses as minor as loitering and littering. These tactics “ignited a rift between the citizens and the police, which still exists today,” a city report on police brutality concluded last year.
Yet efforts to make it easier to identify and punish rogue officers foundered in the Maryland General Assembly. “We’ve made a lot of progress in repairing the breach between the police and the community,” Rawlings-Blake said in announcing the package in February.
Sadly, that assessment proved far too optimistic.
Washington Post Writers Group