Baltimore's Language of the Unheard

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With Monday's street violence largely receding, Baltimore residents are laboring to clean up its debris and clear up its lessons in the face of what many charge is willfully skewered media coverage ensuring "you only see what they want you to see." Officials calling for "order" and "non-violence," they say, miss the context of so much rage: A state that persistently doles out violence, repression and injustice to its citizens has abrogated its right to demand those victims behave better than it does.

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In the hours following Freddie Gray's funeral, many residents and spectators slammed the "false narrative" of much mainstream media coverage, which tended to focus on the fiery actions of about 100 looters and burners rather than those of thousands of concerned residents who peacefully marched and often cleaned up after the destruction. Thus, rumors spread that rival gangs had arrived at a truce to "take out" cops whereas they went on record trying to restore peace to the streets; the mayor called out the "thugs" who trashed the city while ignoring the presence of those same "thugs" - ie: poor black residents - who appeared the next morning to clean it up; the Baltimore Sun and other papers led with pictures of looters smashing cars, not people trying to stop them, or cops throwing rocks and busting heads, or 200 clergy marching arm-in-arm to try to halt the destruction. Said a bereaved Donte Hickman, whose church had almost finished building an affordable home complex for senior citizens that got torched, "This is not the justice that we seek...But it is going to work for our good. Because we will rebuild this community.”

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Some observers, while pained by the violence, insisted on putting it into the perspective of what came before: The hard truth that the "state of emergency" currently signalled by the presence of the National Guard has in fact been a long time coming. A black local activist argued it's less than reasonable to "expect every citizen to remain 'peaceful' and 'orderly' as they are hurting and grieving...People have been peaceful...People have been waiting on the system to generate 'justice,' but they keep letting murderous cops walk. Rioting and looting is only a reaction to compounded injustice." John Angelos, the white CEO of the Baltimore Orioles, issued a blistering series of tweets about racism, unemployment and an elite "diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state...The ultimate price paid by them (is) one that far exceeds the importance  of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S."

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Most passionately, others argue that smashing police cars, looting corporate property or other forms of direct militant action are "reasonable responses to generations of extreme state violence" and thus both a legitimate form of protest under the rule of empire and a historically effective tool for galvanizing justice movements like Black Lives Matter. The violence surrounding the famously non-violent Martin Luther King spurred him to call it “morally irresponsible” to condemn riots “without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society....A riot is the language of the unheard.” Thus does the logic of non-violent resistance break down in the face of a death like Freddie Gray's. From Ta-Nehisi Coates: "When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con (in the name of) the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community."

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