For many of us on an academic calendar, which generally runs from August to May, it did not escape notice that this past year was bracketed by events in Ferguson on the front end and Baltimore on the back, with events in Staten Island and elsewhere as well as the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in between. Looking at the whole of this cycle, it could be argued that the nation is approaching a tipping point in which deep-seated structural issues around race, economics, policing, and more are finally being placed straightforwardly on the table—not merely for discussion, but for concrete action. This would be welcome news for those concerned about the presence of justice in our world, and yet this macroscopic pursuit can sometimes obscure the micro level in which a person becomes a hashtag.
In the case of Freddie Gray, who was living in the Gilmor Homes housing project in West Baltimore, there is a tendency—as with Michael Brown and others before him—to assume knowledge about his life based on his media profile, police records, and the civil unrest that followed his death. While I never met Mr. Gray, I would submit that he was more than merely a ‘rap sheet’ or the spark for a ‘riot’. We need only start with the harsh environs of the Gilmor project to get a sense of the many factors that influenced his life, living in a neighborhood marked by substantial rates of poverty and coded as a ‘high crime’ area. Ironically, the Gilmor Homes development is designated as an “empowerment zone” by the Baltimore Housing Authority, even as it is subject to intense policing and surveillance on a routine basis.
Even being from Brooklyn and attending a public high school across the street from a housing project, I cannot even pretend to comprehend Gray’s life. From a social science angle, it isn’t a shock that his police record included a number of low-level offenses, primarily for minor drug charges and parole violations, as well as previous prison stints. With a handful of open cases still pending at the time of his arrest, it’s unsurprising that Gray fled upon noticing the police, even though he was committing no crime. Again, without presuming an untenable empathy, we might surmise that from Freddie Gray’s perspective he was always a suspect, perpetually viewed as a criminal, and used to being a police target. By the age of 25, he most likely had seen aspects of this world that most of us will never even glimpse.
In one of my courses this year, we read an article by sociologist Victor M. Rios, titled “Stealing a Bag of Potato Chips and Other Crimes of Resistance,” in which circumstances not dissimilar to those experienced by myriad Michael Browns and Freddie Grays are chronicled. From an outsider’s position, the commission of petty crimes in such a setting may seem foolish, like a self-inflicted wound and devoid of any rational consideration. From the viewpoint of those existing in abject scenarios and already labeled as ‘criminals’ and ‘thugs’, however, such behaviors actually make sense on many levels. As Rios describes it, these activities can become part of “survival strategies” that yield “alternative social and cultural capital”—whereby individuals and communities ostensibly “embrace criminality as a means of contesting a system that sees them as criminals” and thus strive to “discredit the significance of a system which had excluded and punished them.” In short, there is nothing irrational about any of this.
This is not meant to excuse the behavior, but more so to understand it. At another scale, we can apply a similar logic to displays of civil unrest in the aftermath of yet another episode of racialized police violence. ‘Why would people destroy their own neighborhood?’ we might hear some ask. ‘The people doing this are nothing but thugs,’ others will proclaim. The parallels with individual constructions are apparent, namely that seemingly self-destructive or criminal behaviors contain meanings beyond those cognizable to outside observers. Indeed, people living in impacted areas are fully capable of critically examining such behaviors and simultaneously understanding their origins and meanings as well (which comes through clearly in segments such as “Voices of the Unheard” from Democracy Now! last week).
As an extension of these complexities, it was mildly surprising to learn that even some colleagues who had been closely following events in Baltimore weren’t aware of what transpired after officials declared a ‘state of emergency’ there (apparently and revealingly, it’s only an ‘emergency’ when people are resisting deeply rooted instances of structural violence but not when they’re perpetually subjected to them). While the collective gaze remained fixated on images of ‘burning and looting’, residents took it upon themselves to spontaneously organize clean-up efforts; armed with brooms and garbage bags, a communal initiative to put things back together in their neighborhoods was widespread yet largely unnoticed—including a sense of buoyancy for what might ensue when voices are heard. With predictable pronouncements of ‘peace’ returning to Baltimore following the unrest (another misnomer, constituting the sense of peace that comes with returning impoverished communities to their prior state of silent suffering and redlined segregation), active communities represent the prospect of actual peace.
And this brings us back to the question of the worth of an individual’s life and the promise they may hold. No one can say what would have become of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray in the days ahead if given a chance to get there; those of more advanced years who feel certain that these young men were finished products who had reached their preordained outcomes might ask themselves what they were doing at 18 or 25 and whether they’ve evolved since then. From the perspective of social change, the killings of Brown and Gray have left a lasting legacy, but it is one that comes at the prohibitive cost of the inherent value of their lives. And this matters, not just to their families and friends, but to anyone who believes in the logic of an “inescapable network of mutuality … a single garment of destiny” that Martin Luther King Jr. described, in which “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Creating such a world where all are able to realize their innate potential is the urgent task before us—not as an exercise of charity but as one of solidarity, in the quest for a sense of justice that connects our futures.