Thursday, May 7, 2015

Denounce violence, without exception: Reflections on the Baltimore uprisings

I wrote much of this post from my dorm room in Baltimore last Monday night. I had plenty of time to write it, as I was prohibited from leaving the building: riots were erupting all around me. The following days were busy for me as I wrapped up my last week of classes, so I was unable to put the finishing touches on until now. Hopefully what I lack in timeliness is made up for from added days of reading and reflection. I have three main thoughts:
  1. The anger in Baltimore is a warranted response to unjust, excessive, ongoing state violence, and I have lots of ideas on how to address it.

A few months ago I wrote a long, introspective status lamenting the Eric Garner killing and the judicial inaction that followed. I want justice for Freddie Gray in the same way I wanted it for Garner, just as I wanted it for the 15 or so other victims of police abuse I mentioned then. I’m also very aware of the long history of racial abuse at the hands of policemen in Baltimore particularly, as well as the disenfranchisement and frustration that has afflicted poor Baltimoreans in recent decades. Accordingly, I support the mostly peaceful protests that went on two weeks ago at the victim’s family’s behest. The anger erupting in response to this is completely warranted.

I also have lots of ideas on how the Baltimore government could make things better moving forward. Specifically:

  • Put body cameras on all policemen everywhere, and enact severe, immediate and highly public discipline for all documented police misconduct. This is a good idea in every police force, but the events of recent years absolutely demand it here.
  • Abandon the massive, state funded development projects that require so many failed subsidies and tax breaks to cronies. Prioritize the wellbeing of everyday residents over the flash and pizzazz of development projects designed to spur tourism and beautification.
  • Also abandon failed state-capitalist ventures like ballparks and convention centers funded or subsidized by taxpayers.
  • Decrease property taxes. Baltimore’s 2.2% rate is the highest in the state, and it has allowed two tax exempt institutions – Johns Hopkins and the Catholic Church – to buy up much of the city’s land. This contributes to gentrification and marginalizes local families who lack such exemptions. Just as importantly, it scares away business and employment opportunities that might otherwise thrive, impeding upward social mobility.
  • Cease and desist with the eminent domain abuse that’s so central to both the development projects and gentrification more generally.
  • Pursue market-based education reform. Baltimore’s poverty is perpetuated by some of the worst schools and lowest high school graduation rates in the state, despite drastic and continual increases in education spending that now see them pay $18,000 per student per year. This is largely due to the public monopoly driving out competition and inhibiting market forces. This problem could be ameliorated through school choice, voucher programs, merit pay, and other reforms. Comprehensive reform would improve test scores, increase retention rates, and better prepare Baltimore’s next generation for productive employment. Reason made a Baltimore-specific case for school choice, as did Townhall.

Baltimore’s efforts would also be aided by deeper structural reforms on the state and federal level, including:

  • Comprehensive criminal justice reform. This means putting an end to all state and federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It means getting rid of three-strike laws that count trivial things as equivalent with serious crime. It means dropping the “tough on crime” political charade that for so much of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s caused politicians from both parties to one-up one another on just how “tough” they were willing to go, and so produced incarceration rates that should be shocking in the so-called “land of the free”. It means combatting prison rape and prison violence by training guards to actually give a damn about it. And mostly, it means dropping our emphasis on punitive retribution and replacing it with a humane, rehabilitative, sensible sentencing attitude like the ones used by almost every other advanced democracy on earth. This may require building more prisons to reduce overcrowding as an interim measure, but in the long term, it means reducing the prison population by imprisoning fewer people, for less time. Democrats are generally better on this, but even conservatives are starting to come around.
  • Legalize marijuana. This is the most obvious, common sense, no brainer quick-fix to so much of what’s wrong with our police and court systems, particularly in places like Baltimore. Maryland decriminalized pot last year, which is a good first step, but it isn’t far enough. You can read my arguments for the full and immediate legalization of marijuana for any adult use here, here, here, here and here. As it relates to Freddie Gray-style incidents, legalization gives policemen fewer excuses to stop or search people, fewer contraband items to find when they do search, and fewer reasons to frequent neighborhoods they suspect illicit drug trade may be occurring.
  • End the war on drugs generally. This means disbanding the DEA and decriminalizing all drugs which can be taken without endangering those around you (perhaps as an interim pathway to their eventual legalization). It also means employing drug courts with an emphasis on rehabilitation, not misguided and hypocritical moral imperialism. Here’s an excerpt from one of my many writings on the subject:

    “Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which in turn actually increases crime. When poor fathers are thrown in jail or killed in an unnecessarily dangerous drug world, their families become even more desperate and dysfunctional. Studies show that children growing up in these broken households are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior, to be delinquent, suspended or expelled from school, and to turn to crime themselves. Additionally, having a criminal record decreases one’s employment opportunities and lowers one’s earnings potential going forward. This ensures that people convicted of drug crimes have fewer places to turn besides crime upon their release. And by making the illegal drug trade so lucrative, prohibition has only increased the temptation to engage in illicit activities. Legalization would reverse both of these incentives. Firstly, it would reduce the appeal of crime by removing the underground…trade as a profitable option. And secondly, it would reduce the necessity of crime by decreasing incarceration and increasing the legal employment opportunities of would-be convicts.”
  • While we’re at it, also legalize gambling, loitering, prostitution, immigration, weapons possession, public drunkenness, and other victimless crimes to help keep people out of jail (and police away from the people) unless they really need to be there. This, in conjunction with the above reforms, would eventually help re-frame the public perception of police as the people there to protect you from actual danger, as opposed to that the people out to nail you for harmless, petty, morally subjective activity.

I could go on, but the main point I’m making is that Baltimoreans have every right to be pissed about how their city (and especially their police force) is treating them. What happened to Freddie Gray and so many before him is a horrible injustice, and nobody is more consistently critical of that police abuse than libertarians.

2. Racism in response to Monday’s events is inexcusable.

I’m all for anonymous free speech, and I often enjoy the irreverent revelry of places like 4chan and Reddit. But my YikYak feed last week was horrifying, not for the existence of trolls so much as the number of upvotes they were getting. Perhaps these people need reminding that not only do white people riot just as often, they often do it for much less justifiable reasons. The media coverage of these riots is vastly disproportionate, illustrating one of the hugest examples of white privilege: not being judged for the actions of people who look like you. If you bought into the narrative that Monday’s events reflect poorly on any broad group other than the rioters, you are a sucker at best, and an ignorant, oppressive douchebag most likely.

This is the shortest of my three thoughts here not because it’s less important than the other two takeaways, but only because it sort of goes without saying – I haven’t encountered anyone in my friend groups (besides the cowards on those anonymous sites) who believes projecting negative associations onto all black people is an appropriate response. I’m sure I could find plenty of examples by Googling it, but I prefer to engage with serious arguments from serious commentators, and don’t consider outwardly racist people to be that. I suspect those on who thought this mostly suppressed it in recognition it was racist, which I hope is an indication that the public discourse on this is progressing.

3. The riots that occurred on Monday are also inexcusable.

Sensitivity to the complaints that motivate these riots is only useful to help determine why they are happening – not to exonerate the rioters. If your first reaction to Monday’s events was to trivialize, downplay, excuse, ignore or in any way justify the crimes committed, you are not fighting the good fight. Sympathy for the plight of the perpetrators is okay; condoning their actions is not.

There were too many people in my newsfeed this week saying something to the effect of “I don’t support violence, but…” followed by something that frames Monday’s events as an unavoidable part of some heroic struggle. I suppose that’s better than those who dismiss calls for nonviolence altogether, but it’s still horrible. It was the same thing after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January: “I don’t condone violence, but”…these guys kinda brought it on themselves (one of these critics even previewed this week’s battles by writing “I think that after extended periods of police violence, if a protester attacks a cop, that’s pretty understandable” as means of analogy for Charlie Hebdo’s murder). Last week’s shootings at a Texas Draw Mohammad contest provoked a similar response. The incidents differ in severity, but the principle is the same: that violence is less bad when it’s wielded against our enemies in a culture war. Ironically, it is this precise illogic which animates those who sympathize with police abuse: “He shouldn’t have shot him, but…” these guys were criminals, so they pretty much had it coming.

Being libertarian means there should be no but.

For most of Monday night, the City of Baltimore was quite literally burning to the ground. Police cars were being smashed and set on fire. Civilian cars were being smashed and set on fire. A new, $16 million senior center in East Baltimore – on pace to open ahead of schedule for once – was also set on fire, and thereby totally destroyed. That fire was so large it threatened to burn down adjacent houses, like the one owned by this terrified woman. There were 22 total fires across the city, and there would have been more had police not arrested other attempted arsonists in the act. One of these fires trapped somebody in his basement until he was rescued and hospitalized. A 14 year old girl doused this man in lighter fluid and attempted to burn him alive; when he escaped, they burned down his pizza shop instead. When firemen came to fight these fires, there are reports of their hoses being slashed, and videos of people throwing rocks at them.

That’s not the only people who had rocks thrown at them. The police, naturally, were so peppered with bricks and projectiles that 20 of them required medical treatment. As of the next day, two of them remained hospitalized, and one of them remained unconscious. At least five journalists were attacked and injured as well, including some from CNN and the Washington Post. Eyewitnesses reported regular civilians being dragged from their cars and beaten up for good measure. Camden Yards had to cancel a baseball game, sending thousands of fans home scared and disappointed, because brawls like this were happening outside the stadium. They also prohibited fan attendance at the next game.

Dozens of CVS’s, 7/11’s, Save-a-Lot’s, Liquor stores and Subways have had their storefront’s smashed and their goods stolen. Here’s a compilation of videos depicting this. Here’s another. Here’s a video of one of these store owners being dragged from his store, sucker-punched, and then stomped on while he lie on the pavement unconscious. The livelihood of all these business owners and employees is now in jeopardy. The violence also forced the mayor to impose a curfew, which ruined a week’s business for all sorts of other bars, clubs, and nightlife entertainment venues as well.

The police tracker mentioned several shootings in the brief time I listened to it. I didn’t fall asleep until 5am that night, at least in part because there were sirens outside my window every 5 minutes. Maryland had to declare an official state of emergency and activate the National Guard to come and secure the city, as if they were still occupying Bagdad after the invasion of Iraq.

For a period of about 12 hours, Baltimore descended into bedlam – and it was not the police’s fault.

There is an enormous distinction between causality, and culpability, which the left really needs to acknowledge. Causality can be indirect, and can be traced through systemic social conditions in an amoral, matter-of-fact way. Culpability deals with blame, and that blame can only be assigned to individual human beings. Being underprivileged does not exonerate you of blame, and individuals need not be in a position of power to warrant criticism. Understanding causality is necessary for crafting solutions, but understanding culpability is essential to rendering moral judgments.

Accordingly, what happened last week is not the fault of any system of oppression. It isn’t the fault of capitalism. It isn’t the fault of white privilege. It isn’t the fault of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, nor of generations of Democratic rule in the City of Baltimore. Each of these things may have indirectly contributed to a set of circumstances in which anger erupted, or to a series of events from which bedlam became more likely to emerge. But there comes a point where personal responsibility matters more than historical context, and assessing violent crime lies beyond that point.

Rioting is not the inevitable consequence of sporadic police misconduct. Rioting is a decision: a series of individual choices to throw rocks, set fires, destroy businesses and steal things. Of course, these decisions did not take place in a vacuum, and were undoubtedly influenced by a sort of rebellious herd mentality. But from a moral standpoint, that doesn’t much matter. “My environment made me do it” is not a cogent excuse for arson. Beating up journalists cannot be explained away with poetic hand-waving about a history of racial tension and disenfranchisement.

Destroying other people’s things is not an unavoidable reaction to justifiable anger. It an unfair, and unnecessary, and disproportionate, and counterproductive, and altogether evil response to that anger, for which individual culprits can and should be held accountable.

If you are unwilling to condemn these actions, you are part of the problem.

If you cannot understand why the first reaction of most non-Baltimoreans, upon seeing this footage of hundreds of people sprinting into Mondawmin mall and running out with their arms full of merchandise, is not sympathy and solidarity with their cause, then your political allegiances have numbed your sense of right and wrong.

If you deflect blame from these perpetrators, it indicates that you are so wedded to your allegiance in a culture war that you’d rather abandon the most common sense principles of human morality than admit any wrongdoing on the part of “your” side.

If you are so blinded by confirmation bias that nothing about last Monday’s events was able to elicit from you a critical thought towards the individuals responsible, you need to problematize the maddening redundancy of your oppressed/oppressors dynamic.

If racial rivalry prevents you from applying a consistent code of conduct to the behavior of all people, it is you who is on the wrong side of history. For it is this mutual stubbornness in the face of mutual wrongdoing that has historically animated and perpetuated the most violent and intractable divisions between us.

Peace requires understanding, which requires communication. If the peace is to last, that communication has to be a two way street. Sometimes, that means listening to those you demand listen to you. In this case, it means at least considering that what prompted white outrage last Monday may not have been racism or ignorance alone. Even Ta Nahesi Coates, superstar of the far-left racial justice crusaders and culprit of some of the excusing, eventually saw fit to clarify: “I don’t want to come off as if I’m sympathizing or saying that it is necessarily okay, to inflict violence just out of anger, no matter how legitimate that anger is.” (He made these remarks here at Johns Hopkins University, where I’m studying. You should read the whole thing, because his comments were thoughtful and actually quite libertarian).

Violence is bad, across the board. Unless some thoroughly exculpatory evidence emerges, Freddie Gray’s murderers should be in jail. Anyone who stole, assaulted or set fires last week should be there with them.

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