WASHINGTON – In Baltimore, on April 19 Freddie Gray, a 25 year old African American, died of a spinal injury that occurred while he was in police custody. We do not know all the facts. But what we know invites the worst possible speculations.
Killed by the police
It is not clear what Gray did that justified his arrest. Still, whatever the charges against him, it looks that he was severely beaten by the Baltimore police. In fact, he died because of the severity of the beating.
This is positively awful. This is the United States of America, a country of laws and due process. A country founded on the proposition that the government’s main purpose is to secure and protect individual rights. And yes, people under arrest have the right to be treated properly by the police.
Killing Blacks OK?
The notion that a young African American can be arrested and killed while in police custody, and that this criminal tragedy may be explained away as “an unfortunate accident” makes the whole country look like we are still in Alabama circa 1950. In the bad old days, a policeman killing a Black person, intentionally or unintentionally, would not be in any serious trouble.
The broader picture
That said, if we look at the context in which the killing and its aftermath took place, the picture gets a lot darker. What happened in Baltimore in the aftermath of Gray’s killing shows a racially divided American society.
It also shows how within this divided society we have a large underclass of disaffected young African Americans who (in this case, as in many other cases) have used the legitimate protests as an opportunity to loot, steal and destroy almost everything in sight.
So, here is the thing. There are some plain racists within the ranks of at least some police forces. For them using excessive force and brutality is perfectly OK when it comes to young African Americans. This pattern of gratuitous police violence justifies strong anti-police feelings among a majority of American Blacks.
To all of this we have to add the toxic mix of extreme poverty, broken families and crime that plagues so many urban Black communities. A lot of crime invites more police interventions. And repeated police interventions may result in tragedies like Gray’s killing.
Easy to ignore the larger problem
As President Obama said, it is easy to ignore this social tragedy of young African Americans trapped in perpetual poverty, until something like the Baltimore riots happens. But then, after making some noises about the need to “do something”, when quiet returns we simply go back ignoring the root causes of crime and gang violence.
Sure enough, we can and should deal with the bad policing issues. It must be possible to identify, weed out and prosecute bad cops. But, as the President said, this is just the beginning.
The urban underclass
The broader issue is that in America we have a large urban underclass living in poverty and ignorance. For many of its members crime seems to be the only possible career.
Given this horrible mix, when something really outrageous happens, like the Gray killing in Baltimore, all restraint disappears. When criminal gangs take over, it takes minutes to transform a peaceful protest into mayhem, with stealing, looting and arson.
Again, this is a lot more than a law and order issue, with the police called upon to do the dirty work of arresting gang members.
We have a big problem
Given all this, it is clear that we have a big problem. A really big problem that goes way beyond a few bad cops who engage in criminal behavior. If we are serious about getting to the bottom of this, we have to educate millions of disaffected young people. We have to show them that there are credible and viable alternatives to crime and violence.
And yes, we also have to prosecute racist, violent cops who somehow believe that beating a Black prisoner to death is OK.
As I said, this is a really big problem.