As has been noted by Martin Luther King, riots are the voice of the unheard. That is not something to be celebrated but mourned. Desperation and fear are not sufficient conduits for social change in and of themselves. They indicate that something is wrong, something must be addressed. But they also indicate something is broken in our system such that it is no longer responsive to the needs of people.
So what is broken? Certainly law enforcement. That was the original violence that started this. 109 people have died from police encounters in the state of Maryland over the last four years. In comparison 52 people have died in such encounters with the UK police in the last 115 years. Baltimore has now paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police misconduct since 2011.
That indicates a form of violence that cannot be ignored. One that affects US and Baltimore law enforcement in particular. I appreciate the fact that Hillary Clinton’s first public policy speech was on this topic as she addressed everything from body cameras to ending mass incarceration. For a presidential candidate, the scope of the proposals were sweeping, the problems to be addressed more so.
There is also a larger question of violence as it relates to the economic condition of the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore. In some neighborhoods over a third of the lots are vacant, abandoned homes and businesses. The unemployment rate is three to five times the rate than in other areas of the city. The racial and economic segregation of the city is complete even as it mirrors other cities across the US.
The mayor of Baltimore noted that something of the dream of the city has been lost. I suspect that dream involves beautification, a downtown with interesting places for the middle and upper classes to enjoy including parks and recreation, restaurants, shopping areas and museums. I’ve read of the transformation that has taken place from Oklahoma City to Indianapolis. Those all improve the quality of life.
But only for some. Because I knew living in Indianapolis that if I drove a few miles east of beautiful downtown I would see abandoned houses and businesses. There where no parks or sidewalks. Instead we had the airport and oil refineries, not interesting river walks. For the person working several jobs, not knowing their hours, making $8 an hour, that dream, spoken of by the mayor is elusive at best.
To overcome that obstacle is doable as President Obama has said. If there is a political will to make it so. And that falls on the rest of us to, as he said, believe and act accordingly so that every child, every school, every neighborhood will be full of possibility, of betterment, of opportunity. And that we are responsible to not wait until there is a crises to act on that commitment.
That would be a faithful response. But It is very difficult to actually have people move on behalf of others. Especially when we are increasingly disconnected from one another. Especially if it requires a redistribution of wealth and resources that actually benefits all of us, not just some of us. One that invests in jobs, public spaces, schools as well as policies that encourage local development and control.
I had a chance to apply to work for ACORN in Saint Louis. They took me around north St.Louis and noted that the city had invested in new street lights that really lighted the streets. Only that these were for the largely white and southern part of the city. They were non existent for the northern part of the city. Street lights that work well matter. They affect crime, people’s sense of safety, the ability to go out at night.
This is just one example of how the distribution of resources works too many times. To change that dynamic requires a political movement. One that is already being built and led by people in these communities. Where they fight for themselves, seeking political power to achieve these aims. To the degree that others can join in and it becomes a national movement that cuts across boundaries and geography, all the better.
But it begins there. That is worth dreaming about. Hopelessness is easy to capture on camera. But hope coming through change, through the exercise of power is different. Robert Reich identifies this as the central question of our time. Hope and power. Talking about it, organizing for it, obtaining it, using it to build a shared world is the challenge we face.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma