Two strong black women — one famous, the other not — expressed what I felt as an African American about what happened in Baltimore yesterday. Yes, the entire nation reacted with collective sadness and revulsion at the scenes of looting and destruction. Yes, the sentiments expressed by those women are universal. But what they said and did had a particular resonance for me.
The tweet from NPR host and special correspondent Michele Norris at 5:23 p.m. on Monday was short and perfect.
My heart was breaking, too, as I watched on television young black people hurl rocks and what looked like bricks and hunks of concrete at police while helping to anchor MSNBC’s “The Cycle.” My heart broke completely as buildings were looted and burned and as cops and others were hurt. I sat in disbelief as I watched on CNN people bolt from a minivan and run to the entrance of a mall with black garbage bags in their hands. That was one of many scenes we all watched throughout the night. My heart broke because this is not how problems are solved. This is not what Freddie Gray’s family wanted on the day of his funeral.
The anger in Baltimore is palpable and understandable. Gray’s death was a spark that ignited kindling that had piled up for years. The Baltimore Sun reported last year that since 2011, the city has paid more than $5 million to settle misconduct lawsuits against Baltimore police. As veteran Baltimore reporter Jayne Miller said last week on “Morning Joe,” zero-tolerance policing led to 100,000 arrests each year between 2004 and 2006 in a city of 620,000. Most damning of all was what Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said led to Gray being arrested. “A lieutenant begins pursuing Mr. Gray after making eye contact with two individuals,” Rodriguez said, “one of which is Mr. Gray.” The leap from “making eye contact” to a spine nearly severed at the neck to death a week later was the last straw.
The peaceful protests that ensued were right and just. They were holding police and the elected officials who oversee them accountable and putting pressure on the cops to finish their investigation into what happened to Gray. The city and the nation were focused on what happened to Gray and so many others before him. But what happened Monday engulfed me with a wearying sense of deja vu.
Just when folks were starting to listen, just when folks were starting to understand, just when folks were on the cusp of moving the conversation from police brutality to the living conditions of the people who have suffered in Baltimore’s pockets of poverty, attention gets diverted to the senseless idiots using justifiable anger as a cover to commit unjustifiable acts. As an African American, I have to tell you, this is what really broke my heart and made me angry. Once again, black people were destroying their own neighborhoods, robbing their communities of future investment and degrading the moral authority of the entire cause for equal (and economic) justice in a manner that will guarantee their further marginalization.
But then came the cathartic moment from the Mother in Yellow who took to the street to dispense some old-school discipline on her son. By now you have seen the video of her repeatedly hitting him upside the head for participating in the riots. As he walked away, she followed him and demanded he “Get over here!” in an expletive-laden tirade that had me cheering. I wasn’t applauding the beat-down as much as I was heartened by the care, concern and responsibility it projected. Even Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said, “I wish I had more parents that took charge of their kids out there tonight.”
It is tough to watch another person being beaten. And I’m not a proponent of what some might view as child abuse. But when the person being beaten is harming his community and his future and the person doing the beating is his angry mother, she gets no argument from me — because she was right. If it’s a choice between her son rioting or her disciplining him so that he doesn’t, I’ll take the latter. It’s better for him. It’s better for Baltimore. It’s better for all of us. Sadly, what she did, as heroic as it was, won’t be enough to put the focus back where it belongs.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj