Days after Freddie Gray died prematurely in police custody, the city of Baltimore exploded in violence. Gray’s family didn’t want violence. The community that exploded didn’t want violence. The owners and patrons of the local businesses that burned didn’t want violence. Only a small handful of aggressive young people participated in acts of vandalism, and their actions were facilitated by a lethargic mayoralty and an ill-prepared police force. It was more a perfect storm of incompetence that enabled criminal opportunists than an organic uprising targeting systematic oppression. That hasn’t stopped the vile members of the media’s familiar agitators from arguing, as they always do, that the tragic phenomenon the nation witnessed in Baltimore last night was a welcome display of resistance.
Of course, enter Vox.com:
— Vox (@voxdotcom) April 28, 2015
Vox’s Dara Lind noted that The Wire creator David Simon chided the rioters for abandoning the “real power” associated with the largely peaceful demonstrations against the Baltimore Police Department and engaging in violence. Quoting extensively from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, “one of America’s best living social critics,” she seemed to agree that sometimes “nonviolence is compliance.”
Though she did not quote this passage, it is the most instructive:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.
Couched in ersatz-intellectual terms is the justification for nearly all senseless gang-related street violence: Subjectively defined violations of an arcane code of respect. Gray’s death is a tragedy that demands an investigation and possible criminal prosecutions, if that is the determination made by investigators and a subsequently convened grand jury. Nothing justifies spasmodic episodes of self-destructive aggression, even if you perceive yourself to be regularly disrespected. To suggest otherwise is pitifully juvenile.
But Coates wasn’t the worst offender. In a discussion on CNN led by Don Lemon that took place late Monday night, former White House green jobs czar Van Jones played the role of conservative panel guest. Yes, really. Even Jones was clearly disturbed by the justification for violence he heard from HuffPost Live host and Morehouse College professor Marc Lamont Hill.
“There shouldn’t be calm tonight,” Hill said in response to the various calls for peace from figures infinitely more responsible than himself. “I think there can be resistance to oppression, and when resistance occurs, you can’t circumscribe resistance.”
He noted that there should be “ethics” associated with the ongoing civilizational collapse in Baltimore, but it would be wise for these panel guests to mind their own morality and grow more upset over “the destruction of property than the destruction of black bodies.”
“I’m not calling these people rioters, I’m calling these uprisings,” he added. “The city is not burning because of these protesters. The city is burning because the police killed Freddie Gray.”
This virtual incitement to violence clearly made Hill’s fellow broadcasters nervous. “Black lives matter, but, you know what? Black jobs matter, and black business matter, and black neighborhoods matter, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to give any kind of suggestion that the destruction of black communities is a positive or can be positive in this context,” Jones said.
Hill accepted the critique, but he noted that it was wise not to see the burning of trash in the streets, kids driving stolen cars into buildings, and business owners and families watching as their livelihoods burned to the ground in “too narrow” a framework. He further advised the violent to “be strategic in how we riot.”
anyone that encourages rioting should not be given air time. @cnn should remove marc lamont hill.
— Matthew Dowd (@matthewjdowd) April 28, 2015
These and other valueless, onanistic exercises in self-aggrandizing masquerading as social commentary are not only irresponsible but dangerous, particularly when the fires are still burning and lives are still at risk.
For Americans who are teaching their children that nothing ever justifies violence beyond defending themselves against an imminent threat to one’s own life, these commentators have made that job quite a bit harder. In their own way, they’ve sown the wind that will be reaped in the months and years to come when the overly impressionable take these justifications for property destruction to heart. But those are consequences that others will have to contend with. When the whirlwind comes, these commentators and their ilk will be sheltered in cable news studios. It will fall to the police to struggle against violent agitators in an effort to keep their communities safe and still come home to their families alive.
An earlier version of this post asserted that violence broke out “weeks” after Gray’s death in police custody. The riot exploded less than two weeks after Gray’s death.