Saturday, May 02, 2015

Baltimore the Turning Point? It Is Possible

I was as surprised as anybody to hear that Baltimore has charged all six cops with crimes in the killing of innocent young Freddie Gray, after a fast investigation. These are serious charges, and it raises the interesting possibility that our neighbor city of Baltimore will be the place where the tide starts to turn.

These are not simple issues. We are born into the evolution of a society, a history, we live it and shape it as it flows along, and it lives and shapes us. White people can say, I never owned slaves, and black people living today have never experienced slavery, but we hold attitudes that were formed under slavery, on one side or the other, and many of those attitudes have mutated nearly imperceptibly over time. We are not born to a clean slate where we simply decide how to be, we learn what our people have learned, white and black. And the end of slavery was not the end of prejudice and injustice, it was just an evolutionary increment, like when dinosaurs grew feathers, millions of years before birds could fly.

America's racial problems are not going to go away tomorrow. There is still a lot -- a lot -- of anger directed toward black people for not succeeding in a world defined by European culture. It is sometimes shocking to hear the politicians and the Fox personalities talking about black people as if they simply suffer some kind of character weakness and that's why so many of them are poor, why the schools in their neighborhoods are so bad, why the jails are full of black people. There is no acknowledgement of the advantages that are handed to white folks -- I believe that these kinds of things in our own lives are often impossible to see, like a fish that is unaware of water. These white loudmouths think black people should just change, just go ahead and change, in ways that they would never in a million years be able to do if they found themselves trapped in a similar situation. Be like me, they say, but they are just like their daddies, and their granddaddies before them.

There are many narratives telling how we got to this point, but it doesn't matter, this is not the time to unravel the story, it is time to step carefully back from the brink. The police violence is too much. It is an embarrassment to a country that calls itself "free." We are a complex society that requires some imposed order, we have laws that don't enforce themselves, police are a necessary component of a civil society. But look, you might have missed this; more than a month ago, the Baltimore Sun reported:
As state lawmakers consider several bills related to the use of force by police, the American Civil Liberties Union reported Wednesday that 109 people died after encounters with police in Maryland between 2010 and 2014.

Nearly 70 percent of those who died during the encounters were black, and more than 40 percent of the people were unarmed, the ACLU of Maryland reported. The advocacy group found that blacks, who make up less than a third of the state population, were five times more likely to die from interactions with police than whites.
That's 109 people in our little state -- the number is obviously higher now -- do you know the names of any of them? Do you remember seeing any one of them mentioned in the newspaper? Did they come through your Twitter feed, your Facebook page? No, it just happens. Mothers lose their sons and they cry and that's all, that's the end of it. Pretty soon it happens to another mother on the block and she cries, and then another. A few, then a dozen, then dozens, then hundreds of crying mothers, their pain unknown outside their own neighborhoods.

We shrug off this police violence when we hear about it, thinking it must be "necessary" somehow, but now that people have cameras on their phones and we can see for ourselves what has happened, we know that is not the case. It doesn't appear to be anything more than a ruling class keeping the poor in their place. Maybe that is a universal human theme, maybe conquerors have tormented the vanquished since the dawn of time, I don't care, I believe in an America that is evolving beyond that, where people are free. This is an old argument, it goes back to the Founding Fathers, it came to a fracture during the Civil War, it is still the faultline that separates Red and Blue America. It's not exactly race, all the time, it's "us" and "them." In all cases it is a matter of "us" being big-hearted enough to acknowledge that "they" may be different from us, but they deserve our respect as human beings. Whoever "they" are.

One of the policemen was charged with "depraved heart murder." I had never heard of that before. It is a good term. A perfect term.

The evolution of America is lurching forward in increments. Right now we are a dumb-looking feathered dinosaur without even the sense to try flapping our wings. But when Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby stood at the podium reading off the narrative and listing the charges, it felt like perhaps our next fall could land a little lighter. It is possible that Baltimore will have a fair and thorough trial of these depraved-heart policemen. It is possible that someone will finally be found guilty, and that the citizens of Baltimore who have been victimized by them all these years will regain some ownership of their community.

The mayor of Baltimore has said, "I will continue to be relentless in changing the culture of the police department." It is possible that a profound change in American culture has started, and will radiate out from the city of Baltimore.

We grew up believing "the policeman is your friend." Americans respect the police, it's in our blood. And for that reason we give them a break. If somebody gets hurt in a tussle between a good guy and a bad guy, we give the good guy the benefit of the doubt. I'm okay with that, even knowing that there have always been bad cops and there always will be. But when having a busted taillight while black becomes a capital offense, or catching a cop's eye for a second too long, no, this isn't Marshall Dillon we're talking about here, this isn't even Clint Eastwood, this is just plain old cowardice.

Baltimore could possibly be the turning point.