In “Violence in Baltimore” Mr. Blow says you could argue that the rage was misdirected, and you would be right. But misdirected rage is not necessarily illegitimate rage. In “When Baltimore Burned” Mr. Kristof says the real crisis isn’t one night of young men in the street rioting, it’s our long-term denial of equal opportunity to people based on their skin color and ZIP code. Ms. Collins considers “When No News Is Good News” and says there’s more than one way to judge a judge. Here’s Mr. Blow:
This week, Baltimore was engulfed in violent revolt as citizens took to the street in the wake of the mysterious and disturbing death of Freddie Gray after he’d been taken into police custody.
Projectiles were thrown. Stores were looted and some set ablaze. Police officers were injured.
It was ugly.
And in that moment, America was again forced to turn its face toward its forsaken and ask tough questions and attempt to answer a few.
Even Hillary Clinton stepped into the fray Wednesday, saying:
“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America. There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”
This was an aggressive speech by Clinton and a major departure from her 2008 run, when, after an embarrassing loss to Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses, she went on the attack in New Hampshire, with ABC News reporting it this way:
“While the senator was vague, her campaign pointed out to ABC News examples of Obama’s liberal positions, including his 2004 statement to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes.”
On Tuesday, the day before his wife’s speech, Bill Clinton had weighed in. As the Guardian reported:
“Former U.S. president Bill Clinton has called for an end to mass incarceration, admitting that changes in penal policy that happened largely under his watch put ‘too many people in prison and for too long’ and ‘overshot the mark.’”
The Guardian goes on to explain:
“In 1994 Clinton championed a crime bill that laid down several of the foundations of the country’s current mass incarceration malaise. Vowing to be ‘tough on crime’ — a quality that had previously been more closely associated with the Republicans and which Clinton adopted under his ‘triangulation’ ploy — he created incentives to individual states to build more prisons, to put more people behind bars and to keep them there for longer. His also presided over the introduction of a federal three-strikes law that brought in long sentences for habitual offenders.”
Hillary Clinton’s speech on Wednesday was indeed a remarkable and audacious one for the candidate, and went far further than many of her Republican rivals would dare to go (although there is growing bipartisan consensus around prison reform), but the unacknowledged and unexplained shift in the middle of a heated moment could quite reasonably raise doubts of sincerity or commitment to execution.
The black community in America has been betrayed by Democrats and Republicans alike — it has been betrayed by America itself. Therefore, it can be hard to accept at face value any promises made or policies articulated. History demonstrates that too many forked tongues have delivered too many betrayed covenants.
As James Baldwin put it in his essay “Journey to Atlanta”:
“Of all Americans, Negroes distrust politicians most, or more accurately, they have been best trained to expect nothing from them; more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives.”
“It is true that the promises excite them, but this is not because they are taken as proof of good intentions. They are the proof of something more concrete than intentions: that the Negro situation is not static, that changes have occurred, and are occurring and will occur — this, in spite of the daily, dead-end monotony. It is this daily, dead-end monotony, though, as well as the wise desire not to be betrayed by too much hoping, which causes them to look on politicians with such an extraordinarily disenchanted eye.”
It is this disenchantment, as well as the steady beat of black bodies falling, the constant murmur of black pain and the incessant sting of black subjugation that contributed to the conflagration of rage this week in Baltimore.
You could easily argue that that rage was misdirected, that most of the harm done was to the social fabric and the civil and economic interests in the very neighborhoods that most lack them. You would be right.
But misdirected rage is not necessarily illegitimate rage.
Some might even contextualize the idea of misdirection.
The activist Deray McKesson argued this week about the violence that erupted in Baltimore: “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.”
Indeed, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates argued quite convincingly in November that violent revolt has often been the catalyst for change in this country and that nonviolence, at least in part, draws its power from the untenable alternative of violence.
None of this promotes violence as a tactic, but rather is a fuller understanding of the contradictions of America’s current, incessant appeals for peace.
We can’t roundly condemn violent revolt now while ignoring the violent revolts that have littered this country’s history.
We can’t rush to label violent protesters as “thugs” while reserving judgment about the violence of police killings until a full investigation has been completed and all the facts are in.
We can’t condemn explosions of frustration born of generations of marginalization and oppression while paying only passing glances to similar explosions of frustration over the inanity of a sports team’s victory or loss or a gathering for a pumpkin festival.
Nonviolence, as a strategy, hinges on faith: It is a faith in ultimate moral rectitude and the perfectibility of systems of power.
But that faith can be hard to find in communities that see systems of power in which they feel they have no stake and an absence of moral courage on the part of the powerful to expand the franchise.
It has been my experience that people who feel no investment in systems of power — no belief that they have access to that power and that that power will treat them fairly — are the ones most likely to attack those systems with whatever power they think they have.
The time that any population will silently endure suffering is term-limited and the end of that term is unpredictable, often set by a moment of trauma that pushes a simmering discontent over into civil disobedience.
And, in those moments, America feigns shock and disbelief. Where did this anger come from? How can we quickly restore calm? How do we instantly start to heal?
That is because America likes to hide its sins. That is because it wants its disaffected, dispossessed and disenfranchised to use the door under the steps. That is because America sees its underclass as some sort of infinity sponge: capable of quietly absorbing disadvantage, neglect and oppression forever for the greater good of superficial calm and illusory order. And expected to do so.
No one of good conscience and sound judgment desires violence or would ever advocate for it. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.”
But King is not the only person worthy of quoting here. There is also the quote often attributed to Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Next up we have Mr. Kristof:
Conservatives have sometimes been too quick to excuse police violence. And liberals have sometimes been too quick to excuse rioter violence.
It’s outrageous when officers use excessive force against young, unarmed African-American men, who are 21 times as likely to be shot dead by the police as young white men. It’s also outrageous when rioters loot shops or attack officers.
So bravo to Toya Graham, the Baltimore mom captured on video grabbing her teenage son from the streets and frog-marching him home. The boy wilted: It must be humiliating to be a “badass” rioter one moment and then to be savagely scolded in front of your peers and sent to your room.
“That’s my only son, and at the end of the day I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray,” Graham later told CBS News. It was of course Gray’s death, after an injury at the hands of the police, that set off the rioting.
On social media, there were plenty of people making excuses for rioters — a common refrain was “nothing else works to get attention.” But to their great credit, African-American leaders provided firm moral guidance and emphasized that street violence was unconscionable.
President Obama set just the right tone.
“When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing,” Obama said. “When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson. And they’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities.”
Yet as Obama, Anthony and other leaders also noted, there are crucial underlying inequities that demand attention. The rioting distracts from those inequities, which are the far larger burden on America’s cities.
That also represents a failure on our part in the American news media. We focus television cameras on the drama of a burning CVS store but ignore the systemic catastrophe of broken schools, joblessness, fatherless kids, heroin, oppressive policing — and, maybe the worst kind of poverty of all, hopelessness.
The injustices suffered by Freddie Gray began early. As a little boy hesuffered lead poisoning (as do 535,000 American children ages 1 to 5), which has been linked to lifelong mental impairments and higher crime rates.
In Gray’s neighborhood, one-third of adults lack a high school degree. A majority of those aged 16 to 64 are unemployed.
And Baltimore’s African-American residents have often encountered not only crime and insecurity but also law enforcement that is unjust and racist. Michael A. Fletcher, an African-American reporter who lived for many years in the city, wrote in The Washington Post that when his wife’s car was stolen, a Baltimore policeman bluntly explained the department’s strategy for recovering vehicles: “If we see a group of young black guys in a car, we pull them over.”
Likewise, the Baltimore jail was notorious for corruption and gang rule. A federal investigation found that one gang leader in the jail fathered five children by four female guards.
Wretched conditions are found to some degree in parts of many cities, and Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta, told me that when we tolerate them, we tolerate a combustible mix.
“It’s not just about the police use of force,” she said. “It’s about a system that is not addressing young people’s needs. They’re frankly lashing out, and the police force issue is just a catalyst for their expression of frustration at being left out.”
Whites sometimes comment snidely on a “culture of grievance” among blacks. Really? When tycoons like Stephen Schwarzman squawked that the elimination of tax loopholes was like Hitler’s invasion of Poland, now that’s a culture of grievance.
If wealthy white parents found their children damaged by lead poisoning, consigned to dismal schools, denied any opportunity to get ahead, more likely to end up in prison than college, harassed and occasionally killed by the police — why, then we’d hear roars of grievance. And they’d be right to roar: Parents of any color should protest, peacefully but loudly, about such injustices.
We’ve had months of police incidents touching on a delicate subtext of race, but it’s not clear that we’re learning lessons. Once again, I suggest that it’s time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to step back and explore racial inequity in America.
The real crisis isn’t one night of young men in the street rioting. It’s something perhaps even more inexcusable — our own complacency at the systematic long-term denial of equal opportunity to people based on their skin color and ZIP code.
And now here’s Ms. Collins:
There are times, in our national political conversation, when the good news is so pathetically puny that it actually makes you feel worse.
Like speculation that if things go really well this spring in Washington, Congress may be able to keep the Highway Trust Fund from going bankrupt. Or that New York’s State Legislature might be able to pass some reforms, were it not distracted by a potential indictment of the Senate’s majority leader.
It gives you the same sensation you might feel if your house was flattened by a tornado and the insurance company called to assure you that they’re replacing the porch light.
This brings us to Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling on judicial elections.
I know “judicial elections” is possibly not the topic you were hoping for. However, this is truly exciting news:
The nation’s top court has decided that it’s O.K. for the State of Florida to prohibit judicial candidates from calling up people who are likely to have business before their court and asking for contributions.
The majority opinion stressed that Florida still allows judges up for re-election to create campaign committees to do their fund-raising. Also to write thank-you letters to donors. Chief Justice John Roberts added that it was fine for judicial candidates to “give speeches and put up billboards. They can contact potential supporters in person, on the phone, or online. They can promote their campaigns, on radio, television or other media.” Don’t want the world to think we’re getting carried away.
The reform community was thrilled. This is how low our expectations for clean elections have dropped, people.
“Great news,” said the nonpartisan advocacy group Justice at Stake.
“A momentous victory for public faith in the integrity of our judicial system,” said an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center.
We are talking here about a 5-to-4 decision. Four of the nine justices felt this was going too far. Antonin Scalia — what would we do without Justice Scalia? — found the whole idea of restricting judges’ ability to hit up trial lawyers for money a “wildly disproportionate restriction” upon judicial candidates’ right of free speech.
“Look, any time we can get a campaign finance victory from this Supreme Court majority, the response should be: hallelujah,” said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21. Wertheimer has been fighting to get big money out of political campaigns since the beginning of time. And what have you and I done? Zip. So he and his fellow reformers deserve a happy day and the last word. After we sigh a deep sigh.
Chief Justice Roberts provided the swing vote on the decision, an irony not lost on pretty much anybody. It’s been Roberts who’s led the court in castrating limits on the role of big money in other elections. The difference in this case, he explained, is that “judges are not politicians.” While Roberts thinks his own profession needs to appear impartial and above the fray, he appears to feel that there’s no need whatsoever for the public to believe that candidates for, say, president of the United States, aren’t being swayed by rich donors.
The case was brought by Lanell Williams-Yulee, a plaintiff who you’ve got to feel at least a little bit sorry for. She ran for a seat on the county court in Tampa and sent out a general appeal for donations, promising to “bring fresh ideas and positive solutions to the Judicial bench.” It produced no contributions whatsoever. The incumbent walloped her in a primary. And then, to add insult to injury, the Florida Bar charged Williams-Yulee with violating its rule on personal solicitation of donations, recommended a reprimand and ordered her to pay $1,860 in court costs.
Williams-Yulee argued that her First Amendment rights were being violated. In the real world, the level of public interest in judicial elections is generally so minimal that she’d probably have needed George Clooney, a rock band and several really adorable kittens to attract any voter attention.
There are ways to make the selection of judges better. You could provide public financing, like several states did with a matching fund system that the court ruled unconstitutional in 2011. Or give the whole job of filling the bench to a nonpartisan committee of experts, a process known as “merit selection.” Who could be against merit selection? A whole bunch of places, actually.
“In recent years I have been distressed to see persistent efforts in some states to politicize the bench and the role of our judges,” said former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor last year. O’Connor has made merit selection her grand crusade since she retired in 2006. On the one hand, that’s a great cause. On the other, her departure triggered the current Roberts era, which then turned our presidential elections into one long dating game between candidates and corporate oligarchs.
But at least it’s constitutional to draw a line for judges at the thank-you letter stage. Whoopee.