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Disgraceful Rhetoric from Baltimore

Protesters in Baltimore

Photo by Dren Pozhegu | flickr creative commons

Police brutality and civil unrest rarely bring out the best in civic leaders and cops (or any of us). However Baltimore’s orgy of youth-blaming following riots sparked by the April 12 death of Freddy Gray, a 25-year-old African American, while in police custody marks the worst venality since Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker likened 1965 Watts rioters to “monkeys in a zoo.”

Watching Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts’ April 27 press conference is to understand why so many young African Americans (and those of other races) hate cops. Batts’s words dripped with anger and contempt toward “high school students” and “kids,” who he and other leaders blamed entirely for Baltimore’s outbreak of looting, rock-throwing, and burning.

Yet, of the nearly 500 arrests in riots and protests, “only a small minority. . . were juveniles,” the Baltimore Sun reported – fewer than one in 10 by available estimates. Reporters reciting Batts’ teen-bashing made the same mistake they did during Ferguson, Missouri’s, disturbances in November 2014, which MSNBC commentators Christopher Hayes, Trymaine Lee, and Craig Melvin wrongly blamed on “14- and 15-year-olds” who “poured out of housing projects” to create an “ugly situation” of “troublemaking.” Then, police records of more than 100 people arrested for arson, looting, and violence showed the youngest was 17 (none were 14 or 15) and the oldest was 66; very few were teenagers, and very few were from Ferguson.

But facts be damned. For officials and their press followers, scapegoating and lying about youth is perfectly acceptable; they face no penalty, no stigma, and rarely admit to corrections. Official and media rhetoric blaming youth for the destruction of Baltimore businesses reinforces America’s historical narrative that the young and poor deserve the militant reaction from law enforcement and violent correction.

Batts openly praised a mother who hit her kid and urged more parents to do the same, under the apparent subtext that that beating youths teaches respect and non-violence – a remedy Batts surely would not want applied to him or his grownup subordinates. Six of Batts’ officers are charged by Baltimore States Attorney Marilyn Mosby in the brutal murder of Gray during a notorious “rough ride” (subjecting a handcuffed, unrestrained suspect to injury in a recklessly driven van), a common police amusement Batts surely knew about along with the rest of the city.

Batts’ hostility toward youth is long-standing. He proposed a destructive youth curfew for Oakland (fortunately defeated by the city council) and backed one of the nation’s harshest curfews on youths in Baltimore, instigated after city leaders blamed teenagers for the city’s high rate of violence and homicide (to which Baltimore figures show they contribute very little). Many African American leaders such as Harvard’s Charles Ogletree cheered, forgetting their own outrage over the 2009 arrest, essentially for BOWB (Being Outdoors While Black), of Harvard’s distinguished Henry Louis Gates. Do they think police treatment of curfewed inner-city youth is any kinder?

Batts and other finger-pointing, self-congratulating officials, academics, clergy, and press commentators are not the solution; they are the problem. In a city and media world with ethical leadership, anti-youth rhetoric would be seen as no more acceptable than racism, sexism, and ethnic bigotry, and successful efforts to reduce widespread unemployment, destitution, and school deficiencies, not beating kids, would merit the accolades.

Eventually, press coverage (perhaps in response to witnesses and arrest statistics disconfirming official statements) broadened to include youth activists’ views and legitimate grievances, and more balanced coverage of those who engaged in destructive looting, burning, and violent retaliation toward evident police violence.  “Young people, our time is now,” declared prosecutor Marilyn Mosby. We will see.

Keywords: Mike Males, national, police practices, poverty, youth

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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