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The Violence in Baltimore Didn't Start with the Riots

Mark Makela/Getty Images News

"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." – Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Monday night I watched videos of 25-year-old Freddie Gray being dragged limply into a police van in Baltimore. It was the first time I’d seen the images, even though Gray was arrested more than two weeks ago and cell phone recordings of his arrest, during which he cries out and his legs appear immobilized as police hoist him roughly from the ground, have been available for days. I thus embodied the argument that it takes violent reaction to draw the attention of the American public to certain kinds of initial, violent action: Why was I only now bearing down on the details of this story? Because buildings were burning on my television and I was forced to consider the reason. I went to sleep chilled—scared and sickened by the images of Gray’s evident pain and incapacitation—the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the last piece I read before bed, running through my head.

I woke on Tuesday morning to news coverage that hinged on an assertion that was wrong yet ubiquitous: that the violence in Baltimore began on Monday afternoon.

“The violence broke out in Baltimore on Monday after the funeral of Freddie Gray,” went one local Fox version. “National guard troops are deployed in front of Baltimore City Hall … after violence erupted in the city Monday afternoon,” began ABC’s report. “The violence that shook the city broke out in the late afternoon in the Mondawmin neighborhood of northwest Baltimore,” wrote Sheryl Gay Stolberg in her thorough and thoughtful accounting of Monday’s events in The New York Times.

It should be simple: Violence broke out and erupted not when students threw stones at police, but when Freddie Gray suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody, and, eventually, died.

But somehow the original act in this story—the killing of a man—has been detached from what happened in its aftermath, even at the same time that the two events are inextricably linked. In The International Business Times’s account: “The violence broke out just a few blocks from the funeral of the 25-year-old Freddie Gray. … Trouble then spread through parts of the city. … [H]undreds of police moved into glass-strewn streets where the worst of the violence had taken place and used pepper spray on rioters who had sacked convenience stores.” In this formulation, the “worst of the violence” was apparently the sacking of convenience stores and the resulting glass-strewn streets, not the use of pepper spray or the death of a young man.  

It is certainly true that one iteration of violent behavior—the escalation of protests against the police into rock-throwing, looting, and burning of cars and buildings—did begin in Baltimore on Monday. But it’s important to consider how and where we mark the commencement of violence, to note the moment at which aggression and harm become discernible, the point at which the stories we tell about physical ferocity start. The riots, as everyone recognizes, were a response to violence that had already been enacted, and yet that initial barbarity is never acknowledged as the opening act in the drama of urban violence. When this causality is erased, the more comprehensible motives, and with them, the humanity, of protestors are erased with it.

An argument that riots become the starting point because they’re made literally visible thanks to television no longer holds. There is, after all, the video of Gray—far harder and more visceral to watch than any of the footage of men jumping on police windshields from Monday night. Earlier this month, we watched a police officer shoot an unarmed South Carolina man, running slowly, in the back; and before that there was the video of Eric Garner telling the men who had him in an unforgiving chokehold that he could not breathe.

The fact that those indisputable acts of brutality do not seem to mean the same thing as the violent responses to them suggests that there is something else at work. As Coates wrote last night, citing the important reporting of The Baltimore Sun, acts of violence against alleged suspects have been rampant in the Baltimore police department: “There was no appeal for calm when Jerriel Lyles was assaulted. (‘The blow was so heavy. My eyes swelled up. Blood was dripping down my nose and out my eye.’) … There was no plea for peace on behalf of Starr Brown. (‘They slammed me down on my face,’ Brown added, her voice cracking. ‘The skin was gone on my face.’)”

These things happened, were reported and made public, yet Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake blamed the conflagration in her city on “thugs who only want to incite violence,” by whom she meant protesters and not the officers who likely killed Freddie Gray. Too many people, she said, “have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who, in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.”

“Senselessness,” in Rawlings-Blake's formulation, is reflexively connected to looting and burning—as if that looting and burning had no antecedent—but not to the death of a man that no one has explained and that thus, quite seriously, makes no sense. Violent response to that death may be many things—tragic, necessary, regressive, wrong, damaging to already damaged communities—but it is not anywhere near as senseless as the notion that a 25-year-old man who had, as far as we know, committed no crime, is dead from a severed spine. That is senseless. People being furious about it to the point of bursting makes quite a lot of sense.

Here is the crux of these inconsistencies: The way that even the best (and certainly the worst) of us are trained to see, understand, and then tell the story of violence in America tends to work in one direction. We instinctively mark violence’s start at the moment that less powerful people encroach on more powerful people. When property is destroyed by those who do not own property; when cars are burned by protesters on foot; when rocks are thrown by kids at men armed with guns and shields: That is the moment at which we see the kick-off of battle, the opening shots in a war.

When it comes to the state and its citizens, we are slowly getting better at recognizing incidents when physical harm is carried out by more powerful entities against less powerful entities, getting better at condemning them as reprehensible and occasionally criminal. But we still have trouble registering them as the kind of violence that might provoke violence in return. We can’t conceive of these acts as the cause of a conflict in the way that we understand looting of a CVS to be the cause of cops using pepper spray on looters. To be clear: I do not support violent protest. But I also believe that one of the reasons that people claim not to understand violent protest is that it is too often and too easily treated as sui generis, as the propulsive first move, when in fact it is emphatically not the thing that started it, but rather a (destructive, sad) means of reacting to harm that has already been done by others whose actions are regularly shielded from view, even in the retrospective telling of the story, because they are the system and they have the power. 

This is key to how and why police brutality has remained invisible for so long: Police, after all, are not only allowed but charged with using weapons and acting forcefully, and in many instances we are grateful for that. But their very power makes their abuses of it less evident. The aggressions couldn’t have been kicked off by the police, because police are there to stem the aggressions of others. It’s an irrational cycle of inequity and injustice that results, somehow, in an agreement that the moment that kids begin to throw rocks—surely among the most entrenched visions of a desperate, futile response to power abuse available to our collective imagination—is the moment at which the violence “begins.”