As most people know, the city of Baltimore, Maryland recently erupted into protests and riots. The purpose of the present sample essay is to discuss these riots in Baltimore, including the original incident that sparked the situation and the potential aftermath over the coming times.
The Baltimore riots
- The essay will begin with a description of the arrest of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died after coming into the custody of the police.
- Then, the essay will proceed to discuss the protests themselves, including the legal sentencing that catalyzed the protests.
- After this, the essay will consider high-profile comments that have been made about the situation in Baltimore by President Obama and former Secretary Clinton.
- Finally, the essay will reflect on the potential implications of the current situation for the near and longer-term future of the nation as a whole.
Arrest and Death of Freddie Gray
Freddie Gray was a 25-year-old Black man who was pursued by police and taken into custody after he seemed to apparently flee unprovoked from the police after encountering them on the street. This happened on the 12th of April. The police eventually arrested him on the charge of possessing an illegal switchblade. This move itself has become controversial over the past several days, due to the fact that Gray actually possessed not a switchblade but rather a spring-assisted knife that was actually legal within the state of Maryland. As the chief prosecutor in Baltimore has made clear:
“Baltimore police officers had no reason to arrest Gray in the first place” (Jacobs, paragraph 1).
This has become an important point since the arrest directly led to Gray’s death—with the implication that if the illegitimate arrest had not been made in the first place, then Gray would still be alive today.
In any event, Gray “suffered a severe spine injury” sometime between being arrested by the police and being loaded into the police van in order to be transported to the relevant criminal justice facility; and as a result, he “died one week after his arrest” (McLaughlin, Almasy, and Yan, paragraph 3).
On the basis of the evidence available thus far, what actually happened in that van is somewhat unclear. Some eyewitnesses have reported that the police were being rough with Gray prior to loading him into their van. Some media reports have suggested that the police purposely did not buckle the handcuffed Gray into the van in an adequate way, with the result that he sustained injuries while the van was in motion.
On the other hand, a second prisoner who was also loaded into the same van seems to have suggested that Gray gave the impression of attempting to hurt himself, intentionally banging his body against the walls of the van (see McLaughlin et al.). Whatever happened, though, the result was that Gray suffered a severe injury to the spinal cord in his neck, with the result that he was thrown into a coma and then died a week after his arrest.
The six officers responsible for the arrest of Gray have been formally charged with crimes. As Chappell has reported:
“The death of Freddie Gray was a homicide, and six Baltimore police officers now face criminal charges that include second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. The city’s recently elected state’s attorney, Mosby detailed a range of charges against the officers, with offenses ranging from one count of second-degree murder and four counts of involuntary manslaughter to assault and misconduct in office” (paragraphs 1 and 3).
It is the driver of the van who has been charged with second-degree murder—more specifically, “depraved-heart” murder, which can be understood as conceptually related to criminal negligence. The charges are thus quite serious, and the prosecution has moved relatively fast in bringing them against the officers in question.
The eruption of riots in Baltimore
Since the death of Gray, the Baltimore streetscape has been characterized by protests and riots. Some of these have veered into the violent, whereas others have remained relatively peaceful. As Stolberg has written: a gathering on the 2nd of May
“felt at times like a street carnival, with a dash of black power militancy. It came a day after six police officers were charged in the death of Mr. Gray, 25. The rally stood in stark contrast to the looting and arson that took place here Monday night, and the scattered violence after a similar demonstration on April 25” (paragraph 2).
The fact that the police officers have in fact been charged (Since aquitted) means that for at least the time being, a kind of justice has been done. The protests and riots can thus be expected to die down over the next couple weeks, until further developments occur in the case of the officers implicated in the death of Gray. If the officers were to exonerated, then further violent riots could surely be expected to erupt in the future.
Interestingly, Hyman has argued that the violence and racial tension that has characterized at least some of the protests and riots in Baltimore must be understood not as “hooliganism” but rather as a legitimate expression of political discontent. Hyman has suggested that the real target of the riots is not just police brutality but the entire “ghetto economy” with its cycle of poverty and despair; and he has also suggested that if Black people seem to be destroying their own neighborhoods, then this is for the simple reason that
“they did not experience those places as their own” (paragraph 2).
More generally, the riots are inspired by what is perceived to be a callous disregard for human life on the part of dominant institutions of society, it is psychologically plausible that the destruction of property is a way of making the point that the damage being caused by the riots is far less serious than the damage that triggered the riots in the first place.
In any event, one issue which still remains to be resolved with respect to the protests and riots in Baltimore pertains to curfew. Baltimore has been under a declared state of emergency throughout this situation, with protesters being legally required to leave the streets by 10 o’clock in the evening. This has triggered some conflicts between even peaceful protesters and the police force, with the latter using violent means to remove protesters who, as a result of the curfew, could technically be said to be breaking the law (see Stolberg).
As of the writing of the present essay, however, the curfew has been lifted, and the members of the National Guard who have been responsible for maintaining law and order in Baltimore are in the process of planning their exit. In short, things would seem to be returning to normal, at least for the time being.
Both President Obama and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton have made strong statements regarding the meaning and significance of the recent events in Baltimore for the nation as a whole. As Jackson has written,
“President Obama maintained his balanced approach to the Baltimore riots during a Wednesday radio interview—defending legitimate protest while condemning violence, drawing a line between good and bad policing,” and insisting on the importance of (in Obama’s own words) “mak[ing] sure that we don’t brush this aside after the crisis is past” (paragraph 2).
In short, Obama obviously does not sympathize with illegal rioting; but he does sympathize with the legitimate anger and peaceful protests of the people of Baltimore; and he sees the current situation as not a standalone problem that can be forgotten when over but rather as symptomatic of a much deeper and more serious crisis within contemporary American society itself that must be addressed in a meaningful way over the coming times.
Likewise, Clinton has also taken a stance that by and large legitimizes the anger and protests in Baltimore. Cassidy has reported that
“on Wednesday morning [the 27th of April], Hillary Clinton went to Columbia University and spoke at a policy forum named after David Dinkins, New York City’s first black Mayor. She went somewhat beyond the remarks that President Obama delivered at the White House on Tuesday, calling for an end to mass incarceration, especially of young black men, and for the mandatory use of body cameras by the police” (paragraph 1).
In other words, Clinton has taken this opportunity to begin elaborating her broader platform regarding the criminal justice system within America, as such. This includes concerns about police brutality, of course; but it also extends to the broader systematic factors that lead to the disproportional incarceration of Black males, the decimation of leadership within impoverished Black families and communities, and so on. Obama has also echoed these concerns regarding problems with criminal justice at the systematic level.
Reflection on the future of race
If both the popular consciousness and the high-profile comments that have been discussed above are any indication, then there is strong reason to believe that there is currently a rising tide within the nation with respect to antipathy against police brutality in particular and suspicion of the criminal justice system in general. Gray’s death while in police custody is not being understood as a standalone event. In Baltimore and other cities, black citizens have taken action against, or directly targeted police officers, sometimes killing them.
Rather, it is being seen as simply calling attention to a much more pervasive problem within American society. It is thus not enough for justice to be done in the case of Gray; it is also necessary to address the structural issues that have lead to so many cases like this one having occurred over the past several months, and will likely also result to many such cases happening in the future in the event that nothing is done about the problem at the systematic level.
The fact that both Obama and Clinton have spoken in favor of this systems level conceptualization of the case of Gray can be taken to mean that this is a platform that is becoming an important element of the politics of the Democratic Party more generally. It is interesting to observe that the Republicans have by and large been strangely silent regarding current events in Baltimore, either speaking in broad cliches or opting not to say much at all on the subject (see Cassidy).
In this context, two points can be made. The first is that it is possible that the issue of criminal justice may become an important one in the upcoming presidential election cycle. The second is that even the Republicans may eventually need to begin transforming their platform regarding criminal justice if they are to remain in step with the cultural zeitgeist of the times and refrain from alienating all but the smallest core of their electoral base.
In summary, this essay has consisted of a discussion of the recent riots in the city of Baltimore. The essay began with a description of the arrest and death of Gray, proceeding to discuss the riots themselves, turned to consider some high-profile remarks on the situation in Baltimore, and finally reflected on the implications of the situation for the future of the nation.
The main conclusion that has been reached here is that Gray’s death is widely being seen as not only deeply problematic in and of itself but also as a symptom of a broader malady plaguing the nation. Therefore, over coming times, one can expect to such much further critical discussion regarding the problems of the criminal justice system within America, either in connection with or independent from the specific case of Gray.
Cassidy, John. “Baltimore, Obama, and Clinton: An Agenda Emerges.” New Yorker. 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 3 May 2015. .
Chappell, Bill. “Charges against 6 Officers in Freddie Gray’s Death Range from Murder to Assault.” NPR. 1 May 2015. Web. 3 May 2015. .
Hyman, Louis. “Why the CVS Burned.” Slate. 1 May 2015. Web. 3 May 2015. .
Jackson, David. “Obama: We Can’t Brush Aside Baltimore Issues.” USA Today. 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 3 May 2015. harvey-baltimore-riots-police/26561481/>.
Jacobs, Peter. “Prosecutor: There Was No Reason to Arrest Freddie Gray in the First Place.” Business Insider. 1 May 2015. Web. 3 May 2015. .
McLaughlin, Eliott C., Steve Almasy, and Holly Yan. “Report: Freddie Gray Sustained Injury in Back of Police Van.” CNN. 1 May 2015. Web. 3 May 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/30/us/baltimore-freddie-gray-death-investigation/>.
Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “After Thousands Rally in Baltimore, Police Make Some Arrests as Curfew Takes Hold.” New York Times. 2 May. 2015. Web. 3 May 2015. .