Opinion: Demonizing Baltimore rioters/protesters completely misses the point

Suspect Dies BaltimoreIt has become a familiar scene: burning buildings and stores being looted by incensed Americans. Some of these individuals are unable to express their anger in any other way, and others are crass opportunists promoting violence and theft at a sensitive time in our nation’s history.

If we choose to fetishize or demonize these violent aftershocks, however, we are choosing to ignore the phenomena that manifested them in the first place. Rather than sympathize with the concerns of the protestors, we are content to think of ourselves as “us” and the individuals that suffer police brutality and systemic oppression daily as “them.”

In Baltimore, Americans tuned in for the dramatic burnings and crime sprees, but few media outlets contextualized these tragic events as the product of a series of bungles within the Baltimore law enforcement community and city government.

The violent events that transpired in Baltimore recently were partially connected to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a resident in a poor West Baltimore neighborhood.

On April 12, Gray appeared to recognize three police officers that rode the neighborhood on bikes, and according to officers, immediately started fleeing on foot.

The events after Gray’s flight are still unclear. However, during the next 45 minutes, Gray suffered an ultimately fatal spine injury while he was under arrest, The Baltimore Sun reported.

Police found Gray with a switchblade, which they argued contributed to establishing probable cause for Gray’s arrest.

If all police had to go on was Gray’s flight, the switchblade and the knowledge that the neighborhood was in an area known for drug trafficking, though, the officers are standing on very shaky ground to justify Gray’s arrest.

Compounding the anger of the community members is the knowledge that no members of law enforcement have been charged with misconduct related to Freddie Gray’s tragic death.

Perhaps there was evidence that law enforcement did nothing wrong in this instance, but the refusal of the government to charge the officers involved with wrongdoing sends a poisonous message: police exist above the law, and above even the fact-finding process.

Members of the public should be allowed to hear the officers’ testimony and review the situation to alleviate the ever-growing fears of the community that when it comes to the justice system, the deck will always be stacked against them.

Adding further to community perceptions of law enforcement’s cluelessness, Baltimore police union president Gene Ryan last week referred to those protesting Freddie Gray’s death as a “lynch mob” because of their demands that the officers face immediate imprisonment.

While imprisoning officers without trial would obviously violate their rights under the Fifth Amendment, Ryan’s comments were unconscionable. Using a racially loaded term like “lynch mob” in a racially charged situation undoubtedly added to the hurt and anger of those mourning Gray’s death Ultimately, it is our job to maintain a balanced perception of violent events like those in Baltimore. Americans cannot let violence obscure the validity of the cause.

Riots have accompanied major sporting events like the 2014 World Series and the 2015 NCAA football championship and scandals like the events surrounding Joe Paterno in 2011.

In the recent incidents surrounding the deaths of young men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, though, protesters have been acting against something far more sinister and far less isolated: the perception that the institution that is bound to “protect and serve” is protecting and serving only a select class of people at the expense of the impoverished, the black and brown and the uneducated.

It would be easy to demonize the violence in Baltimore and move on, rubbing salt in an ever-worsening wound. Instead, why not inspire hope by listening and fighting for change? Our system is only truly broken when we give up on making it work for everyone.

-Henry Ashton ’15, Senior Politics/Opinions Editor

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