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First Ferguson, Now Baltimore…Just The Beginning?

April 28, 2015
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Baltimore - Reminder of social movements past

Baltimore – Reminder of social movements past

On Baltimore

Once upon a time, about a half century ago, when I was boiling with anger about what my country was doing in a foreign land – the carpet bombing of Cambodia – and ready in moment of uncontrolled anger to blindly strike out “at the system” (I had my own plans at the time) two friends, both dead and gone – but still with me in spirit – brought me to my senses (to the degree that it was possible) and reminded me of the basics: all politics, in the end, is controlled rage. Never forgot that lesson, and as a result, scrapped my plans to set fire to the 18th green of a local country club by igniting a can of gasoline.

It was a personal turning point and I might add – something of an insight. Without the rage – rage against injustice, inequality, bigotry, militarism, frankly there is no movement. Social movements are born in rage. But without the control – which translates into a vision and a program – that rage goes nowhere – it is like a balloon, first blown up and then released in a room – it goes around with no particular direction until it runs out of air, goes poof and falls to the ground, its energy dissipated, wasted.

Some Facebook (and other) friends are appalled, others more understanding of the unrestrained violence – I suppose rioting is an accurate term for it – taking place in Baltimore which has not yet run its course. The collective anger that has been welling up there  and around the country, finally exploded to the surface. As most of you are well aware, it is the culmination of years, decades, centuries of injustice, repression, and frustration. Most of you, I realize, don’t have to be “lectured” about that. You know it. But when moments like this finally arrive – in Ferguson, in Baltimore and I would imagine that this is JUST THE BEGINNING – “it would be nice” “we would prefer it” if the social explosion were neat and peaceful. But then it isn’t, is it? Nowhere, not in Baltimore or Tunis or Baghdad, or hardly. And if one looks closely, even those social movements that some claim to be “peaceful” rarely are.

My own thinking is not so much to condemn or cheer on the social explosion taking place in Baltimore soon to spread – as it already has – nationwide…it is a fact, a complex process of frustration and revolt (with a touch perhaps of some other shady stuff which often accompanies key moments of “social unrest”), what is needed now is simply to recognize the depth of crisis and consider how to give it focus, broad-based focus that can effectively define the changes needed and…go for them. It is useful to add another dimension to what happened. Before the demonstration broke out into violence, it had marched through three miles of some of Baltimore’s most rundown, poor neighborhoods. At that point there was no violence, just a peaceful march. It was only when the marchers reached the more prosperous white parts of the city, that things got dicey. Specifically white spectators began shouting racist epithets at the demonstrators, throwing beer, etc. It was at that point that “order” broke down. The demonstrators were provoked.Why didn’t the media report this part of the events?

The issue for me is different from whether or not the violence in Baltimore is justified. My thinking revolves around  how to organize and focus that energy around a program – political and social demands that can be the vision for a movement for social change, a program around which the whole nation, can rally, organize, confront the powers that be – the increasingly corrupt, repressive system that has strayed a long distance from the principles on which was founded (but if one looks carefully at its history) but rarely implemented. Several of us have been suggesting that sooner or later, the national pot would boil over and it has. This is – as the overused expression puts it – not rocket science. The economic and social inequities – that face the whole country, but with a more biting viciousness, people of color among us – have been building for decades, both in Republican (more obvious) and Democratic administrations, in both domestic and foreign policy areas. The combined grievances are by now well-known, if not legendary. A country increasingly polarized along class and racial lines, the achievements of decades of social struggles neutered or destroyed by decades of Ann Rynd like political stupidity and viciousness. Abroad the nation’s military – spurred on and organized by the real killers – the political elite – engage in non-stop war against the Third World, it is not so much a war against terrorism as a war of terrorism, from drone strikes to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo…a foreign policy out of control with little end in sight. Domestically we have experienced decades of unbridled greed by the 1% (actually the .1% is probably more accurate), increased police violence nationwide, especially against people of color – Denver is a shining example by the way. This has been accompanied by slashing social programs, infrastructural collapse, the gentrification of cities whose political elites have been bought off by developers and all this just a kind of backdrop for “the big one” – the looming environmental crisis – climate change – that has the possibility, like the still lurking danger of nuclear war, to engulf us all. But then most of you know this.

The good people of Baltimore are about to be visited by the National Guard. History suggests (Kent State, Jackson State, Detroit and dozens of cities in the 1960s) a cruel and violent interlude. If you think trashing a police car or burning down a drug store are deplorable acts, watch what happens when the full repressive power of the state comes in with its tanks, military helicopters and foot soldiers armed to the teeth “to maintain order,” when the military of the country is unleashed, not in a foreign land, but against its own people.  Ferguson should have been a national wake up call. Now Baltimore.

Social movements that have been successful – and this country of ours has had its share – combine vision and program….and an oft missing ingredient – unrelenting, quiet hard work, otherwise known as organizing. The stuff that goes on for decades, not just in moments of crisis. In the end, and here we are – all we have is each other…and that is all we’ve ever had. We have to learn how to work together, to find the common thread, to find the vision, the program that can touch the heart and soul of our nation and beyond. My sense is that we – the nation – is or perhaps “can be” is more accurate – on the verge of a great social movement to cleanse the rotted soul of our country. You know all those hymns about the darkest moments bringing out not just the worst, but the best in all of us as well. Well those little ditties are true. As the clouds of anger continue to gather in the country, let us not blame one another for what might be some misdirected actions. Together we have to hammer out both a vision and a program. That is what moves people in a positive way, turns their energy from wanton destruction to …something more positive. It is a vision and program which give hope, that remind us that we can and will have something better.

The urgent task – show solidarity with the people of Baltimore. It is possible that a historic moment is at hand…for Baltimore, of course, but for the rest of us too. So..as my motto suggests – don’t kvetch, organize. Actually kvetching is ok too, just don’t let it end there. As for the powers that be, at moments like this their choices narrow. Will they listen to the voices of the people, to their grievances and make a serious effort to address these societal shortcomings? Or will they respond with silence and repression? Certainly over the past decade the state (ie – the federal, state and local governments) have been preparing for moments like this by passing a sweeping series of repressive laws, eroding political, voting rights, snooping on the public to the degree that there is no corner of privacy left, and arming the police nationwide for military assaults on the population. Will the country lurch forward in the direction of respect for the greater good, or sink more into realm of the police state that it is becoming. Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland are Round One, in what is more than likely to be a protracted, difficulty struggle, once again, for the country’s soul, for its essence.

And, as the old union song, really union hymn put it…which side are you on?

Concerning the underlying causes of the Baltimore riot, David Simon, former reporter and producer of the series “The Wire” – by my modest estimate, easily the best series ever to appear on television – all five years of it – wrote:

“The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war.”

“It happened in stages,…, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.”

Many people are oblivious to the insidious the drug war has had on poor – especially non-white – communities in the country.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Don McCoy permalink
    April 28, 2015 10:39 am

    At some point, yes, social circumstances will converge and we will experience a period of social transformation that would parallel the 1960s. I wonder if our grandchildren will be in that generation of fundamental change–sometime in the 2020s.

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