Friday, May 1, 2015

Baltimore, Freddie Gray, and Marriage Equality

Image from http://getequal.org
As I write this, there are so many things of note happening in our country. Two of the things that are very much on my mind are the response to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and the hearings on same sex marriage happening at the Supreme Court.

These are preliminary thoughts, really, as I continue to process it all...

It has been fascinating, and at times disheartening, to see how the protests in Baltimore are being covered in the mainstream media. The focus seems to be on “riots” with looting by the few, rather than on the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. But though it would be easy to praise the “peaceful protesters” and condemn the “rioters”, I think it is appropriate to pause and take stock.

In a 1966 interview, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear?” Though King spoke these words almost a half century ago, we can ask the same question today. What are the riots in Baltimore saying? What is America not hearing?

One thing I think the riots are saying is that we should be outraged by police brutality against unarmed persons, disproportionately against unarmed African Americans. I do think people are starting to hear that clear message, and to feel the outrage. However, I worry – based on mainstream media coverage and, to some extent, what I see on social media – that many white Americans are more outraged by riots than by police brutality against unarmed black persons.

This is all in a fascinating juxtaposition with the current Supreme Court case about same sex marriage. There is still plenty of opposition to same sex marriage and to LGTBQ rights, but I don’t see the same sensationalistic coverage. I don’t see – on mainstream media or on social media – the same level of fear and condemnation around this issue, which has come so very far in such a short time. Sure, there are a few people acting like civilization will fall if same sex marriage becomes the law of the land, but the polls show that most Americans are ready for it. Of course, the current face of the LGBTQ movement is very tied in with the “politics of respectability”. Marriage itself is an amazingly mainstream and respectable institution, after all.

It might be tempting to think that “the politics of respectability” is the way to move a cause forward. But though I personally, like King, advocate peaceful protests and not rioting, I cannot fail to notice that riots do speak, and they speak loudly. I saw a graphic on social media that said “Remember: the first Gay Pride was a riot”, referring to the Stonewall riots of June 1969. There is a lesson here, I believe.

The Stonewall riots happened in New York City in response to the LGBTQ community (particularly gay men in this case) being targeted, harassed, and treated violently by police. These were the days when the LGBTQ community could barely dream of same sex marriage becoming legal; this was back when the battle was more basic. The battle was for the right not to be roughed up and arrested for being a “queer”. Back in June of 1969, a group of gay men, transgender persons, and at least one lesbian had simply had enough. The police came in to raid the Stonewall Inn, a popular LGBTQ hangout, but this time those being arrested fought back. This means that members of the LGBTQ community were, in this case, physically fighting officers of the law. It was a “riot”. And yet, many people now consider it to be the single most important event in the modern “gay rights” movement. The “politics of respectability” were a long way off, in those days.

I keep coming back to those words: “If you want peace, work for justice”. This is one lesson of riots. If you don’t like seeing riots – and I can tell you that I personally do not like seeing riots – then work for justice.
My photo from the April 29 Boston rally in support of Baltimore protesters.

Another lesson of riots? People demand –rightly – justice from the “justice system”. When our system of justice fails? Nothing is more likely to trigger rioting. And our justice system fails all too often. Consider that in 2014, according to the ACLU, African Americans made up 29% of Maryland’s population, yet they comprised 69% of those who “died at the hands of police”. Consider also that 1/3 of residents in Maryland state prisons are from the City of Baltimore. (See the article at http://afsc.org/story/baltimore-racism-and-mass-incarceration) Consider that African Americans are incarcerated at shocking rates. The rate at which African Americans are imprisoned has even been called “the new Jim Crow”. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), non-Hispanic blacks accounted for about 40% of the total prison and jail population in 2009 – when they were about 12% of the population overall. Also according to the BJS, “one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime”. (See the article at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/ )

In “The Other America”, a speech delivered by Martin Luther King in 1968, just two weeks before his assassination, he said: “… I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view.… But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

The riots in Baltimore are saying just that. Further, as King wrote in his last essay (“A Testament of Hope”, published posthumously): “…. there is no single answer to the plight of the American Negro…. I think that the place to start, however, is in the area of human relations, and especially in the area of community-police relations. This is a sensitive and touchy problem that has rarely been adequately emphasized. Virtually every riot has begun from some police action. If you try to tell the people in most Negro communities that the police are their friends, they just laugh at you. Obviously, something desperately needs to be done to correct this…. In the larger sense, police must cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and start protecting its residents.”

In 1968, the LGBTQ community probably also would have (in King’s words) laughed at you if you tried to tell them that “the police are their friends”. But things have greatly improved in that regard for the “queer community” (of which I am a part). Today, I pray that the Supreme Court will take LGBTQ rights even further, to the (unimaginable in 1968!) triumph of marriage equality. And I will certainly celebrate when that day comes, hopefully soon.

But I also want to listen to what the riots in Baltimore are telling us: that things desperately need to change, and fast. Lives are at stake. And Black Lives Matter.