The Baltimore protests — are they really about the police?

I’ve always had a soft spot for Baltimore. For one thing, its residents struck me as harder working, less surly, and, of course, less full of themselves than their counterparts in nearby Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, the 2008 recession hit Baltimore very hard. That, at least, was my impression when, in 2011, I began going there regularly once again for work. The city looked badly run down and its residents seemed demoralized.

I was told that some major Baltimore law firms had pulled up stakes and moved to the suburbs. Even in the worst days of 1970s urban blight, I don’t recall law firms in hard hit cities giving up on downtown.

Baltimore is in the news now because of the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and because of rioting that broke out yesterday during a protest over Gray’s death. The facts regarding Gray’s death are being investigated. However, we know that he died from a severe injury to his spine a week after police subdued him in an arrest. And the police have said that Gray should have received medical treatment at the scene of the arrest (reportedly, he was howling in pain at the time) and that Gray was not buckled into a seat, but should have been, when he was transported in a police van after the arrest.

We also know a few things about the Baltimore police department. We know that the commissioner, Anthony Batts, is African-American (so by the way is Baltimore’s mayor). And we know that less than half the force is White.

The fact that the commissioner is Black and that less than half the force is White doesn’t preclude the possibility that Gray’s death was the result of race-motivated conduct. But it’s extremely unlikely that systemic racism is a problem in the Baltimore police department. Neither the leadership nor the rank-and-file would tolerate it.

Turning to the protests, they have gotten out of hand. Yesterday, rioters damaged six police cars, shattered windows, and looted stores. Some fans who attended the Baltimore Orioles game were attacked before the game. During the latter stages of the game, the crowd was told to remain in the stadium because of the rioting.

The Post’s reporting suggests that, at root, the protests aren’t about the police department (which, as noted, is not a White institution and almost certainly not a racist one). One of the protest leaders said:

Officials are not interested in bettering our neighborhoods. People are tired of their quality of life, and they’re frustrated nobody helps them. They want to be heard, and they will do what it takes.

In other words, a population grown dependent on public officials is lashing out because said officials aren’t helping them attain the quality of life they desire.

I agree that the hard-working people of Baltimore have been let down by public officials. For one thing, liberal public policy has encouraged dependence on “officials.” For another, liberal housing policy helped produce the economic crisis that hit Baltimore so hard. In addition, liberal education policy has undermined educational opportunity. And now, liberal immigration policy seems determined to bring in foreign laborers to compete for jobs with hard-working, low-income Americans.

I find it depressing to see Baltimore in such a sorry state while Washington, D.C., fueled by the federal government, flourishes by comparison.

Baltimore is far from the only American city in a sorry state. Thus, it’s plausible to anticipate that we will see protests and riots throughout the U.S.

Given the enormous amount of police interaction with African-American lawbreakers, there will always be cases of problematic (or allegedly problematic) police behavior that can ignite protests. As time goes on, however, I wonder whether such cases will be required.

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