The Long View on Baltimore

Does it seem like we’re re-running the 1960s, with rolling riots and liberals talking about “root causes” again? Bill DeBlasio is playing the John Lindsay role in New York quite ably, and Baltimore mayor Rawlings-Blake offered a decent reprise of Hubert Humphrey’s infamous remark that if he’d been born in a ghetto, he might start a riot too. How long until the New York Review of Books runs a diagram of how to make a Molotov cocktail again?

Kevin Williamson (does he ever sleep, by the way?) and Roger Simon, among others, both make the familiar point that Baltimore is a city that has been run by liberals for two generations. They own it. But this is not exactly new news; after the Detroit riots of 1967, Pat Moynihan noted forthrightly that “ravaged Detroit was, as it were, liberalism’s city.” Williamson more recently said that “Detroit is what liberalism does.”  Add Baltimore to the lists now, too.

One question few seem to be asking: why the delay between the initial reports of Freddie Gray’s death and the outbreak of rioting?  Yes, Gray’s funeral provided the occasion to transform a mass of people out in the streets into a rioting mob, and there is always a spontaneous aspect to rioting.  (And it is not always poverty and race that provide the fuel for rioting; right now the news stations here on my central coast enclave of California are marking the 25th anniversary of a rather substantial student riot in San Luis Obispo that was almost wholly conduced by middle class and affluent white kids.)

Fox News reports that there is some interesting evidence from social media that some of the same people who instigated rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, were present this week in Baltimore. This also appeared to have occurred in the 1960s. After riots in Cleveland, a grand jury concluded that the riots were “organized and exploited [by] trained and disciplined professionals.”  The grand jury had uncovered instances of radical agitators with specific plans and targets for rioting.  Even Cleveland’s black mayor, Carl Stokes, was inclined to agree when another riot broke out in 1968, saying that the rioting “was not at all related to any kind of honest reaction to the environment at all,” but “a planned, deliberate and previously contrived plot to damage.” Prediction: expect more riots over the next year or two. The riot industry is having a comeback.

So it bears recalling, once again, Edward Banfield’s classic analysis of “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit” from his classic book The Unheavenly City.  We’ve mentioned it here before, most recently last fall after the Ferguson riots. But other passages, where Banfield quotes from the conventional liberal wisdom of the time, fit neatly with what we’re hearing this week from liberals, who haven’t had a new idea since the Port Huron Statement:

Probably the most widespread view is that Negroes riot because they can no longer contain their pent-up fury at the mistreatment they receive from whites. The Watts riot, we are told, “was a manifestation of a general sense of deep outrage, outrage at every aspect of the lives Negroes are forced to live, outrage at every element of the white community for forcing (or permitting) Negroes to live such lives.”

On this view the way to end rioting—the only way to end it—is to stop mistreating the Negro and, so far as possible, to repair the damage already done to him. “Doing such things as punishing police misconduct, providing decent housing and schooling, ending job discrimination and so forth are essential, but the problem goes deeper than that. The ghetto itself, with all its shameful economic, social, political, and psychological deprivation it causes, must be done away with once and for all. The riots have ‘let America know’ that this is what must be done. Now America must do it.”

I know that last quoted bit sounds like what President Obama said about the matter yesterday, but it comes from President Johnson’s special commission on crime in 1967. Some things never change, and never will.

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