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The Baltimore riot: A note to an idealistic young friend

REUTERS/Jim Bourg
You cannot solve a problem until the majority population and public officials recognize what the problem really is — and it ain’t rioting.

My Dear Friend,

Monte Bute

The Baltimore uprising has prompted you to ask, “How is rioting and looting going to solve the problem?” My colleague Jeff Langstraat offers a concise answer: “No, burning down a CVS won’t solve the problem. Neither does focusing solely on the folks burning down the CVS, to the exclusion of other protesters, or of the simmering issues of economic disinvestment and ongoing police brutality.”

Many public officials and a majority of Americans still think that African-Americans themselves are the problem. You argue that riots and looting “are an insult to human intelligence and dignity.” That assertion is one that only privileged bystanders have the luxury of making. Perhaps you need to re-examine your idea of what is an insult to dignity. For those who are murdered, brutalized, humiliated, exploited and segregated by American Apartheid, riots are the terrifying scream of a people living in 21st-century bondage. Think of these actions as latter-day slave revolts.

You speak of “human rights.” In these times, that concept is an empty abstraction. In occupied and oppressed urban neighborhoods, mere survival is the first order of business. These riots are the visceral voices of a long-silenced people. Remember, you cannot solve a problem until the majority population and public officials recognize what the problem really is — and it ain’t rioting.

The last time this centuries-old problem was officially acknowledged was during the 1965-68 riots in Watts, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Tampa, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Washington, Baltimore, etc. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission. Its report was scathing: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

What Martin Luther King said in a 1968 speech, “The Other America,” still echoes true today:

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence. … 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 plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. 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.

Make no mistake, I neither condone nor condemn the Ferguson and Baltimore riots. I seek only to awaken the sleepwalkers among us. As the Old Testament’s Jeremiah admonishes us, “Now hear this, O foolish and senseless people, Who have eyes but do not see; Who have ears but do not hear.” When called upon to seek justice, all too many of us have a self-satisfied response — I am not my brother’s keeper.

Your steadfast friend, 

Monte

P.S. “In swift move, 6 police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death

” ‘I heard your call for no justice, no peace,’ the state’s attorney said.” Politico

Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University. He stars in “An Interview with Martin Light,” which is playing in the Brooklyn Film Festival, and is a character in “The Dinkytown Uprising” playing May 8-14 at St. Anthony Main Theatre.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 05/05/2015 - 09:23 am.

    re-examine

    “Perhaps you need to re-examine your idea of what is an insult to dignity. For those who are murdered, brutalized, humiliated, exploited and segregated by American Apartheid, riots are the terrifying scream of a people living in 21st-century bondage. Think of these actions as latter-day slave revolts.”

    It appears as though you also need to re-examine your idea of what apartheid, bondage, and slavery is.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 05/05/2015 - 11:08 am.

    How about looking at the policies that appear to be enslaving folks in the inner city. Baltimore schools spend 40% over national average per students, so lack of funding for inner city schools is not the problem. Over 100 million dollars was given to Baltimore a few yrs back and nothing changed. Who got that money and why didn’t it help is what we have to look at, not say they need more money.

    That is hard to do for many folks because the city of Baltimore has been under Democratic rule since 1967. It should not matter who’s running the city, it should matter that the city is running poorly and there needs to be changes made.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/05/2015 - 11:21 am.

    You really don’t get to stand aside (or above) and tell us that you neither condone nor condemn the riots in Baltimore, Monte. It’s just not effective to click your tongue as you condemn all of us who see a difference between protest and theft/destruction, with the latter completely dysfunctional in societal terms.

    Much more powerful are the repeated peaceful marches and gatherings. Massive gatherings.

    I’m with President Obama, and not you, on this one.

  4. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 05/05/2015 - 02:44 pm.

    People who care more about things than human lives

    Always educational to see who feels what issue deserves greater focus – authorities snapping necks or victimized people taking a loaf of bread.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 05/05/2015 - 03:30 pm.

      Jay the real question with all this mess in Baltimore is who is victimizing, how are they victimizing and how can we stop it. With a black Mayor, black chief of police, majority of officers minorities how is this racist? That card doesn’t play in Baltimore. Not enough money for schools, no not that either, at 40% over national average. Democratic leadership from 1967 to present, can’t be GOP’s fault. Not enough jobs, absolutely, why?

      If they are a forgotten victimized people, who is doing the forgetting and victimizing?

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 05/05/2015 - 09:32 pm.

      Right on, Jay

      Even though I’m white it is obvious to me that everyone here opposed to your point of view and opposed to this column is white. The writer tried to express the feelings of people who feel lost and abandoned by society. And all these well off people replying on their high speed internet connections are only concerned with all those scary uncontrolled black people stealing bread. The one person thinks standing with Obama makes her less racist but he is a very polite channel being as gentle as possible with the white people because he is trying to get help out of people who are in denial about their own racist assumptions and the benefits of being white with a bunch of poor black and brown people to take all the crummy jobs.

      One thing MinnPost has been teaching me ever since the protest at the MOA is that liberal white people are as full of racism as the most conservative reactionaries, only they deny it and give it a polite cover. They always want to talk about “the rule of law” and not how the rule of law is used to oppress and murder. Because they feel free they think you are at fault for not feeling free too. Being white sucks sometimes.

      • Submitted by James Rickton on 05/06/2015 - 08:51 am.

        Tired of it

        Because I think that rioting is bad, it’s obvious that I’m white and racist.

        Awesome.

        Tell that to my wife who is a minority.

        Tell that to the black and Asian girlfriends I had.

        Tell to my black friends in Detroit and Austin.

        Tell that to the black colleagues who I hung out with when I spent months working in the south, when I could have very easily hung out with my white colleagues.

        By the way, I also have friends who are gay, who are furries, Jewish, Missouri Senate Lutheran and everything in between.

        But go ahead, tell me how racist and bigoted I am because I think rioting and destroying the property and livelihoods of people who had nothing to do with the murder of Mr. Gray is wrong.

        I’m opposed to the author’s point of view because he uses the word “privileged” to mean white and implies that people who live in a city, (as Joe mentioned above,) that has a black Mayor, a black chief of police, and a police force that is has a majority of minorities, who live in a country where a prime tenant is Freedom of Speech, who have laws written to actually discriminate against white people in favor of minorities (affirmative action), who have Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama, the NAACP, the right to vote and peacefully assemble are somehow so oppressed that the only way they can get their point across is to destroy and steal things.

        I find that ludicrous.

        GLBT+ folks have made great strides in gaining equality without riots, even in light of opposition from minority groups.

        The militarization of police and police brutality are serious issues that need to be dealt with and the murder of Mr. Gray was disturbing, but doesn’t make destroying other people’s property and livelihoods okay, and I’m tired of it being implied that I’m a racist because I have this opinion.

  5. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 05/05/2015 - 06:45 pm.

    How the US Constitution works

    “In the United States only the federal government, state governments, and federally recognized American Indian tribal nations are recognized by the United States Constitution, so local governments are subdivisions of states.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devolution#United_States

    US city governments are devolved from US state governments, hence things like the temporary Michigan takeover of Detroit’s city government or Minnesota government controlling the taxation powers of its city governments.

    This notion that somehow Democratic governance correlates with poor economic outcomes is completely unsupported by the data. It’s the other way around.

    What any of that has to do with authorities snapping the necks of innocent citizens is a mystery, but it’s certainly a valiant attempt at distraction away from concern for humanity over inanimate objects.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 05/05/2015 - 10:11 pm.

    I was referring to your victimized people statement. Democratic governance is not working in Baltimore, that is a fact. Why is the question?

  7. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 05/06/2015 - 09:26 am.

    Are we not saying us and them some deserve; some don’t,wow..

    Paul Krugman (Race, Class and Neglect May 4/2015) speaks to the issue with credibility…”It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values, as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values. Maybe, just maybe, that was a sustainable argument four decades ago, but at this point it should be obvious that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle -class jobs”

    Thanks for Krugman…however I would go a wee bit farther and ask…what are middle-class values and who are the middle class and why do politicians only recognize a better life for them and ignore the poor and applaud or do not question the filthy rich who are always with us one could say in this imbalanced society? Why?

    All those certainties we carry with us that say ‘middle-class’ is some place we all want to be or assume we are and then build a protective barrier for others…shut the door and blame it on ‘them’ , as if ‘us’ and ‘them’ are lesser beings? Isn’t that what we are really saying? There’s the rub…

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