Before the flames and smoke and rage in Baltimore subside and the country returns to a state of not-so-benign neglect of our inner cities, can we agree on one thing? How about this: The struggling majority of folks in those communities who just want a decent job and a safe place to raise their kids need a lot more backup from the rest of us.
There is no excuse for the burning and looting and rioting that has occurred in Baltimore, and order must, of course, be restored and maintained for the sake of everyone who lives in the city, but peace is not composed merely of order. Fires may be subdued and troublemakers driven into retreat, but there will still be no real peace in the many places in America that lack economic opportunity, good schools and a full measure of justice.
The road to that peace begins with making sure our “peace officers” are not part of the problem. In Baltimore -- and in other cities -- it is well documented that valid complaints of police bias and use of unnecessary force are far too numerous. In the last few years, the city has paid out $6 million in claims against the cops. The latest trouble in Baltimore began when a young black man, Freddie Gray, died of a broken spine after being taken into police custody. The surprise is not that a few fools turned to rioting and looting, it is that protests sparked by Gray’s death have been, and continue to be, overwhelmingly peaceful.
When an opportunistic mob began looting stores, burning cars and generally ransacking their own neighborhoods, pastors, politicians, sports stars, parents and peaceful protesters spoke up against the violence and took to the streets themselves to reclaim their right to be free of chaos. The moment caught on video that really has grabbed the attention of the public is the scene of an African American mother, Toya Graham, angrily pushing her 16-year-old son toward home after she found him among a group of kids who were throwing rocks and bricks at the cops. She was praised by Baltimore’s police commissioner, who said he wished there were more mothers like her in his city. The New York Post proclaimed her “Mother of the Year.”
The praise is warranted, but Toya Graham’s example should not be compressed into a simplistic narrative about the need for parental responsibility. We need to listen to what Graham has said in interviews since the incident. She expressed dual fears. On the one hand, she was fearful that her boy would fall in with the violent crowd that was pillaging her community. On the other, she expressed an ongoing fear that, sooner or later, no matter how well behaved he might be, her son will end up dead at the hands of police, just like Freddie Gray.
Most Americans do not have to live with such fears. Why should mothers like Graham? She and the many unsung heroes among the citizens of Baltimore’ black neighborhoods deserve far more than our momentary praise. They deserve our constant attention, sympathy and support. We still have a lot of work to do to bring alienated communities into full inclusion in American life and folks like Toya Graham should not have to do it alone.