But, lest you be too quick to make an easy judgment, it may do you some good to think about what you would do if you lived in West Baltimore.
Imagine living amidst violence, or the threat of violence, on a daily basis. Imagine not trusting, or even being afraid of, the police. Imagine being confronted by police armed with riot gear when you exit school, being denied the right to get on a bus to go home to safety, being herded into a small public space and not being allowed to leave.
At what point would your anger erupt.
Langston Hughes, in his famous poem, "Harlem," expresses this eruption well:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Were I a teenager, I very well may have been involved in the type of rioting we saw in Baltimore yesterday. Now, my teenage years were nothing like those experienced in Gilmore Homes, where Freddie Gray was arrested. But I did have my run-ins with the cops, despite the fact that I wasn't doing anything wrong or breaking any laws. In my hometown, riding a skateboard was enough to draw the ire of the police.
Even though the preps and the rednecks both congregated in groups of 30 or 40 in the grocery story parking lot, drinking beer underage and disturbing shoppers, the police never messed with them. But they never missed an opportunity to stop us.
And so, when my friends and I saw a police cruiser, we would take off, just like Freddie Gray did. We had experienced enough harassment. We didn't run because we had done anything wrong; we ran because we were tired of being harassed for no reason.
We were angry.
By no means do I mean to equate my experience with theirs. But what I do intend is to draw a parallel, a way for me (and you?) to understand why one would start or join a riot. Not to justify rioting, but to understand the forces behind a riot.
One of my favorite songs in high school was Rancid's "I Wanna Riot," and I think it does a good job expressing the tension that leads to rioting. When I was angry, this was the soundtrack in my head. I felt helpless, powerless, voiceless - as teenagers often do - and the lines, "'Cause I'm a kid who's got a lot of problems / If I throw a brick, maybe the brick will go and solve them," spoke to me.
Did I actually have a lot of problems? No. But, then again, I lived in Warner Robins, Georgia, not West Baltimore.
Here's the thing, though: If, in my relative comfort, the anger that built up inside me when the police harassed us for skateboarding made me drawn to violence, just imagine what living with the weight of a dream deferred for generations will do for you.
I understand the impulse towards violence. All too well, I understand it. That's one reason why, in college, I was drawn to Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke professor of theological ethics, and pacifist, who was named TIME magazine's Theologian of the Year in 2001.
"I'm a pacifist," Hauerwas said, "because I'm a violent son of a bitch."
For Hauerwas, though, one can only be a pacifist in community, a community of shared beliefs that shares in the practice of nonviolence. Hauerwas said that he needed others to help him resist his violent tendencies, to hold him accountable to his beliefs that violence is wrong, to call him out on his violence.
But what happens when we lack such a community?
Listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing for The Atlantic, respond to the calls for nonviolence in Baltimore:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.It's one thing when a community of nonviolence, like the one Hauerwas describes, calls members of that community to uphold their commitment to nonviolence. It's another thing entirely for members of a violent community to call for nonviolence when those who have felt the brunt of its violence get fed up and lash out.
And yet that's exactly what's happening.
Coates goes on:
And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.The point isn't to defend violence or to justify riots. I can't say it enough: Violence, of any kind, is wrong.
But it's not that simple. It's especially not that simple for us white people. And it's especially not that simple when white people critique Black violence.
I think back to James Cone, the Black liberation theologian, who expressed his frustration with the (white) Christian response to the riots during the Civil Rights Movement:
The most sensitive whites merely said: "We deplore the riots but sympathize with the reason for your riots." ...That response was not only humiliating and insulting but wrong. It revealed not only an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also...a theological bankruptcy. The education of white theologians did not prepare them to deal with Watts, Detroit, and Newark.We should add Baltimore. And Ferguson. And many more.
No, violence is not wise, is not correct.
But neither is defending what Coates calls "the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community." This is especially true when that law and order has white skin and that community has brown skin. Such law and order has lost its legitimacy. And those who defend such illegitimacy have lost their own legitimacy.
As Cone said, "How did whites muster the gall to lecture oppressed blacks about love and nonviolence? How could whites be surprised by the anger of American blacks?"
The problem, though, is that, like Cone said, we (white people) are not prepared to deal with Baltimore. We know that violence is wrong - it is wrong, after all - and yet calling for nonviolence reveals "an insensitivity to black pain."
I think back to one of my heroes, Will Campbell, one of the leading white people behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1960s, Brother Will, as he was known, accepted Stokely Carmichael's challenge for white people to stop worrying about what Black people ought to do and start worrying about what white people ought to do. And so Campbell started reaching out to Klan members and ministering to them.
What if we accepted Carmichael's challenge today? What would that look like?
I think Carmichael would tell white people today to stop worrying about Black people rioting and start worrying about the violent actions of white police.
Are you up for that challenge?