Baltimore: riots, the coercive power of the state, and public reaction
In 2008, on the occasion of the MLK Holiday, I wrote this:
I have been meaning to write about the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton debacle over "it takes a president, not a village, to get things done."As I have written before in terms of the writing by John Friedmann in terms of creating radical planning discourse, government is oriented to system maintenance and a wee bit of change and innovation.
The reality is that change is a process.
Transformation efforts, and the Civil Rights Movement was the biggest social and political transformation effort/movement in U.S. society in the past 60+ years, start from outside government, with the people. (Revolutionary movements challenge governments and the entire political system.)
Sure, laws are only changed by elected officials, but it takes thousands, millions of individual efforts before the point of legislative and/or executive branch change within government is reached, and eventually (if ever) realized.Riots are expressions of anger and feelings of abandonment and hopelessness.
And expressions of anger are typical when citizens are increasingly disconnected from those institutions that are supposed to be representing and hearing from them.
Demonstrators took over the streets. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
But while riots can push change forward--for example the Department of Justice review of the system of criminal justice and policing in response to the public outcry over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri led to a number of top level resignations of key officials including the police chief and city manager--in terms of "place effects," riots are hyper destructive and make urban improvement that much harder, if not impossible.
For example, on H Street NE in Washington, DC, it has taken between 40 and 45 years for the commercial district to show serious signs of recovery since the 1968 riots, which on H Street and elsewhere destroyed most of the city's independent retail businesses--which is why the state of independent retail in the city is still comparatively underdeveloped.
Looting and rioting broke out at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where a CVS was set on fire. Photograph: TNS/Landov / Barcroft Media.
But H Street NE in Washington DC is now part of a one of the strongest real estate markets in the US, while Baltimore and comparable cities still lag. Most areas in Detroit affected by the 1967 riots have never recovered. In fact, Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore has never recovered from the twin blows of the 1968 riots there, and the post-riot urban renewal process.
And often, groups can be incited to riot by people who for whatever reason, want violence to occur.
Once the spark is lit, the track of the outburst is unpredictable and unmanageable.
On the other hand, the power to use coercion and force on the behalf of the state comes with great responsibility. Clearly, the Baltimore City police officers whose actions led to the death of Freddie Gray failed to acknowledge their responsibilities to citizens.
Drew Angerer, Getty Images. Baltimore police officers walk in formation on Reisterstown Road near Mowdamin Mall as they advance toward protesters on April 27, 2015.
Baltimore's situation also gives me some perspective on one of the reasons that DC has more local police officers per capita than any other US city. This doesn't even take into account the federal and other police departments that operate within DC.
DC has twice the number of local police officers than Baltimore. But Baltimore has more poverty and is somewhat larger.