To understand what’s happening in Baltimore, let’s start from David Simon’s interview with the Marshall Project. A former Baltimore reporter and the creator of “The Wire,” he says that the police there long ago abdicated any claim to legitimate authority. Police powers are inherently prone to abuse, but we grant them anyway because the power is necessary to protect the community from crime.
Simon argues that the Baltimore police stopped really pursuing that goal, so all that was left were the abuses. In a majority-black city with a black mayor, these dynamics do not neatly match our national assumptions about white oppressors and black oppressed. But they do back up the perception that the government cares only about the privileged, and will abuse you to benefit them. Which is outrageous. You should be outraged. But you can be outraged and still oppose the riots.
The voices that try to rationalize the violence are presenting a dangerous false choice. They say that this was simply the inevitable result of monumental injustice, so let’s stop talking about the riots and start talking about the injustice. We should always talk about injustice, and strive to end it. The mass incarceration state, the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights and the vast excesses of the drug war are perhaps the most important moral crisis facing our nation. But we have to talk about the riots too, because they represent another urgent moral crisis.
Rioting is not simply a battle of opportunity between oppressor and oppressed. Saying that riots are the inevitable product of oppression turns out to be saying too much and too little: Oppression does not usually lead to rioting, and when rioting does happen, oppression is not always its target. Sports fans riot — sometimes after a win, sometimes after a loss. Economically oppressed blacks have rioted against the white power structure; so have whites, against their city’s black population. Some things, like ethnic diversity, seem to increase the chance of riots, but the link to inequality and poverty is much less clear than you’d think. Economically disadvantaged people and students seem much more prone to rioting, but that may be because those people have much less to lose from an arrest than middle-class people do.
Regardless of justification, rioting is incredibly destructive, mostly in the neighborhoods where the rioters live. In my own city, Washington, D.C., the major retail corridors that were destroyed in the 1968 riots have only really begun to recover in the last five years (and one of them still hasn’t). Who suffered because of that? The store owners, obviously, and their insurers. But the people who suffered most grievously were the mostly black people who lived in those neighborhoods. The commercial craters left by the riots attracted crime, raised unemployment and left the residents of the neighborhood nowhere to buy the necessities of life. People who had just started to get a toehold in homeownership saw the value of their homes depressed for decades.
The public disorder of the 1960s also helped undermine exactly the sort of public policy programs — a more rehabilitative criminal justice policy, greater social spending — that the riots were supposed to prove the need for. As David Frum writes in “How We Got Here,” the nation hardened its attitudes between 1965 and 1974; law-and-order conservatism became the norm for American men and women with all levels of education. What happened between 1965 and 1974 to explain that? Highly televised riots are part of the answer.
Therein lies a tragic truth about rioting: It doesn’t work. The left can try to treat a crime wave as a call for social justice, but that voice will be drowned out. The disorder will only fuel calls for order. Many residents understand this: Civic leaders in Baltimore, and Freddie Gray’s family, were out this week calling for calm, while people sitting at computers many comfortable miles away were declaring the riots legitimate.
The problems in Baltimore’s policing are clear, and the city needs to begin the hard work of fixing them. The problems of urban ghettos that send more kids to prison than to college are also clear, though unfortunately harder to solve. But solutions will not get easier if we embrace rioting as the voice of the oppressed.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.