Riots steal spotlight from Gray case

A protestor faces police enforcing a curfew Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. A line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke grenades and fired pepper balls at dozens of protesters to enforce a citywide curfew. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In a high-stakes test of history and social studies, a large number of school-age youngsters and young adults in Baltimore failed Monday. On the most fundamental question of the day — how best to achieve justice in the death of Freddie Gray, who was mortally injured while in police custody — a renegade group erred egregiously.

Hurling bricks at police? Wrong answer.

The violent acts took the focus off Gray, whose funeral had just ended, and put the spotlight on their criminal behavior. By injuring at least 19 police officers, they turned police into the aggrieved parties, relegating the real victim to little more than an afterthought.

Rioters might as well have been wearing dunce caps.

On National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” a man identified as Mo Jackson, 22, explained the reason for the pathetic performance: “Police came and blocked off everything,” he said. “An animal blocked off wants to find a way to get out, and they started moving and police got aggressive.”

Who compares themselves to animals? Would that explain, at least in part, why there have been 68 homicides of African-Americans in Baltimore so far this year, and why nobody cared enough to protest the carnage?

In the neighborhood hit hardest during Monday’s unrest, a place where diabetes, heart disease and hypertension are rampant, rioters ripped off the only pharmacy in the area, then set it ablaze. A TV news camera showed one young man about to loot a CVS, his pants hanging below the waist exposing his underwear.

When he bent over to slip through the broken glass opening in the front door, you could see his exposed naked behind. It’s the job of parents to warn children about showing their behinds in public. Whoever raised that looter also had obviously failed.

A nearly completed and much-awaited community center for senior citizens was also burned to the ground. It wasn’t clear if rioters started the blaze, but many residents counted it among the more than 140 fires set in the city Monday night. Elderly black residents were seen crying over the loss.

The anger, resentment and frustration displayed by protesters is understandable. Increased social unrest has long been forecast as a result of the nation’s vast and ever-expanding economic inequality. But while poverty, racial discrimination and police brutality make it extraordinarily difficult to succeed, failure to address the problem ensures that there can be no success. Young people should be taught the peril of internalized oppression. Seeing themselves as animals, referring to themselves with racial epithets, killing each other with reckless abandon — all evidence of a perceived inferiority and self-loathing.

Apparently no one has bothered to teach them that they are the descendants of people who prevailed in the worst of circumstances.

The goal of social studies is to move people along the road to freedom. In Maryland, the objective is nothing short of noble: “build critical thinking, problem solving and participatory skills to become engaged citizens.”

From history, they should have learned important lessons about the self-defeating nature of rioting. Baltimore, like many cities, is still scarred from the burning and looting that occurred in 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. More than a thousand businesses in that city were destroyed, many of them black-owned.

Maybe the rioters just happened to be absent the day those lessons were being taught.

On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared: “Things are going to be different today.”

Hogan announced that the National Guard was being activated and that police from nearby jurisdictions were being called in. Sadly, for some residents, it was better to live in a police state than to be terrorized by misguided youths.

Gray’s mother had pleaded for calm and a show of respect for the dead. “I want you all to get justice for my son, but don’t do it like this,” she said. “Don’t tear up the whole city.”

Instead of heeding what she said, they responded the way they probably did when they should have been paying attention in school — played the fool.

Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Metro section.