TPM Cafe: Opinion

The Role The Police Played In Sparking The Baltimore Violence

AP Photo / David Goldman

Most of the media are ignoring the fact that the Baltimore Police Department escalated the situation by releasing a press release during Freddie Gray’s funeral that claimed that Baltimore’s most notorious gangs—the Bloods, Crips, and Black Guerrilla Family—were forming a dark alliance to “take out” police.

Gang members went on television to dispute this press release, saying they “did not make that truce to harm cops.” Still, the Baltimore Police Department decided to do what George W. Bush did when he attacked Iraq: engage in a preemptive attack. The rumors of a lawless purge among local black high schoolers were also swirling. The youth in that area leave school to take public transportation buses to go home, as Baltimore City Public Schools doesn't have a fleet of buses like most school districts to take children back and forth to school.

Therefore, two misleading narratives collided to produce a potent recipe for violence. The police assumed that black youth in local gangs were targeting them and that some sort of violent purge was imminent, so they began painting a picture of imminent threat. Convinced that they were under attack and having sufficiently defined the enemy (i.e. black youth) to the press, the police decided to strike first.

Therefore, police deployed cops in riot gear to Mondawmin Mall to cut off the buses that the children from local schools use to take home before the children got out of school. From there, things descended into violence as frustrated children, trapped on city streets by armored police and cut off from their mode of transportation home, began hurling rocks and bricks at the police.

The police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas, turning West Baltimore into the scene of a revolt. The community, already reeling from grief following the funeral of Freddie Gray, decided they had nothing to lose. As the group of children were pushed south (see map), they were joined by the residents of Freddie Gray’s community, Sandtown-Winchester—already demonized and terrorized by police on a daily basis—in the revolt.

Therefore, the same elements of apartheid policing that have been brought up around the death of Freddie Gray—racial profiling, making a preemptive strike, using disproportionate force, occupation—are there in the roots of the Baltimore uprising. I say apartheid policing because as I've written before on this site, when city leaders bring white cops from suburbs into disinvested black communities in urban areas, many cops are bringing longstanding racial biases with them from living and growing up in disproportionately white suburbs.

Researcher Phillip Goff and his colleagues have shown that white authority figures usually overestimate the ages of black children, viewing them as older than they are and imputing to them less presumed innocence. Their research also shows that white cops also view young black men as animals, specifically gorillas. This dehumanizing view proliferates policing, harking back to specific crude racial stereotypes that posit the innate criminality of black people.

This is the danger of allowing segregation to continue unchecked. This is the danger of America's ongoing betrayal of the 1968 Fair Housing Act as Nikole Hannah-Jones has written. The irrational fear of an unholy gang alliance and a “black purge” helped the Baltimore Police Department to incite a riot, when they made their preemptive strike just two hours after Freddie Gray was laid to rest.

Lawrence Brown is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at Morgan State University, who studies the impact of segregation and forced displacement on community health.