Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bonfire of the Vanities: some scattered thoughts

Can't say I've ever liked Baltimore. Just about every experience I've had there has been bad. The city sprawls—face-down, drunken, and senseless—on the US east coast like a shat-his-pants homeless man—ragged, tired, hopeless, and stinking to high fucking heaven. This isn't the fetor of a saint who has renounced everything worldly, including bathing: this is the noisome reek of a rotting corpse, bloated and gassy, letting out one final, leprous, neverending fart. I find nothing pleasant about Baltimore. Baltimore sucks.

But what about the Inner Harbor? you queef pathetically. Yeah—right. The Inner Harbor. That's about the most un-Baltimoreish part of the whole damn city, and when you walk just a couple of blocks away from that ersatz idyll, you find that you're right back in true Baltimore, trapped between Mobtown's enormous, sweaty, Divine-sized buttocks, yearning for an extradimensional portal to open up and fling you into a faraway galaxy—all to escape the concentrated, neutron-star-dense wretchedness. Baltimore is Stephen Hawking's nightmare: a black hole that attracts all lameness to itself, and if you're unfortunate enough to pass beyond the city's event horizon, you'll be doomed, like the city's denizens, to becoming a spaghettified turd. Take Newark, New Jersey, grind it into Vegemite, eat it, shit it out, and that's Baltimore. What more can be said about a city whose patron saint is John Waters?

So it comes as no surprise to me that the good citizens of Charm City might choose to host their own Burning Man celebration, using the town itself as fuel. As with other race riots, the whole point of acting out seems to have been lost in the churn of the madding crowd, many members of whom have engaged in such noble behavior as purse-snatching, vandalism, and apparent* violence against store owners. We've seen this before: white cops get away with the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and Korean stores catch hell in the ensuing riot. Wait—what was this riot supposed to be about, again? Duuuuhhhh... Ambient stupidity is the rule when rage has no direction.

The catalyst for all this was the disturbing news that 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray died after what appears to be brutal mistreatment by Maryland police. Sixteen days ago, police approached Gray, who ran from them for whatever reason. Gray was caught, and that's when things went south. This article (and please forgive its shamelessly clickbait-ish title) lays out what its author sees as the salient points about the sequence of events that led to Gray's death, starting on April 12 and continuing until Gray's death one week later. I found myself especially rattled by items 2, 3, and 4 in the article's 8-point list:

2. The van stopped at one point and Gray was put in leg irons because, according to police, he was "irate."

3. Less than an hour later, after riding in a police van, Gray had horrible injuries and was requesting medical assistance. His voice box was crushed and his spine severely injured, 80 percent severed at the neck.

4. He did not get medical assistance immediately when he requested it, but long after.**

Like many others, I was horrified when I got to the "80% severed" part. The young man still retained just enough functionality to repeatedly request medical attention, it appears. He eventually did receive medical attention, but the damage had been done, and Gray died.

So given what little I know about the whole confusing situation, my instinctive sympathies are with Gray and his family. The fool should never have run from police to begin with (then again, Gray already had a police record, so he probably ran because he thought the police thought he was guilty of something), but he certainly didn't deserve a mostly severed spine. The six arresting officers have been suspended; an investigation into Gray's death is ongoing. Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts is refusing to resign in the midst of this debacle (can't say I blame him for hanging tough: resigning would seem almost like a shirking of responsibility), and Baltimore's bizarre mayor is now on record as saying:

It’s a very delicate balancing act because while we try to make sure that they (protestors) were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.

Upshot: Burning Man has come to town. It's a Tom Wolfe novel brought to life, and the mayor herself thinks the rioters need "space" "to destroy."

I'd like to take a balanced view of the situation. I don't think it's right to get cartoonish and to paint all police forces everywhere as festering cesspits of unadulterated racism. Law enforcement, to a far greater degree than teaching, is a thankless, high-pressure job. Imagine spending your day going from place to place, encountering people who stonewall you, who give you attitude, who lie, who run, and who are outright violent. What would your view of humanity be after a few years on the job? When you move to arrest someone, and that person runs, your instinct is to do whatever it takes to make the person stop goddamn running. So while I would agree that the police's treatment of Gray (pending further details) was excessively violent and shrouded in its own stonewalling ("an investigation is pending" is a form of stonewalling, after all—a delaying tactic if nothing else), I can understand why the police would have the urge to run this guy down.

I also think it's right and proper that the six officers were suspended. Depending on what comes to light, it's likely that I'll be among the voices calling for these officers to lose their jobs. But does any of this justify the rioting? No. Not a single thing does.

My liberal-leaning coworker at the Golden Goose argued that, when incidents like this happen repeatedly to blacks with no justice in sight, what recourse do they have except to riot? Tom Wolfe, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, referred to the concepts of "steam control" and "safety valves" as ways of talking about black anger and how to handle it on a city-wide scale. Through Wolfe's lens, then—Baltimore, in Obama's America, is yet another theater of racial polarization: the steam had risen, and the city blew its top, raining septic chunks everywhere in true Baltimorean style. I'd respond to my left-leaning coworker by noting that black-on-black violence, a far greater cancer, goes largely un-rioted, which immediately makes the current rioting suspiciously hypocritical, given the sly selectivity of the outrage. Random sectors of society are now paying the price for perceived sins committed by the police. How does this make sense? I'm not denigrating the notion that police brutality needs to be investigated and stopped, mind you: I'm pretty convinced that Freddie Gray's death was the result of police brutality—possibly racially motivated.***

But part of my own inability to empathize with the rioting mob stems from the fact that I'm not a crowd-joiner. I sneer at flash mobs. I'm not a regular attendee at huge sports events or concerts, what with their pagan, cult-like ambiance. I prefer my gatherings to be small, private, intelligent, and fun. I mostly keep to myself when I'm not teaching. So I'm completely at sea in trying to understand what might get people so riled up that they'd riot en masse. Maybe I'd understand better if I lived under a blanket of oppression, but there are people all over the world who live in such pressure-cooker circumstances, yet don't riot (Indians in thrall to the soul-crushing caste system come to mind). I admit that I just don't get it. I see no justification at all for illogically attacking businesses and citizens that have nothing to do with the actions of six police officers—just as I saw no justification for the rampant stupidity that consumed Los Angeles in the 1990s, post-Rodney King.

Bonfire of the vanities, indeed.

It's impossible to reach any conclusions about this case until we know more. Far from advocating rioting, I'd prefer a more wait-and-see approach: act only after all the evidence has come to light. In the meantime, people need to calm down and be civilized.

ADDENDUM: a more detailed Freddie Gray timeline here.

*The linked image might not, in fact, be of a store owner being dragged out, but that's how the event was tweeted. Maintain a hermeneutic of suspicion.

**Take the above-linked Daily Caller article with a grain of salt: it refers to Baltimore's mayor as a "he," but in fact the mayor is the obviously feminine Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake. The first casualty in times of trouble is always truth, right?

***Before I go further with that thought, however, I'd need to know the racial demographics of the six suspended police officers. What if half of them are black? What happens to "racial motivation" then?


1 comment:

John (I'm not a robot) said...

This was a refreshingly balanced take on the madness in Baltimore.

Although I am not as vehemently anti-Baltimore as you, I too could never find supposed "charm" of the city. What I distinctly remember was never once feeling safe there.