Culture

‘Space’ to Riot: Baltimore’s Mayor Writes a License for Lawlessness

Baltimore, April 25, 2015 (Jim Watson/Getty)

At his Friday press conference, Malik Z. Shabazz, itinerant inciter of outrage from the Washington, D.C.–based Black Lawyers for Justice, warned Baltimore that, to protest the mysterious death of Freddie Gray, “a wave will roll downtown to City Hall.” He forgot to mention that it was a crime wave.

In a 79-second clip filmed by a female Russia Today reporter, one young man (“Rest in peace to my man, Freddie G”) is joined by two other young men (“F*** the police”), who are joined by several other young men, each of whom, shouting, displays his middle finger to the camera. It takes just seconds for a dozen young men, likely more, to gather; they push against the camera, yell, and flash their own middle fingers. Then, suddenly, the camera drops, the men scatter, and the RT camerawoman gives chase to a young man, shouting, frantically, “Give it back!” He has stolen her handbag.

It’s harrowing footage. It’s also representative of this weekend in Baltimore, where hundreds of individuals honored the deceased Freddie Gray by throwing trashcans, smashing storefronts, blocking traffic, brawling in the streets, and perpetrating general mayhem. The only thing missing was a blazing Quiktrip.

The “Black Lives Matter” crowd will contend that writing censoriously about Baltimore’s rioting masses misses the point, which should be Freddie Gray’s fatally severed spine. And, indeed, that the 25-year-old Baltimore man’s brief ride in a police van following his arrest on April 12 resulted in his death one week later is shocking — as is the fact that we still do not know how it happened. It is difficult to think of an explanation for Gray’s death in which police were not, at best, grossly negligent. The community appears to have legitimate grievances.

But that is no justification for lawlessness — or so you might think. Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake begs to differ:

I’ve made it very clear that I worked with the police and instructed them to do everything they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act. . . . 

We also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. We worked very hard to keep that balance.

That penultimate sentence will serve nicely as law and order’s epitaph.

There used to be a bright, easy-to-spot boundary to legitimate, peaceful protest: namely, when it stopped being peaceful. No longer, apparently. Instead, the “wish to destroy” public and private property, commit assault in broad daylight, etc., is an act of self-expression best met with “safe spaces.” You can wreak havoc; just let us zone for it first. (UPDATE: See below for a clarification from the mayor’s office.)

The riots, of course, had nothing to do with Freddie Gray. The anger over his death simply provided for the type of person who wants to rampage the excuse to do so. What makes the situation alarming is that the reaction of the powers-that-be was not to squelch hundreds of stampeding criminals, but to intellectualize away their animalism. Rather than clamp down on hordes of opportunistic thugs, Baltimore’s Oberlin-alumna mayor treated them as just extra-passionate protesters, whose interests required from the government a “balanced” response.

Put another way: The reaction of the head of the government of Baltimore to the subversion of that government by wanton lawbreaking was to say that citizens were free to violently subvert that government — just as long as they did it in approved areas.

Saturday in Baltimore was a shameless convergence of destructive tendencies high and low. Under the pretense of ending “business as usual,” delinquent throngs embraced their worst impulses, smashing and mobbing and robbing. And then the governing authorities effectively blessed them as partisans in the Struggle.

It is true that police have committed abuses in cities across the country. It is true, too, that restoring fractured relations between police departments and the communities they serve is an urgent priority, and that police departments must take a significant portion of the responsibility. But neither Freddie Gray nor Ferguson explains why a gang of young men thinks it alright to swarm and assault and rob a defenseless woman.

In the name of “justice”? Now that’s a riot.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

UPDATE: The mayor’s office maintains that she was not suggesting that protesters be given “space to destroy.” A Rawlings-Blake communications adviser says the following:

What she is saying within this statement was that there was an effort to give the peaceful demonstrators room to conduct their peaceful protests on Saturday. Unfortunately, as a result of providing the peaceful demonstrators with the space to share their message, that also meant that those seeking to incite violence also had the space to operate. The police sought to balance the rights of the peaceful demonstrators against the need to step in against those who were seeking to create violence.

The mayor is not saying that she asked police to give space to people who sought to create violence. Any suggestion otherwise would be a misinterpretation of her statement.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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