Politics & Policy

What Are Baltimore’s Rioters Trying to ‘Communicate’?

Nothing worth listening to.

‘A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was not condoning riots when he used that line (which he did on several occasions, Time magazine notes). But that is of little concern to the many who have adopted the sentence as a defense of events in Baltimore, and endeavored to wrap themselves in Dr. King’s mantle.

“This is their speech,” contended Baltimore city councilman Nick Mosby on Al Sharpton’s MSNBC program Monday evening: “These folks feel like they have been disenfranchised, felt like they have been disrespected. They feel like they have no voice in the political situation. . . . This is their voice. This is how they’re speaking out. They’re crying and they’re begging for help.”

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Jamil Smith, senior editor of The New Republic, opined similarly on Monday afternoon: “I don’t condone this,” he tweeted, “but we need to listen to what these children in Baltimore are communicating. Make no mistake, this is communication.”

What are they communicating? Left-wing commentators have offered a variety of translations.

“I wish the jobs hadn’t first gone south,” Hardball host Chris Matthews lamented on Monday night, then blamed a favorite target of the Left: “And they went to the right-to-work states. . . . You get into Baltimore, you can’t find a job with a short commute. And that’s, to me, the problem that’s behind all of this.”

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Not to be outdone, Georgetown professor and MSNBC contributor Michael Eric Dyson (who quoted Dr. King’s statement) numbered among the protesters’ concerns “the slow terror of expulsions from schools, the rising rates of lead poisoning, the export of jobs to places across the waters.” If asked about their futures, Dyson predicted, “Many of them would say, ‘We don’t have a future.’”

Meanwhile, Mark Naison, professor of African American Studies at Fordham University, explained it as the “violence of gentrification,” while Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony, widening the lens, translated the protesters’ actions as the “utter despair” inevitable in the wake of “the events of the last 400 years.”

I am not insensible to the notion that those things could lead to riots — but drawing attention to structural injustices, to a lack of economic opportunity, or to metal in the water supply is clearly not what these particular “protesters” are trying to communicate.

EDITORIAL: To the People of Baltimore: Stop Making Things Worse

#related#Consider their targets: not government facilities responsible for the “state-sponsored violence” that the above commentators blamed for the riots, but pharmacies and shoe stores and a check-cashing service. They did not go searching for weapons to defend themselves from, in Dyson’s words, “the forces of oppression,” but for Pringles, Pumas, video games, and condoms. Under the hashtag “#BaltimoreLootCrew,” rioters have been posting photographs of their prizes. At least one user — who yesterday posted a picture of four new iPhone 6’s — has suspended his account.

Marc Lamont Hill, the far-left Morehouse College professor, intuited the difficulty with defending “riots” and tried to change the lingo. Preaching to CNN’s Don Lemon on Monday night, Hill said he is not calling events in Baltimore riots but “uprisings.” But the difference between those two should be prima facie obvious, particularly given how we tend to employ the latter term — for example, the “Soweto Uprising,” when some 20,000 South African students opposed the South African Apartheid government’s introduction of Afrikaans into schools; or the 1953 East Germany “People’s Uprising,” when hundreds of East Berlin construction workers went on strike and marched on the city’s Soviet-backed government, spurring nationwide protests that involved 1 million people; or the “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” when Jews trapped in Nazi-conquered Warsaw waged a three-week battle against their oppressors. The conduct of the mobs in Baltimore is not comparable in the slightest.

SLIDESHOW: Baltimore Riots

Put another way: The difference between an uprising and Baltimore is the difference between Mohamed Bouazizi and this guy.

Perhaps, though, it is an “uprising” that is the language of the unheard. If so, we know no such thing is happening in Baltimore, because, by their actions, these looters are communicating nothing worth listening to.

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

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