“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “The Other America,” March 14, 1968
These powerful words spoken by Dr. King have not lost relevance though they are nearly 50 years old. Time and time again in the fight for health equity, racial inequality plants itself center stage and we see just how connected institutional racism and poverty are to health disparities. We watch the news, watch people who are desperate turn to violence, trying to do whatever they can to be seen, to be heard. We see this now in Baltimore, Maryland, home of the Orioles, the Ravens, Old Bay Crabs, the hit television show “The Wire,” and one of the most extensive investigations of continued police brutality in recent years. The final straw for the Baltimore community was the death of Freddy Gray on April 19, 2015.
Freddy Gray was picked up by Baltimore police on April 12, 2015. Video footage of his arrest seems to show him struggling to walk, distraught and yelling. When he reached the police station 30 minutes later, his was unable to breathe and walk on his own, and had acquired a spinal injury during transport. He died a week later. It is unclear how he got the injuries and the Baltimore Police Department says they are investigating Gray’s death.
This serves as no comfort at all, as the Baltimore Police Department is currently under federal investigation by the Department of Justice for numerous incidents of police brutality. In September 2014, The Baltimore Sun unveiled its six-month investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, revealing the department has paid nearly 6 million dollars since 2011 over lawsuits brought against them claiming police brutality. A grandmother. A pregnant woman. Too many names to list here. This city was smoldering long before Freddy Gray’s tragic, unnecessary death.
Millions have taken to their social media accounts, decrying the riots, asking what good will it do, using words like “thugs” to describe people who really have just had enough. One thing to consider is what you see on television is not necessarily what is going on in the streets of Baltimore. Too often we see media portrayals of people of color as biased. Consider the New York Times blistering profile of Michael Brown after his death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, implying his dabbling in alcohol and writing of explicit rap lyrics had a hand in his death. We see this same imbalanced coverage of the Baltimore riots, with eye-catching headlines and so many pundits throwing in their two cents I should be a millionaire by now.
Jamelle Bouie of Slate Magazine, reported what he saw driving around Baltimore the night of April 27, 2015:
“On Monday night, there were riots in Baltimore, but it’s hard to say Baltimore was rioting. This wasn’t 1968, when fires touched huge swaths of the city and thousands left their homes. Instead, in a few areas around the Inner Harbor and East and West Baltimore, scattered groups of looters smashed stores, set fires and confronted police…”
Not quite as widespread as one would believe if watching CNN, where reporter Don Lemon exclaimed during live coverage, “They’re carrying around 40 ounce bottles of beer.” It is fair to say wherever the drama and action is, the media will be there to report sensationally. This unbalanced reporting, coupled with the only seeing one piece of the full story has made the public jump to terrible conclusions.
Personally, I don’t need to condone the riots to understand them. People are tired. People want justice. This is the result of centuries of institutionalized racism. While I pray for peace for everyone, I also fight for equality and justice. Here’s hoping voices will be heard and justice will be served. As Dr. King said, America has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met and an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.