A number of you have been kind enough to express concern about the health and safety of all of us at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies following the reports of violence and looting in Baltimore earlier this week.
Please know that we are all thankfully safe and unharmed and were never in any danger. Mostly, we are a bit saddened by the unfortunate stain that this incident has put on this city and deeply ashamed and angry at the harsh policing, mandatory sentencing, and budget-cutting policies of our government that have contributed to the legitimate frustrations of so many of our African-American fellow citizens.
The events of Monday, furthermore, have been grossly misinterpreted in many of the accounts I have seen. In my opinion, the Baltimore Police totally over-reacted to some social media postings by students at one of the city’s large high schools on the day of the funeral for Freddie Gray, the young man who died after being taken into police custody for no apparent crime a week before. The social media postings invited students from other Baltimore schools to meet at one of the well-known malls near this high school for a march down to the city hall to show their solidarity with this young man who died. Earlier that same day the police announced that they had received a credible report, that later turned out to be bogus, that several gangs in the city had formed an alliance to attack police officers. Armed with this report and word of the student plan to hold a protest march, police officials seem to have flipped out. They decided to pre-emptively turn the area of the mall where the students were going to gather to stage their march into a militarized zone so that when the students got out of school and filed into the mall area – like they do every school day to catch their buses home – they were confronted with a huge phalanx of police in full riot gear, who had shut off all means of exit from the area around the mall, preventing the march, closing the nearby metro stop, and preventing the buses that usually carry the students home from entering or exiting the area. It was only after the police refused to give any ground or let any of the students leave that arguments broke out, pushing and shoving began, bottles began to be thrown, and things escalated out of control.
What has happened since then in Baltimore is quite uplifting, however, and also powerful confirmation of the importance of the civil society organizations that have long been the focus of our research. In a word, civil society has come to the city’s rescue. Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods have rich networks of neighborhood clubs, church communities, and even gangs that function as community watch-dog organizations. Already on the day of the riots, many of these community groups mobilized their members to go out on the streets, to stand between the student rock-throwers and the police, and to calm what had turned into a mini-riot. And this has continued into the days following the turmoil. In fact, the several gangs have played a helpful role in this, mobilizing their members to work with religious leaders to calm nerves, but also to articulate the frustrations that the black community in this city, like that in so many, justifiably feel toward the police. Slowly, at least some of the news media have begun to report on this aspect of the developing story as well. And even some of our sorry governmental officials who have been behind the budget cuts and short-sighted policing and sentencing policies that have contributed to the frustration, have had to face up to the failure of their policies and to begin sounding at least a little reasonable.
Frustration and anger are still running deep on the streets in the poor areas of Baltimore and could still boil over again, but there is also a social fabric out there held together by dozens of community groups that are managing to channel the anger into productive discussions about how to turn things around. Maybe some positive change will come out of this after all. But, of course, only if the pressure is kept on, which is why I am planning to take part in the rally and march scheduled for this Sunday in the downtown area. I’ll let you know what I learn about the spirit I discover there.
In the meantime, thank you again for your thoughts and expressions of concern. They are deeply and sincerely appreciated.
Lester M. Salamon
Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies
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