Riots are not generally much good for the people on the receiving end of them, and the people who are on the receiving end of them are often the same people who are rioting in the first place. But moralising about their futility and destructiveness is not much use in societies that aren’t prepared to address the other forms of violence that sometimes cause them. Most people who have paid any attention to the disturbances in Baltimore will be aware that the death of Freddie Gray is only the latest of a succession of high profile cases in which US police have shot, choked or beaten black men to death.
These cases are mostly high profile because someone filmed them, or because enough witnesses saw them to bring them to public attention, and sparked protests as a result, otherwise it is doubtful whether they would have received any attention at all. Certainly few people would have taken much notice of the dearth of 50-year-old Walter Scott at the hands of South Carolina police officer Michael Slager earlier this month, had it not been for the presence of a witness with a mobile phone who showed Slager shooting him in the back as he ran away.
Had it not been for that, Slager’s explanation that Scott had been accidentally shot while struggling over his stun gun would have been believed, because in America white cops are generally believed when black men die at their hands. And even when cops kill black men in plain sight, as was the case with Eric Garner, there are rarely any penalties to be paid for it.
Nowadays hardly a week passes without another story of an Afro-American man shot by police. In a society where poverty and social deprivation are marked by blatantly racial faultlines, police are at the frontline of a system that locks up Afro-Americans in disproportionate numbers and also kills and beats them with them more or less h complete impunity.
This is how it has been for years, long before LAPD officers were seen pulverising Rodney King back in 1991. Last December a Florida police officer shot and critically-wounded an unarmed African-American named Cedric Bartee. According to witnesses Bartee had got down on his knees with his hands up and begged the officer not to shoot him.
So the fact that Freddie Gray had his spine severed while in police custody belongs to the same grim tradition. But in recent years old racism has acquired a new cruelty and a new willingness to shoot or beat anyone. Early this month police shot a mentally-ill pregnant white woman named Jeanetta Riley in Sandpoint, Idaho, because she was brandishing a knife. According to a 2013 report by the mental health advocacy group Treatment Advocacy Center, at least half of the estimated 1,000 people shot by US police every year have mental health problems.
Last week a 27-year-old woman had her faced slammed so hard into the pavement by a Texan cop that she was knocked out, even though the video of the incident doesn’t suggest that she was doing anything to justify such a level of force. Earlier this month a Tulsa reserve police officer mistakenly shot an unarmed white man with his gun instead of a taser, This looks as though it was a legitimate mistake, but then a video captured the officer cursing the man he had just shot while lying on the ground.
Earlier this month police in San Bernardino County tasered a man who had just stolen a horse, and kicked him 17 times, punched him 37 times and hit him with batons four times as he lay on the ground. Such cruelty is generally directed at people who are not powerful, and also at people who challenge the powerful, such as the Occupy protesters in New York who were subjected to the same level of disproportionate violence.
Why is this happening? One explanation is the conveyor belt between the US state’s ‘war’ on minorities at home and its wars abroad, in terms of attitudes and behavior, whether its police militarisation or the torture techniques used by detective Richard Zuley against the mostly black Chicago underclass, and which he later inflicted on detainees in Guantanamo.
More generally the police are entrusted with upholding a society that is increasingly resembling a miltiarised oligarchy, where the Census Bureau found that 45 million people were living below the poverty line last year. A society like that, that won’t reform itself, that refuses to address the gross inequality and injustice that it has allowed to fester, will inevitably rely on the police truncheon rather than consensus.
Such reliance tends to empower thugs and sadists rather than the kinds of concerned police officers that you watch in so many American cop shows. A society that allows this to happen, and which more often than not refuses to punish cops who terrorize the communities they are supposed to be serving, can’t be surprised when those communities express their rage and disgust in their own way.
And perhaps the only surprising thing about yesterday’s riots in Baltimore is that something like this hasn’t happened before.