By Michael Eric Dyson
April 29, 2015
WASHINGTON — IN the spacious sanctuary of Baltimore’s New Shiloh Baptist Church, at the funeral of Freddie Gray on Monday, the familiar weight of grief descended over me, not just for Mr. Gray, but for the countless Freddie Grays across black America who die, unarmed, at the hands of the police.
A few hours after the Gray family laid its son to rest, the city’s black anguish took flame as cars were burned and young people hurled rocks at cops.
A predictable question trails closely behind their actions, a question that always reappears like the ghost of riots past, asking, simply, why are they destroying their own neighborhoods and setting their futures on fire? The question feels helpless, sometimes cynical, but it is exactly the right question. It should be asked, however, not in anger, but with compassionate curiosity. Because the truth is as ugly as the facts that fuel riots: Without a brick tossed or a building burning, we are hardly confronting the hopelessness of the future for these young people.
The unemployment rate in the community where Mr. Gray lived is over 50 percent; the high school student absence rate hovers at 49.3 percent; and life expectancy tops out at 68.8 years, according to analysis by prison reform nonprofits. These statistics are a small glimpse of the radical inequality that blankets poor black Baltimore. It’s no wonder that black Baltimore erupted in social fury. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced in the wake of the Watts riots 50 years ago, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” And judging by the actions in Baltimore, thousands are not being heard.
On Monday, I rode back from the funeral with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at Mr. Gray’s service. He argued that Mr. Gray was now “more than a citizen; he is a martyr.” Although I’m a veteran of public mourning over fallen folk in our community, Mr. Jackson is a wizened warrior whose battle against the forces of racism from outside the community, and self-destruction from within, makes him a uniquely qualified source of insight.
We stopped outside Baltimore to break bread at a Cracker Barrel, where patrons and staff members warmly greeted us both as they snapped photos of us between bites of our meal. Mr. Jackson and I conducted radio interviews on the phone, too, trying to capture the mind and mood of the folk who vented their anger as we rode out of town.
The veteran activist was weary of the stale repetition of black death at the hands of cops. He was unsurprised that the rage spilled into the streets, though he was sad that the carnage would reinforce unjust stereotypes of poor blacks as inherently violent while the powers that be overlooked the social neglect that sparked the outrage.
Speaking on the radio, trying to make sense of what was unfolding a few miles away, I conjured a basketball analogy to explain the riots: Often on the court, a player commits an offense — say, hitting an opposing player in the ribs — without being spotted by the referee. When the offended player strikes back, he is often hit with a foul. The black youths who took to the streets have been hit so often with unacknowledged assaults — from racial profiling to poor schooling — that their violent responses are often viewed through a haze of social stigma that penalizes them without regard for context.
In his remarks at the funeral, Mr. Jackson spoke of that context, and reflected on the conditions that plague our communities and leave our youth destitute: “Our boys are the least educated, the most profiled, and the most jailed, do the most prison labor, the most unemployed and have the shortest life expectancy,” Mr. Jackson lamented.
He acknowledged the chaotic consequences in black communities of social injustice. “When there is darkness there will be crime and behavioral issues,” the minister said. “It is easier to fight the victim rather than the source of the darkness.” Mr. Jackson also admitted that the presence of new technology enhanced the quest for justice.
“In some sense what makes the difference today is his innocence, and the presence of a camera,” he said. “If he had been in a gun shootout with the police, or if he had been killed in a drug bust, or caught in some compromising position hurting someone; it would have been easier to dismiss his killing.”
Mr. Jackson touched on the furious tensions between the police and black communities that mock a sense of security and justice.
“The Baltimore police became the pallbearers of an alive man and turned the paddy wagon into a tombstone,” Mr. Jackson remarked. “We are here because we all feel threatened. All of our sons are at risk. Their number has just not popped up yet. There is too much killing, too much hatred, and too much fear.” Speaking of Mr. Gray, Mr. Jackson said that we “are in his debt. He has taken the scab off the wound of a cancer that raises bigger questions.”
On Monday, we had a funeral, and said goodbye to a young man whom people remembered as friendly and loving. A few hours later, small pockets of the city started burning — and suddenly we were saying goodbye to something else: to the silent acquiescence of young people without jobs, without good schools, without what they need to build a life that takes them beyond suffering. Why are they doing that? Let’s find out — not when the fires are raging, but when calm has returned, when it is most likely, as President Obama said yesterday, that we will “feign concern until it goes away and then we go about our business as usual.” Let’s hope this time it is different, and we are, too.