If we really wanted to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could ... it's just it would require everybody saying 'this is important, this is significant.' And that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns. And we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. That we're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids and we think they're important and they shouldn't be living in poverty and violence ... That kind of political mobilization, I think we haven't seen in quite some time. And what I've tried to do is promote those ideas that would make a difference, but we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it's easier to ignore those problems, or to treat them just as a law and order issue as opposed to a broader social issue.
That was a really long answer. But I felt pretty strongly about it.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. But iIn the six-plus years that Barack Obama has served as our first African-American president, scenes like today's White House monologue have taken on a ritualistic tone. It's happened so many times now, with Trayvon, with Mike, with Eric, with Walter. A nation looks to its president to somehow gracefully pull off an impossible mission -- to say the right words that will somehow satisfy the half of America that wants a condemnation of official injustice and the half that wants a condemnation of the rabble, to explain how what breezy pundits hailed as our "post-racial society" suddenly seems more "racial," in a tense and stressful way, than at any time in the last 40 years.
And so this is a bizarre ritual indeed. To read Obama's words on the printed page is to drink in a kind of passion tinged with deep thought, but in real life they are uttered slowly, robotically, almost drowning in weariness. The man who once told is "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America" could never possible utter the words that would satisfy the red-faced America ruddy from screaming about "thugs" and "Where are the police?!" and the other America suffering a case of the blues, puzzled that the first president in a while to even talk about an inequitable society has seen the gap between the rich and poor explode under his watch.
Baltimore, the epicenter -- or today's epicenter, anyway -- seems relatively calm right now, although a wave of National Guard troops and other reinforcements can speed up that effect. On the streets, the scales seem for now appear to be tipping toward peace and reconciliation. Hundreds of volunteers with brooms are sweeping up the flotsam and jetsam from Monday's uprising, the worst to hit a big American city in a generation. The image of an 8-year-old boy handing water bottles to cops clad in robo-cop riot gear is supplanting the ugly pictures from Monday, an American intifada of teens throwing rocks and bottles at the police, setting police cruisers and a CVS drugstore ablaze while smashing store windows and looting. Of course, things could change at any moment. But the seeming truce allows us some time for the many, many questions, which have to start with the one that matters most in the short-run: Why is there no justice, or even an explanation, for the violent death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray after his encounter with Baltimore cops?
But there are also the Big Questions. Why so much unrest, why now? After all, there are two competing narratives. If you look solely at the abandonment of America's inner cities, the cuts in government aid and social programs, the "war on drugs" and the mass incarceration of young urban males, and deindustrialization of America, and you have to wonder why there was no major unrest sooner, in the 1980s and '90s (with the notable exception of L.A. in 1992). On the other hand, the last fifty years since the end of segregation and major restrictions on black voting in the South have also seen advances in race relations that were unimaginable when Obama was born in 1961. It's not just his 2008 election, although that certainly was what inspired the phrase "post-racial America." In many big cities, reactionary white police chiefs of the Frank Rizzo/William Parker mode are a dim memory, and many folks -- especially your friendly AM talk radio hosts -- were quick to note today that the mayor and police chief in Baltimore are black. The glass of racial progress may be half full now, but in the 1960s -- the heyday of urban unrest -- it had been bone dry.
But those stories aren't actually competing, not really. They're complimentary pieces of the same puzzle. It helps to understand a piece of social theory, the so-called revolution of rising expectations. It's the notion that people don't rise up against their plight in their darkest hour, in low moments like the 1980s as the Industrial Revolution burned and then crashed. Instead, uprisings happen when hopes are raised...but then dashed. In the 1960s, for example, blacks saw the rising prosperity of post-war America and wondered, rightly.... what happened to their slice of the pie?
In 2015, African-Americans can turn on the TV and see and a mayor and a police chief and a U.S. attorney general and even a president who looks like them. But then they look out the window and wonder what happened to the city's 19,000 "missing black men," most of them incarcerated or killed at a young age, as reported recently by the New York Times. They are caught between an unacceptably high murder rate and an unaccountable occupying police force that has settled more than 100 claims totaling $5.7 million for brutality or civil-rights abuses just since 2011. Not to mention plagued by crummy schools, the disappearance of thousands of decent-paying factory jobs, and the 6th-highest poverty rate in America.
"It's from years and years of taking (bleep)," an African-American cook at a Baltimore soul-food restaurant told Buzzfeed on Monday. "Now we're at a point where people just don't give a (bleep)." Indeed, that's what was so jarring about the images on Monday: The sight of teenagers, some no more than 14 or 15, standing just 20-30 feet away from heavily armored police and hurling rocks, an act of almost suicidal desperation. And with those 19,000 missing black men, and with so many moms working two jobs just to put food on the table, it's hardly a surprise that there were no grown-ups in sight.
At times like this, wisdom comes from the most unexpected places. If anyone should have been furious over the unrest, it was Baltimore Orloles' COO John Angelos, whose business took a massive hit, including the cancellation of two games this week, with another that will be played before an empty stadium, and another series moved out of town to Tampa. Instead, he said this:
He said a greater concern of his was "the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the US to 3rd-world dictatorships like China" which he said has sent "tens of millions of good hard working Americans into economic devastation" and "an ever-declining standard of living and suffering."
"The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance and other abuses of the bill of rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importance of any kid's game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards," Angelos tweeted [on Saturday]. "We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the US and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don't have jobs and are losing economic, civil and legal rights and this … makes inconvenience at a ball game irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans."
In the last couple of days, I've checked in a couple of times to hear people who don't get it, to talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh who wonder how this happens with a black mayor and a black police chief and a black president, who say that "big government" caused the problems of the inner city and that now the uprising will be used as an excuse for more government.
And you know what: The government may look post-racial, but that's not the real issue or the real answer. We know now that black police chiefs have had little sway over the prevailing police culture that festers in FOP halls, that now blends ancient, barbaric practices like "nickel rides," which may be what killed Freddie Gray, with a small fortune in high-tech military hardware. The growing police state helps protect the cruelty of modern unfettered capitalism which replaced Baltimore's massive factory sector with a smaller service sector at the poverty wage of $7.25 an hour, while rewarding CEOs with obscene bonuses for keeping down labor. And it turns out that in America, a black president will spend billions to drop bombs in faraway countries just like most of the 42* white dudes who came before him.
Even if they were too busy scraping by in America's poorest ZIP codes to hear the pundits blathering about that "post-racial society," they did celebrate in the streets when Obama was elected in 2008, only to wonder why he talked with less emotion than Mr. Spock when their kids were killed on those very same street corners. They could change their mayor, even change their president, but not their system. One man in the White House who "feels pretty strongly about it" just isn't enough.
* Never forget that one man, Grover Cleveland, had two presidencies.