A Battle of Public Perception: The Baltimore Riots (Op-Ed)

Theo Spohngellert, 18

“When you cut the facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Over the past couple of weeks, the center of focus surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement has shifted to Baltimore, following the death of a young man, Freddie Gray, at the hands of the police after his arrest on April 12. The incident led to thousands of people marching in peaceful protest and then some coming out and expressing their anger through rioting. These riots have not only resulted in about 200 arrests, 20 injured police officers, 20 businesses and 144 cars burned, but also a drastic alteration in public perception surrounding much of the movement against police brutality.

Purely from scrolling through a Facebook feed the average BHSEC student could find themselves reading a debate regarding some of these issues. The people who were attempting to defend rioting made statements such as “When white people riot after sports games, there is little to no media attention, why is it that when black people riot against systematic oppression the media presents these people as “thugs?”” This argument is by all means valid and should be taken into consideration when thinking of these riots. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake apologized shortly after calling rioters thugs while President Obama has been unapologetic for using the same terminology.

While these riots may not be productive towards the movement, even harmful, we have to understand why they occurred. The root of all of this is anger. Anger against a system that treats people of color as lesser citizens. Anger against a society in which a young black teen can go home wearing a hoodie and be at risk of harassment. Anger against a country founded on a basis of meritocracy and a rhetoric of “American dream” that puts a solid percentage of its population lower on the totem pole. Anger against white privilege. This anger must be understood.

I personally have immense privilege. I am a cis white straight male and I personally will never experience racism in my life. The best I can possibly do is sympathize, as I am incapable of being literally empathetic. But even without personally having experienced racism, I can see that the select few people that rioted instead of peacefully protesting had reason to be angry. I am not saying that there should be more riots or that it is productive to the movement. I am saying that when riots do happen, they must be understood. I’m saying that while these riots may have been counter-productive, approaching this topic with an attitude of “everybody suffers from the sins of the few” is not only dangerous to the movement against police brutality, but it could possibly set back the progress that has been made. Everyone who is involved in this movement needs to recognize the anger exhibited by the rioters, take it in, and come back stronger than ever. Public awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement is strong, and it can only get stronger as time goes on.

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