Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: A problem of US civilisation

This week’s Baltimore riots are one more dagger in the heart of US race relations, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Poor people and working people have not been the focus of the Obama administration. That for me is not just a disappointment but a kind of betrayal” – Cornel West

The truth is that the police in America are not the harbingers of peace. Police officers in the US behave without the minimum of decency or civility. They enforce the law pitilessly, and America as a whole is betrayed when the police system’s barbarousness and callousness comes into play.

The murder of African-Americans by police officers in the US has incurred the wrath of the African-American community on repeated occasions, and earlier this week riots broke out again in the predominantly African-American city of Baltimore, home to the prestigious John Hopkins University, after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American, from spinal injuries sustained while in police custody.

US president Barack Obama was reassured by new attorney general Loretta Lynch that she was monitoring events in Baltimore, pledging to bring the “full resources of the Department of Justice to bear in protecting those under threat and investigating wrongdoing.” Obama also spoke with Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, an African-American herself, who declared that the “violent protests were not acceptable”.

As the Weekly went to press, at least 16 police officers had been injured in the riots, six seriously. A week-long city-wide curfew was enforced after public buildings were set on fire in the eastern suburbs of Baltimore where the protesters burned police vehicles.

“Today’s looting and acts of violence will not be tolerated,” warned Maryland governor Larry Hogan, a Republican. “I assured him that the last thing we want to do is escalate the violence,” Hogan said after speaking with Obama, who had urged Hogan to exercise “due restraint”. On Capitol Hill, Maryland’s two democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, condemned the violence.

The world can only piece together the precise nature of such race riots, a besetting problem of American civilisation. Baltimore has a history of such riots, with the 1968 Baltimore riot, lasting from 6 April to 14 April that year, exacting a particularly heavy toll. More than three decades later, this tragic scenario has been reenacted, with rioters burning and looting local businesses and confronting the police and National Guard.

Paradoxically, Baltimore’s economic recovery in the 1990s was a watershed, yet the city’s African-Americans largely foundered and some of them went under. Baltimore is a typical east coast US city in many ways, and the police and law enforcement officers have made no attempts to represent the African-American community or serve the interests of African-Americans.

Black unemployment in the city is more than double the national rate, which in turn has given sanction to the structural violence of American society. All too often law enforcement has been used to enhance the prestige of privileged whites.

At least eight journalists were beaten or injured in the riots this week. “Stop filming us” was a constant refrain of the overwhelmingly African-American protesters.

It is against this ugly backdrop that the character assassination of prominent African-American scholars has recently resurfaced. US writer Michael Eric Dyson fired a barrage of criticism in the US magazine The New Republic against African-American academic, writer and intellectual Cornel West, for example, claiming that West “is not a scholar.”

The black backlash has also caught the international media’s attention. “Changes are necessary and voices need to be heard,” wrote David Simon, a veteran Baltimore Sun journalist and creator of the US cable network HBO’s series The Wire, on his blog. But he added that the violent protests were “an affront to Gray’s memory.”

Meanwhile, Michael Brown’s family have also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Ferguson, Missouri. The Brown family accused the Ferguson Police Department of being responsible for Brown’s death, which triggered the earlier Ferguson riots. The tragic Baltimore spate of public outrage and civil disturbance is reminiscent of the Ferguson riots that erupted after another African-American man, Michael Brown, was shot dead by police.

Imitation games? Not quite. This is where the heartbreak intrudes. American politicians should ponder the repercussions of law enforcement officers’ savagery and viciousness instead of focusing on popular agitation.

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