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Comparing the 1968 Baltimore Riots to Freddie Gray Riots in 2015
Urban unrest often emanates from complex, multifaceted issues, and this often comes about following years of boiled up tensions and frustrations from the public. Some of the most emergent issues leading up to riots and protests include racial prejudice, jobs, housing, and ineffective policies. Racial aspects are perhaps the most recurrent causes of protests and riots in the United States as is evident in the 1968 Baltimore Riots and the 2015 Freddie Gray protests. The 1968 Baltimore Riots were at a period of civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, where this was characterized by high levels of violence and confrontation between the police and the rioters. The 1968 riots came about following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. who at the time led the civil rights movement in the US. The protests during this period were not limited to Baltimore but rather were evident in other cities in the US. While the riots had begun as peaceful protests in Baltimore, this then led to chaos and violence as police and protesters clashed.
The 1968 protests are comparable to the riots in 2015 both based on the cause of the protest as well as how the protests unfolded. The riots in 2015 came about following the arrest of Freddie Gray on April 12, 2015, where the victim sustained injuries to his neck and spine during the transport. Following his death on April 19, there was full-blown civil unrest in Baltimore. The two events depict the notion that urban unrest in Baltimore is mainly brought about by racial issues while poverty is also a point of concern from the minority population. Essentially, the events depict that Baltimore has not undergone any significant change in addressing the complex and multifaceted issues in the area thus leading to urban unrest.
Comparing the 1968 and 2015 Protests
One of the similarities in the two events is that racial prejudice is a cause of urban unrest within Baltimore. The 1968 protests had been brought about by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. who was leading the civil rights movement in the US. Martin Luther and other protesters during this period were opposed to the institutionalization of racism in the US that had led to the marginalization of the black community socially, economically, and politically. As Booker (2018) notes, the protests in 1968 were not just as a result of King’s death; rather, this was linked to the city’s history of economic disparities and segregation. In the 2015 protests following the death of Freddie Gray, the same issues are evident since racial prejudice from the police is seen as leading up to the death of Freddie Gray. The conflict between the police and minority communities has always been high in the US, and much of this depicts the institutionalization and marginalization of blacks as is evident in the 1968 and 2015 protests. The 2015 protests were not just about Gray’s death but also the larger issues facing the city.
Another similarity lies in the notion that while the protests often begin as peaceful demonstrations, they later descend into full-blown chaos and violence between police and protesters. The 1968 protests had begun as peaceful demonstrations in various cities including Baltimore, but this changed later on. Thousands had converged for a memorial service for Martin Luther after which chaos began days later in protest against inequalities (Vinen, 2018). The same case applies to the 2015 Baltimore protests where violence emerged following Gray’s funeral service. The violence in both incidents affected businesses and led to the deaths of police as well as protesters (Nix, 2015). The fact that the peaceful protests turn into chaos depicts the likelihood of growing frustrations that are built up over time. The frustrations, as well as the inability of authorities to address the underlying issues, contributing to the subsequent violence that emerges.
While there are similarities between the two events, there are also contrasts, and this regards the approach to dealing with the protest and the source of the protests. In the 1968 protests, the then governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, used the protests to gain popularity and this saw him elevated to the position of Nixon’s vice president. Agnew employed a tough on crime rhetoric that also defined the Nixon presidency, and this saw increased incarceration of blacks (Nix, 2015). Under this rhetoric, blacks would be arrested and incarcerated for petty offenses, and this also saw the adoption of mandatory incarceration. For Agnew, he portrayed the black community, not as a victim but a perpetrator of the violence that characterized the Baltimore area. Differently, the 2015 protests were dealt with not through a tough on crime approach but rather the use of emancipation by addressing the rights of the residents. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) opened up an office in the area with the goal of providing the residents with counsel on legal rights including police misconduct. Under this approach, there is the view that the black community is not to blame for the injustices taking place in the area, rather, this may be as a result of institutionalized racial issues. The tough on crime approach employed by Agnew in the post-1968 riots may be blamed for the emergence of the 2015 riots since it created an avenue for the progression of injustices against the minority communities in the US.
Changes between 1968 and 2015
A comparison of the situation in 1968 and 2015 shows that there has been little or no change in Baltimore over the years since the same issues keep recurring. Elfenbein, Nix, and Hollowak (2011) refer to the lack of change as a festering of the wound without any healing. As an example, segregation remains to be a key issue in the area, and little has been done to tackle the problem. In 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther was as a result of protests against segregation in America that saw blacks relegated to second-class citizens (Surgrue, 2014). The approach taken to address the issue was increasing policing in the area that led to discriminate arrest and violence against the blacks by the police. The situation has remained the same as is evident with the death of Freddie Gray and others at the hands of the police. The black lives matter campaign in Baltimore highlighted these challenges, but there have been no significant policies to address the issue. The segregation in Baltimore over the years is depicted in the demographic map below. As is evident, segregation is still high within Baltimore over the decades.
Figure 1: segregation in Baltimore
Source: (Yeip, 2015)
With economic issues also informing urban unrest in Baltimore, economic segregation has remained a point of concern. The civil rights movements of the 1960s were advocating for changes in policies that affected blacks in society because economic segregation was highly ingrained in society (Vinen, 2018). Blacks could not access jobs and banks would not offer loans to this population. Such led to high levels of poverty not only in Baltimore but also areas with a predominant minority population. The fact that economic segregation is still evident in Baltimore highlights the fact that there has been minimal change in the area as regards addressing issues affecting the black population. Economic segregation has led to the high rates of poverty within the area. As the chart below shows, Baltimore’s poverty level has remained higher than average poverty in the US thus showing the fact that systemic inequality still exists in the region. As such, there has been a failure to address the pertinent issues facing the area.
Figure 2: Percentage of the population in poverty
Source: (Yeip, 2015)
Solution to Rioting
One solution to rioting is the building of trust between the minority community and law enforcement. The 2015 riots are informed by a breakdown of trust between the law enforcement and the minority community, with each accusing the other of precipitating chaos in neighborhoods. The police often view blacks as criminals, and this has contributed to disproportionate arrests of blacks as compared to other community members (Vinen, 2015). On their part, the black community no longer trusts law enforcement, and this is due to the perception of institutionalized racism in the police. Increased policing in black neighborhoods is evidence of the association of blacks with crime and lack of order. The solution to the problem lies in building trust between the community and the law enforcement to counter the perception of enmity between them. Trust will lead to collaborations that will help enhance the level of safety in black neighborhoods.
Another solution lies in the involvement of community members in the definition of policies that affect them. The reason why there has been no change in Baltimore over the years is because policymakers ignore the inherent needs facing the black community in the area. Protests are borne out of frustrations, poverty, depraved opportunism, and anger (Herman, 2005). The involvement of community members in the policy-making process through the active citizenship approach will help alleviate some of these issues. The minority population wants to feel included but segregation has been advanced at all levels. Through active citizenship, the policy will help address the ingrained problems facing the community which include segregation, economic inequalities, and the conflict between blacks and law enforcement. Continued segregation will create avenues for inequalities and hence subsequent protests from the minority populations.
The Baltimore protests of 1968 and 2015 evidence the fact that the area has been subject to inequality based on the fact that it is a predominantly black neighborhood. The civil rights movement sought to address some of the challenges that included segregation and economic deprivation, but the issues are still evident in the 21st century. The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the law enforcement in 2015 reignited the passion for fighting against the inequalities facing blacks in Baltimore. Considering that there has been no change in the area, it is paramount that approaches be taken towards enhancing the relationship between law enforcement and community members. Further, active citizenship that calls for the participation of community members in decision making will help alleviate systemic issues and create a more progressive society.
- Booker, B. (2018). 50 years ago Baltimore burned. The same issues set it aflame in 2015. NPR, April 7, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/04/07/600114134/50-years-ago-baltimore-burned-the-same-issues-set-it-aflame-in-2015.
- Elfenbeim, J., Nix, E., & Hollowak, T. (2011). Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American city. NY: Temple University Press.
- Herman, M. (2005). Fighting in the streets: Ethnic succession and urban unrest in 20th Century America. New York: Peter Lang USA Publishers.
- Nix, E. (2015). Lessons for Baltimore from 1968. Time, April 29, 2015. Retrieved from http://time.com/3839984/lessons-baltimore-1968/
- Sugrue, T. (2014). Origins of the urban crisis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Vinen, R. (2018). 1968: Radical protest and its enemies. NY: Harper.
- Yeip, R. (2015). Baltimore’s demographic divide. Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2015. Retrieved from http://graphics.wsj.com/baltimore-demographics/.
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