Barbara Kay: There is no value in street violence, ‘cathartic’ or otherwise


National Post - Thursday April 30th, 2015

Drew Angerer/Getty
People carrying goods leave a pharmacy April 27, 2015 in Baltimore.

In a conversation with Post editorialist Chris Selley, Toronto journalist Septembre Anderson reflected on the Baltimore riots following the apparently violent death of 25-year old Freddie Gray while in police custody earlier this month.

Anderson does not call the looting, vandalism, and fire-setting that took place “riots,” though; she calls them “a rebellion,” in a word shifting the motivation behind the creation of the chaos from negative to positive, as though blacks in Baltimore were so oppressed that no other avenue of protest was open to them. And, in words that will probably be the main takeaway for many readers and that she may come to regret, Anderson said, “I see value in that violence.” To Marxist ideologues, such a statement is old news and no big deal. To ordinary Canadians, for whom “peace, order and good government” is bred in our cultural bones, those words are uncomfortably charged.

Elaborating, Anderson claims that violence is “cathartic” for people who “have no power whatsoever.” Anderson may be right that riots are cathartic for the people who indulge in them, but is it responsible to endorse such a “value”? The catharsis will be short-lived, but the damage the violence caused will have repercussions that live on. The 1967 riots in Detroit caused 43 deaths and destroyed 2,500 businesses. Perhaps the riots were “cathartic” for those who caused them. But up until then, Detroit had been a showcase city for black advancement; the rate of home ownership and employment was higher than the black national average. The riots caused middle class blacks to flee to the suburbs, and today inner-city Detroit is a basket case. Not a very good tradeoff for a minority of hotheads’ perceived need for a violent catharsis.

And really, is Baltimore’s black community so very disempowered? It could be said of Ferguson that blacks were absurdly under-represented in the corridors of power. Though the community is 67% black, only one black officer was among the city’s 54 police officers. The court system was virtually all white as well. But in Baltimore, where 63% of the residents are black, 40% of police officers are black. So is the mayor, so is the police commissioner and so are most of the city council members. Baltimore blacks have the vote, and clearly know how to employ it. Is there serious unemployment in Baltimore for blacks? Yes. Are the schools inadequate? Yes. But these conditions can be addressed through policy changes undertaken by democratic means.

Certainly the black leaders of Baltimore had no sympathy for the “rebellion.” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “I’m a lifelong resident of Baltimore, and too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs, who, in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.”

Anderson quoted Martin Luther King’s much-bruited remark that riots “are the language of the unheard,” which suggests he sympathized with them. But King himself did not believe in violence, and felt that the root sources of black anger – unemployment, lack of fair housing, poor education – were fixable through rational and due-process means. The last Baltimore riots were in fact a response to the assassination of King. And, recalling that, City Council President Jack Young said, “We cannot go back to 1968 where we burned down our own infrastructure and our own neighbourhoods. …We have to stop the burning down and the breaking in of these stores because in the end it hurts us as a people.”

These are the words of a responsible observer. Baltimore is a city in serious crisis. Its violent-crime rate is more than triple the national average. The murder rate is more than six times the average. This month, city murders were 20% higher than the number killed in the first three months of 2014. These figures were not caused by racializing white police officers, or indifferent officials (both Mayor Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Young have lost relatives to gun violence, the latter mere weeks ago) or disenfranchisement.

Septembre Anderson’s words, “I see value in that violence” alarm me. These are words that could be construed by groups in Canada that consider themselves disadvantaged as something very like permission to express their frustration in lawlessness. Nobody in Canada is lacking a lawful conduit for political pressure. Certainly violence brings attention in a dramatic way, while under-publicized lawful protest can seem futile in the short run. Martin Luther King understood that non-violence was the long road to equality and justice. But, as events proved, it was the right road then for the black community as a whole, and it still is.