It’s a question that enrages conservatives and discomfits liberals: Is there utility to violence? More specifically, did violence have any impact on the surprise announcement last week of homicide charges brought against the six Baltimore cops involved in the death of Freddie Gray?
In wondering if on rare occasions violence can be useful, I’m transgressing an unwritten rule. Among conservatives, I risk appearing to defend criminals. Among liberals, I risk giving fodder to conservatives who are (always already) poised to attack grassroots challenges to state power.
But instead of counteracting the inevitable backlash, liberals tend to repudiate violence entirely, as if all violence were the same — all senseless, random, worthy of condemnation, and never to be confused with legitimate political protest. In this sense, President Barack Obama last week was a textbook liberal in forcefully commenting on the Baltimore riots:
“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing … they need to be treated as criminals.”
It was a shrewd parsing. In attempting to separate criminality from the constitutional guarantee of the right to petition the government, Obama made room for local activist claims of widespread abuse of police power, especially the practice of “bouncing” or “nickel rides.”
Baltimore police are said to retaliate against suspects who flee, or otherwise inconvenience them, by handcuffing and then “bouncing” them in the back of police vans. The practice can cause serious injury. It is the most likely explanation for the severing of Freddie Gray’s spine.
Such police aggression is rooted in the so-called zero-tolerance policies of the 1990s. These were based on the theory that tolerance of petty crimes, such as public drunkenness, had the effect of establishing norms of criminality. That is, tolerance of little things like broken windows prefaced larger, more serious crimes.
The theory that rationalized this escalation of police power — called the “broken windows theory” — was advanced in 1982 by conservative scholars George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson. Their thinking was based on psychology more than empirical data. Social scientists have since seen crime rates fall for two decades, with little or no consensus among researchers on the role of zero-tolerance on that decline.
Wilson continued in 1994 when he wrote an article called “Just Take Away Their Guns.” In it, he advised police to maximize the court precedent of “reasonable suspicion” to stop and frisk anyone believed to be carrying an illegal weapon. Wilson’s larger point is by now familiar: Don’t punish law-abiding citizens with gun-control legislation. Punish criminals instead.
“Young black and Hispanic men will probably be stopped more often than older white Anglo males or women of any race,” Wilson wrote in The New York Times Magazine. “But if we are serious … we must get illegal guns off the street.”
Let’s put this in the context of the “senseless” and “counterproductive” violence of Baltimore. Not all violence is the same. There is the legitimate kind. As a nation-state, we authorize police officers to use violence when necessary. (Indeed, we don’t typically call it “violence;” we tend to use the softer “force.”) Put another way, the state has a monopoly on violence. Those who defy that monopoly commit the other kind of violence, the illegitimate kind. This we attribute to criminals, to offenders of the state.
But there may be a middle ground between legitimate and illegitimate violence, and that middle ground might be called political violence: violence that’s illegitimate but rooted in the legitimate desire to petition the state for redress of grievances. In this case, these are grievances among minority residents of Baltimore that go back to the 1990s when the city was swept up in a nationwide movement to “reasonably suspect” most young black men of being criminals.
For several days in a row, the city of Baltimore saw peaceful protests, thousands strong, over the death of Freddie Gray, but the state — meaning the city, state, and national governments — was mostly indifferent. That indifference ended when someone decided to burn a building to the ground. Though it’s impossible to say the riots influenced Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision to prosecute, it’s also unlikely that they didn’t, given how rare it is to see prosecutors bring homicide charges against cops.
President Obama is right. Those people are arsonists, looters, and petty thieves. They should and probably will be held accountable. But he’s wrong in saying the violence was senseless or counterproductive. Violence has always played a role in American history, in frightening established powers to reform a legal and political system that isn’t working.
Republican president Herbert Hoover once said America learned from the depravities of the 19th century. “Social injustice is the destruction of justice,” he wrote. But that lesson came after long periods of political violence, after the victim of injustice “throws bricks at our social edifice.”
Photo: An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers on Westbury Avenue in Baltimore during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015. (Erica Green/Baltimore Sun/TNS)