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Violence In Baltimore Wasn’t ‘Counterproductive’

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Violence In Baltimore Wasn’t ‘Counterproductive’


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.”

John Stoehr (@johnastoehr) is managing editor of The Washington SpectatorFollow him on Twitter and Medium.

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)



  1. Canistercook May 5, 2015

    Well it is not very productive for you if you are one of the merchants who unfortunately opened a business and got looted or burned down.

    1. Sand_Cat May 5, 2015

      If it stops further police violence or reduces it, it may not be productive for the merchant: it would be nice if he were compensated, but then, you guys hate all government programs. Of course, most victims of police misconduct are never compensated, and even a large settlement doesn’t adequately compensate those who are killed or seriously injured, but you don’t seem to give a damn about them.

      1. mike May 6, 2015

        Black administrations controlling every department of Baltimore govt. for 50 years, just shows the failure of the progressive left. We don’t hate govt. programs we just understand how corrupt and inefficient that some are. Baltimore is around second in nation in monies received per student but fails to educate. Like most progressive, you believe the answer is more money, it isn’t.
        Latest number was around 200 business destroyed or out of business, probably most owned by minorities. CVS is returning but I bet the majority did not have insurance.
        Until the residents of Baltimore change their attitudes nothing will change and their dependence on govt. handouts will continue.

        1. Sand_Cat May 7, 2015

          Yes, and just look at the sterling records of the anti-progressive right.
          You have no idea what I think the answer is, and I’ll thank you to leave that to me.
          I think a good start would be if every story like this didn’t draw hundreds or thousands of gleefully triumphant “I told you so”s and mock outrage from the racist right.
          If you don’t consider yourself involved in the “racist” part, perhaps you could try a little compassion and be a bit more skeptical about police claims, instead of pro-forma mourning their victims (in those cases where you do that) while justifying every single act of the police.

          I think we both know you’re not a moron like some of the regular “conservatives” who like to troll here, so why do you need to sound almost like them?
          As I’ve said before, people constantly harassed by the authorities tend to go wild when the dam breaks, and I believe the facts show that the Baltimore police were exceptionally good at harassment. I also suggested the problem is more with the police than with racism, though the latter feeds it. You could try The Rise of the Warrior Cop if you’re interested. There are also lots of other sources documenting police abuses.
          I am relieved you haven’t said the only reason the cops are being prosecuted in this case is the “incompetent black administration” ; I hope that’s not what you think.

          1. Whatmeworry May 7, 2015

            Im not a moron

          2. Sand_Cat May 8, 2015

            Then why did you answer to it? :>)

          3. mike May 8, 2015

            What I am saying this is not another Ferguson, where the whites controlled the govt..
            Baltimore has been controlled by democrats for 50 years. Since 1987 3 out of 4 mayors have been Black. City Council has been dominated by democrats for years.
            They have known about the police department for years and have done little to nothing to change it.
            This debacle is all democrat incompetence.

          4. Sand_Cat May 8, 2015

            I must have missed where I said Democrats are saints. What makes them look reasonably good – and I have repeatedly said this – is a comparison of almost ANY Democratic candidate with almost ANY Republican candidate.
            I think you missed the part in almost all of my posts on this and other incidents of this type that the primary problem is THE POLICE, who act like an occupying army in poor and minority neighborhoods. Since you brought up Democrats, I believe it can be supported that they are considerably less likely than “conservatives” (i.e., Republicans) to rationalize, encourage, and applaud police misconduct directed against alleged criminals from disadvantaged economic and racial groups, but the main problem remains the police, and their “us vs them” attitude where “them” includes a LOT more than criminals. An outstanding example is the reaction of the NY Police Department to Mayor DeBlasio’s attempt to reign in some of the abuses common and made policy during the Guiliani and subsequent Republican administrations.
            At least the “incompetents” in Baltimore are attempting to press charges; you and others keep saying we must wait for “the facts,” but it seems extremely unlikely that a satisfactory explanation of how this “suspect” managed to get a severed spine will result, but probably worse and more obvious abuses have been ignored in other cases.
            In short, this debacle has little or nothing to do with alleged Democratic incompetence, at least when compared with how much it has to do with militarization and political polarization in police forces nationwide, regardless of which party “controls” the cities.

          5. mike May 8, 2015

            Now there you go again!!! Have you seen the autopsy? Do you know absolutely the spine was severed? What you should be asking is why the autopsy hasn’t been released. There is no grand jury so release the report.
            You sure damned the Ferguson police until the autopsy was released.
            No, this is all on the democrats and their inability to run the govt.. They knew they had problems but did very little.



            No police force is innocent or perfect but in your mind every police force is guilty. What you won’t admit is the fact they are their to protect the majority of the citizens.

            Justice will be done and if not, blame falls on those running the govt.. Democrats.

        2. Whatmeworry May 7, 2015

          Bigot cops in the department should be policed by black administrators. Our military wrote the book on being dependent on govt handouts and living on the taxpayers dole

          1. mike May 8, 2015

            They have a black police chief and that doesn’t seem to be working in the eyes of the citizens. Are there some bad apples?? Yes!! But they could have been culled out long ago. Wait that’s right they are unionized, oh well.



            2 of the last 3 police chiefs have been black.

      2. Whatmeworry May 7, 2015

        they should be compensated by the criminals that caused the damage not the taxpayers

      3. Whatmeworry May 7, 2015

        they should be compensated by the criminals that caused the damage also the taxpayers

        1. Sand_Cat May 7, 2015

          Yes, with all that money they have.
          The compensation should come from the police department if we’re going to try to get it from those responsible.

          1. Whatmeworry May 7, 2015

            The police are criminals like taxpayers are

  2. 1standlastword May 5, 2015

    Violence is acceptable, necessary and productive only as a last resort. The framers anticipated violence when the state became so corrupted by an oppressive government that the People couldn’t thrive against institutional tyranny.

  3. Carl Sdano May 6, 2015

    Unless things change drastically in the US both from an economic & social standpoint, my fear is that Baltimore was just a dress rehearsal of things to come.


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