Baltimore is a great American city everyone should visit. Take the tour of Fort McHenry. Learn of the famous battle our fledgling nation won there. A battle made more famous for the words penned by an imprisoned Francis Scott Key, words that would become the anthem of our nation. Words describing the great conflict over which our star-spangled banner yet waved.
That flag remains a powerful symbol of our nation. A nation forged in conflict, a conflict that continues to rage: sometimes in a civil political discourse, sometimes in civil disobedience. Such conflicts largely center around individual rights versus the role of the state. The conflict occurring in Baltimore now is just another symptom. The riots which, naturally, received all of the headlines are a sad and violent manifestation carried out by less educated and increasingly more frustrated people.
The objective of protesters in Baltimore is to show dissent for perceived police brutality. While Freddie Gray’s death resulting from a ride in the back of police van was the tipping point, unrest has been brewing as it has in many American cities. Now, there are increasing reports of instances where Baltimore city police used the “rough ride” to intimidate those taken into custody.
Unfortunately, too many America cities are experiencing this battle of cops versus young black men. Our corporatized media has whipped Americans into a frenzy over it, in hopes of selling us more fear: the kind that boosts ratings, keeps advertisers happy and turns a terrific profit. But just who are we supposed to fear most? An uncaring, or worse yet, militarized police force? Or young black male rioters? Whose side are we supposed to be on?
A recent poll suggests almost 60 percent of whites in America believe the violence in Baltimore was caused by those using Gray’s death as an excuse for criminal behavior. Over 60 percent of black respondents said the cause was frustration over police brutality and mistreatment.
Our media-driven public narrative perpetuates this false choice: a choice for disunity and constant fear. A choice that can only lead to further misunderstanding on all sides and a further dismantling of our rights as citizens.
Every city needs a police force that citizens can respect, not fear, particularly citizens that have been disproportionately incarcerated. Nearly one in three black males will be imprisoned during their lifetime. Black women are almost four times more likely to end up in prison than white women. Much of this has to do with our misguided War on Drugs. In addition, blacks are disproportionally poorer, with more than 25 percent living in poverty in the U.S. compared to a 10 percent of whites living in poverty.
Freddie Gray was a black male. The six officers implicated in his death are both white and black. Maryland’s State’s Attorney who brought the charges against the officers is a black woman. The right-wing blog-o-sphere has called it a racially motivated and expedient rush to judgment due solely to the rage demonstrated by the black community.
Yes, we have a problem with racism in America. More often than not, we choose to exploit rather than explain. Expect such exploitation to be further exacerbated in the upcoming Presidential election. Just wait and see which candidate or political action committee uses footage of the Baltimore riots to instill fear and excitement in their base. It could prove more effective than George Bush Sr.’s Willie Horton campaign.
Thankfully here in Mississippi, according to former deputy sheriff and current Gov. Phil Bryant, we don’t have to worry about race conflicts and rioting. Bryant told WAPT’s Bert Case, “I think people in Mississippi trust their law enforcement, and I think they look to them for leadership, unlike they do in some other areas across the nation.” That’s right, Bryant slammed police departments all across America for their lack of leadership and trust.
“We’ve talked to our state police,” Bryant reported. “I think our local communities understand that importance of being able to reach out and make certain we don’t have those problems.” At least Bryant acknowledges the need for law enforcement to reach out to the community, assuming he means reaching out through communication and understanding as opposed to reaching out with a billy club or additional weaponry.
The governor also said that he thinks, “our race relations (in Mississippi) are better than other communities around the nation.” Tell that to the family of James Craig Anderson and to the families of the children now imprisoned for his murder.
“I think our people are just simply better behaved and more respectful of authority,” Bryant went on to say. I’m hoping our governor meant whites, blacks and every Mississippian in between. “Our people” do tend to be more polite.
We are all concerned about senseless violence and police malfeasance, but we cannot afford to take sides pitting one group against another. We must demand accountability from our law enforcement. We must continue to lift up the poor and less fortunate in our society through education, effective health services, and a better understanding of needs. Genuine communication is key, but no easy task in this racially-charged environment.
The task is equally daunting when building a more accountable and effective police force. Let us, at least, consider ditching the sun glasses and getting out of the police vehicles. We need law enforcement personnel on foot who are readily visible and accessible to the public. We need officers who make a real effort to know the people and the communities they patrol. “Reach out,” as our dear governor would say.
Law enforcement sets the example for the rest of the community and our nation. All citizens should take pride in their local police force. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be a police officer. To be effective, you have to care for the people you have agreed to protect and serve.
Regardless of our temptation to respond and react out of fear, the vast majority of our law enforcement and our neighbors are good. Of course, we can find a few bad apples in both our communities and in our police departments: fewer still, might be rotten to the core. Nevertheless, we must start working together in order to grow more good apples and remain a nation united.
» David Dallas is a political writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.
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