Sunday, May 10, 2015

On Violence -- a Mother's Day Perspective (on the Baltimore Uprising and Other Matters)

By now, everyone's seen this video of a mother beating up her teenage son during the initial phases of the Baltimore Uprising (#BaltimoreUprising):

She's been hailed a heroine by many for her violent attack on her son. She's said she didn't want him to wind up like Freddie Gray  -- dead -- and he's expressed contrition for his actions that day in the midst of the Uprising.

I was watching a livestream during this phase of the confrontations between police and the crowd of teenagers by Mondawmin Mall, but I didn't see this incident. There was so much going on in any case, that I probably would have missed it even if the livestreamer had captured it. He was a little way down the road, behind the iron fence, and was concentrating on the people running from or confronting the police at the time. He was also holding his phone in portrait mode, so the view was very narrow.

What I also didn't see was this was ground level video of some of the confrontation between the high school students who were essentially trapped once the police yanked them off the buses that would take them home and confined them tho the Mondawmin area:


While flipping through news sources after the Freddie Gray funeral -- which I saw parts of on livestream as well -- I briefly saw an overhead view of police in confrontation with a crowd, but I didn't know what was going on until later, and when I saw a more complete video of the incident, it appeared that 1) police were throwing rocks at demonstrators (they were); 2) demonstrators were pelting the police line with rocks and forcing them back (they were).

Context, however, was totally lacking, and the rest of the coverage I saw of the "riots" focused on the vandalism, arson and looting that took place, not on the confrontations between police and rioters that took place in the afternoon following the end of the school day at Frederick Douglass High School adjacent to Mondawmin Mall.

Ever since, almost all the coverage -- including the BET gab-fests in the post below (sorry for the auto-start; I've tried to make it go away, and it won't, so I'll replace the embed video with a link to the page...) -- focus on "violence" as 1) property damage; 2) the acts of the police which lead to the deaths of so many, day in and day out; 3) sometimes -- but rarely -- the "violence inherent in the system" (h/t Monty Python) of capitalist exploitation.

The incident we witness from ground level in the raw video above is almost never mentioned in reports and analysis of the "riots" these days and if video of it is shown, it is the overhead shots, generally without comment, or if there is comment, it will focus on the injuries police sustained in the confrontation, not on what the incident actually showed about the Uprising.

I think it is too shocking to the sensibilities of the Powers That Be, for what happened was this:

The police either made up or freaked out over a social media post that suggested the students at Frederick Douglass were going to live out "The Purge" idea of "a day without law" following the funeral of Freddie Gray. The students got out of school at their regular time (3:00p -- sounds late to me, but that's what the most reliable reports say) and went to the Mall transportation hub to take the subway or catch a bus to go home. They were met with hundreds of riot police who forced them to get off the buses and closed the metro station. Some went to the Mall, but many dispersed through the neighborhood only to be further confronted by aggressive riot police.

And the students fought back. They were being harassed, taunted and violently confronted by ranks of riot police for no other reason but that the police could do so. The students responded with rocks and bottles thrown at the police line, and for the next hour or two, the students and police contended for territory in the Mondawmin neighborhoods. For the most part, the police retreated, and except for a few tear gas and smoke grenades, they did not fire on the students.

Looking back on some of the videos from the scene now, especially the raw video from ground level embedded above, I get the distinct impression that what happened was almost like a "live fire" training exercise for police to see how a crowd would react to an arbitrary police action in an urban area and to find out whether or not it could be controlled by the presence of riot police alone. That's what it looked like to me. It didn't go well.

The students and the residents participating in the resistance lost their fear of police that day in Baltimore, and that's critical for understanding what happened later. The looting and vandalism and arson happened later, and though the focus has been on those relatively random and relatively  isolated actions, there were targeted actions that were much more important (IMHO).

Dozens of police vehicles were trashed or burned, for example. As police vehicles sped through the Penn North area, they were pelted with rocks, bottles, paint and other objects. Some were parked along the streets and were attacked and burned by the crowds. This was targeted rage against police, not the kind of "mob violence" and looting that was being focused on by the media. The people were no longer afraid, and they vented their anger on the appropriate targets. The police. The police, for their part, largely withdrew until they obtained the protection of the National Guard the following day.

This needs to be clear: the people of Baltimore (at least in that area) rose up and said "No more." They literally forced the police out until such time as they returned with the protection of troops.

That was the most important aspect of the first day of the Baltimore Uprising, and it is barely recognized by most observers. It's been sent down the Memory Hole, but much of the evidence is still retrievable through videos like the one above.

There were other incidents, such as confrontations between drunken white baseball fans and largely but not exclusively black protesters outside Camden Yards -- which ultimately resulted in the cancellation of games and the absurd sight of a game played in an empty stadium.

These confrontations involved a lot of physical interaction and fighting between the drunken white folks and the angry black (and brown and white) protesters that led to a lot of mayhem outside Orioles Park. Some of it is seen in this video -- it's quite long, and I'm not embedding it. The Camden Yards footage is around 15 minutes in.

Again, it's clear the demonstrators had lost their fear, not only of police but of drunken white folks, too. This is important.

What I've seen while reviewing some of the video captures of the Baltimore "riots" reminds me a lot of incidents in the West Bank during which unarmed Palestinians confront heavily armed Israeli police and troops, and many of the urban disturbances in Ukraine during the prelude to and aftermath of the overthrow of Yanukovych. There are many other examples one could cite -- uprisings in Greece and other parts of the European "periphery", for example -- that follow a distinctive pattern, essentially a vocabulary, of incitement and repression, over and over and over again, sometimes leading to overthrows or revolution, but often leading nowhere at all -- except to more of the same. In other words, the struggle between arbitrary authority and resisting populations becomes routinized, almost institutionalized, but with little or no discernible effect or outcome.

Despite numerous protests against police violence around the country in the past year or so in city after city, the Baltimore Uprising is the first time I'm aware of that civilians responded to police provocation and violence with targeted violence of their own, albeit there have been some incidents of targeted vandalism of police facilities in other cities (Albuquerque among others) during the protests against violent policing and murder.

The results in Baltimore were predictable: the curfew and National Guard presence specifically designed to protect the police and civic institutions, not so much to protect  the citizens or their property. Given some of the confrontations during the curfew, it would almost be funny, except for the fact that people are still being treated violently and outrageously by police all over the country, and far, far too many are being killed day in and day out.

However, I think we are seeing a distinctive change in the way civilians respond to police provocation and violence.

The Baltimore Uprising represents something new in the ongoing struggle against violent policing.

It can lead to positive change or it can lead to disaster, or it can lead nowhere at all.

It all depends, methinks, on calculations made behind the scenes by the PTB. How much mayhem are they willing to endure and engage in in order to perpetuate systematized injustice? What is the benefit to them for doing so?

And how much more injustice are the people willing to endure?

I've suggested that we are past the "tipping point" with regard to police violence. The previous situation is not sustainable, but simply because we've gone past the tipping point, it doesn't mean the resolution will necessarily be positive.

The economy went over a cliff after all. The dire and destructive results are all around us. Simply because a crisis reaches a climax is no guarantee of positive outcomes.

In fact, what happens is that populations tend to adjust to the new reality, no matter how bad it is. The tipping point of violent policing may have been passed, and already dire situation may get worse.  We don't know, and we can't necessarily direct the outcome.

Hailing the mom who beat up her son in Baltimore that day, though, may be the harbinger of what is to come.

Just saying...

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