Commentary: Why Riots in Baltimore Are an American Tradition

Far too much of the violence has been perpetrated against people of color.

Freddie Gray is dead and nothing we do can bring him back to life. He joins the list alongside Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and numerous other recent victims of police violence. But the violent reaction in the streets to Freddie Gray's death is not at all surprising.

In remarks at the White House Tuesday afternoon, President Obama condemned the recent violence and looting and argued that it "distracted from multiple days of peaceful protests." But then he added that the peaceful protests "didn't get that much attention." That is precisely the problem.


Protesters can march and chant and tweet all they want, but our country only seems to pay attention to violence. CNN doesn't broadcast wall-to-wall coverage of peaceful demonstrators pleading for social justice. Peace is virtually unpatriotic in a country where we gleefully arm our citizens, execute our criminals and bomb our enemies. Violence is wired in America's DNA.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about it in a speech at Harlem's Riverside Church exactly one year before he was struck down by an assassin's bullet. King recounted his experience trying to counsel young Black men to reject the violence of riots.

The young men responded to King by asking about America's violence and wars. "They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted," Dr. King said. "Their questions hit home," he added, "and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government."

Malcolm X spoke about it, too. "If it is wrong to be violent defending Black women and Black children and Black babies and Black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her," he argued.

Even Rev. Jeremiah Wright spoke about it. "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," he said in a sermon shortly after the September 11 World Trade Center attack.

America was built on violence. Early European settlers murdered or displaced hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. Slave traders forcefully abducted millions of Black families from Africa and brought them here as cheap labor for rich Southern planters. White-hooded terrorists roamed the land on horseback to frighten African-Americans. Lynch mobs marched through towns and villages to round up Blacks to be hanged from trees.

And for all the talk about Black people rioting in Baltimore or Ferguson, many of the nation's deadliest acts of mass violence took place in riots conducted by whites against African-Americans. Nearly a dozen Black men were killed during the New York City draft riots in 1863. More than 100 Blacks were killed in the East St. Louis riots of 1917. And thousands of angry whites attacked African-Americans during the deadly Detroit race riots in 1943.

The Black kids in the streets of Baltimore on Monday did not invent violence. They learned those lessons from the adults in our society, from parents who beat their kids and from cops who shoot their suspects. They learned the lessons from grown men and women who choose not to pay attention as American drones wreak terror from the skies over faraway lands.

We adults in America celebrate violence in a festive annual winter orgy of brutality called the Super Bowl. We spend thousands of dollars to watch elite fighters like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao beat each others' brains out in a Las Vegas casino. And we've made mixed martial arts a multi-billion dollar industry. White college kids even burn police cars and riot when their favorite sports team loses a big game.

Violence is a part of our history, our culture, our politics, even our religion. And far too much of the violence in America has been perpetrated against people of color. That's why it's not surprising that disenfranchised youth, unattached to the formal Black Lives Matter protest movement, would strike out in violence in Baltimore. "A riot is the language of the unheard," Dr. King told CBS's Mike Wallace back in 1966.

Even President John F. Kennedy warned that the absence of social justice could lead to violence. "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable," he said. Yet President Obama acknowledged today that he was unlikely to get a massive investment needed to help urban communities from the Republican Congress in Washington. But he also warned that America can't just pay attention to impoverished communities when a CVS gets burned.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what many of us, and too many of our leaders, want to do. And still we wonder why poor kids turn to violence to solve their problems?

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(Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images)

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