The riots in Baltimore teach us much about America. They’re dark insights.

Summary: Political violence is a flare over society illuminating aspects of America about which we could otherwise only guess. This post attempts to describe things obvious but unstated in the flood of words about the riots in Baltimore and relate them to the quiet revolution now in progress.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Martin Luther King on nonviolence

What can we learn from the riots in Baltimore? The most obvious lesson: they demonstrate our amnesia and inability to learn. We could send America’s journalists and the chattering classes on vacation and just rerun articles from the late 1960’s about their race riots. That would also show our limited progress from that dark time.

These riots are wonderful for the news media (“if it bleeds, it leads”). They’re fodder for America’s thumb-sucking intelligentsia (see examples below). They provide us with some dark humor.  For example, the NY Times drolly reported that “… {new attorney general} Lynch’s aides said that improving police morale and finding common ground between law enforcement and minority communities would be among her top priorities”  (Salon’s Elias Isquith reasonably replied “As the chaos in Baltimore has shown, it’s far too soon to shift our attention to the grievances of cops.”)

But the problem of weaponized police transcends partisan lines, as shown by the NY Times’ description of how Obama’s “Justice Dept. Routinely Backs Officers’ Use of Force“:

At the Supreme Court, where the limits of police power are established, Mr. Holder’s Justice Department has supported police officers every time an excessive-force case has made its way to arguments. Even as it has opened more than 20 civil rights investigations into local law enforcement practices, the Justice Department has staked out positions that make it harder for people to sue the police and that give officers more discretion about when to fire their guns.

… “There is an inherent conflict between people at the Justice Department trying to stop police abuses and other people at the Justice Department convincing the Supreme Court that police abuses should be excused,” said Ronald L. Kuby, a Manhattan civil rights lawyer.

More pointedly, these riots provide a teachable moment for the Left. William Teach at Right Wing News points out the evidence about the political failure which Baltimore’s flames illuminate. Increasing political participation of minorities was a solution to the 1960s race riots.


In no way should anyone defend the Baltimore PD. The information we’ve seen and the video puts the target for the issue squarely on their backs. … The city has a Black mayor, police chief, police commissioner, and 43% of the police department is Black. Eight of the fourteen city council members are Black.

The magnitude of this failure is documented by the $5.7 million in settlements paid for police brutality by Baltimore since 2011 (despite the odds against winning such litigation). Also speaking against the Democratic Party is the decay of so many formerly great cities in America under their rule (there are other factors at work, but without effective political response).

Alice when the Madness Returns
From “When the Madness Returns”.

The key is not the event, but our response to it

It’s needless to predict that both parties will confess nothing and learn nothing from these events. Worse, even the best voices in the tragedy that calls itself America have descended into madness. Except in Disney films, herds of lemmings don’t jump off cliffs. But people do, urged on by cheerleaders like the usually brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates, here urging self-harm as political theater — a form of dramatic self-expression.

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.”

Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

Others working this theme are worse, such Benji Hart at Salon: “Baltimore’s violent protesters are right: Smashing police cars is a legitimate political strategy“. His conclusion:

What kinds of actions will it take to make it widely understood that all policing is racist terror, and justice can only come with its permanent abolition? Black power, Queer power, power to Baltimore, and to all oppressed people who know what time it is.

For a good rebuttal see this by Fredrik deBoer (Purdue). Muddle-headed thinking like this has nil political effect on the streets, but shows the confusion of the classes from which political guidance might come — and why the rioters lack leadership, plans, or goals.

The response of police is equally sad. The evidence — especially from videos — shows that many of these incidents are police beat downs or outright executions (e.g., Tamir Rice, Eric Garner). The officers were not at risk. Yet the police I’ve talked with, and those who work with them, give the “officers felt threatened” defense. Along with the equally specious “they need more training” and “felt demoralized by civilian leadership” excuses.

The great constant in America is that nobody assumes responsibility. Not the communities with sky-high crime rates, not the police tasked with the impossible task of maintaining order in them, or the citizens of the great rich nation that has allowed these communities to rot.

"No Violence" by shit2009
“No Violence” by shit2009.


These events provide the nucleus for effective political organization, the raw energy to mobilize powerful coalitions. But they tend to occur in inchoate peoples who lack a political vision of a better world (i.e., something more than dreams).

Their effect is to divide us even further. Resentments build in the Black underclass towards the police and society. Fears increase in the White middle class. The police become even more isolated and insular. The 1% smiles.

We are losing. We have been losing for decades. We will continue to lose until our politics change.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

— Martin Luther King Jr. in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967).

Update: who started the riots

Mother Jones reports that eyewitnesses say that Monday’s riots in Baltimore started after police actions created a massive crowd of students facing police in full riot gear. Police stopped public transit, preventing students from returning home — creating a crowd in front of police lines. Exactly the opposite of standard tactic of dispersing crowds. It’s as if they wanted riots.

I see no other journalists investigating this story. As usual, the police narrative is the story.

Other posts in this series

For More Information

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19 thoughts on “The riots in Baltimore teach us much about America. They’re dark insights.”

  1. “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

    ….and it is quite obvious that Martin Luther King Jr., was a fool. How could one get any more non-violent than this man and yet, he was killed, most violently? So much for non-violent protests. He may have loved his enemies, but his enemies were not hearing his message, nor were they filling themselves with love from King’s message of “hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Yeah, that really, really worked out so well for him.

    1. Shelby,

      History shows the cost of progress is often high, which is why we consider heroes the people who pay to bring it to us. Lincoln died, but slavery did not return — and his words remain alive today. MLK died, but Jim Crow did not return — and his words remain alive today. Millions died fighting the NAZIs, but their scourge has not returned — and the example of their sacrifice remains alive today.

      MLK, along with others, brought us what might be the most important of these messages — that we can resolve our conflicts without killing. Given the power that technology has given us — destructive abilities available to regular people (as we learned on 9/11) — that lesson might be essential if we’re to survive.

      “It’s unwise to be born; it’s unwise to be married; it’s unwise to live; and it’s wise to die.”
      — From George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.

  2. Although it’s important to note that one of the reasons MLK was so effective was the existence of Malcolm X and other radical types who *did* advocate violence; King could say, “if you don’t want to work with me, you’ll have to deal with them.”

    So while violence is not necessary to effect change, I think the *threat* of violence still might be.

  3. Don’t forget the international situation at that time. Both Kennedy and Johnson were concerned with our image in the “Third World”. For Malcom read Fidel, who stayed in Harlem on his 1961 UN trip.

    1. Socialbill,

      I’d like to see some evidence that domestic policy about Blacks was substantially influenced by foreign policy considerations. I very much doubt that.

      I suspect you’ll find some in the chattering classes droning on about such thing. I have a woodpecker making loud noise in the tree next to my study. He does not influence my actions.

  4. “Political participation of minorities was a solution to the 1960s race riots>’

    Today “Baltimore has a black mayor, police chief, police commissioner and 43% of the police department is black. Eight of the fourteen city council members are black.”

    What does the traditional Big State left make of this contemporary situation? Certainly a small portion of the black population of Baltimore has benefited from “political participation.” yet issues of normlessness and community disintegration have only accelerated since the late 1960s.

    Was multiculturalism simply a career advancement strategy for a highly vocal and visible upwardly mobile segment of the black population in Baltimore?

    1. Jim,

      Having lived through those years as a good Leftist, I can assure you that most people sincerely believed that increased political participation — and increased number of elected officials — of a minority group would have several kinds of beneficial effects — and no ill effects.

      This was a logical forecast given our history and political science theory. Even now I am unsure why this did not happen.

      Look at the role of persecuted immigrants in the Northeastern cities of the early 20th C. They gained representation through the large political “machines”. These were fabulously corrupt, but ran those cities as well as or better then the current expertly design systems.

      Perhaps political scientists understand what’s happened. I have not followed the literature since the mid-1970s, and am mystified.

  5. Excellent post. Spot on.

    I found these tweets, by Chief Operating Office of the Baltimore Orioles John Angelos, in response to the riot to be quite poignant:

    “That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.”

    – Excerpt from Baltimore Protest, Elite Ripping Off America More Important Than Baseball: Baltimore Baseball Owner, Daily Kos

  6. Yeah, they stoped public transit here in Berkeley during the last set of protests, and they blocked streets with police cars. Media blamed protesters but nobody was there, the station was just boarded up. I also notice that at North Berkeley there’s been construction recently, upgrading the roll-down metal gates blocking the station entrance. Maybe this is some kind of standard police tactic these days?

  7. in evolutionary terms, violence was common in tribal settings, and war between tribes was probably fairly constant. the existence of such warfare is theorized to have created very strong altruistic bonds within a tribe, since group cooperation (including shared learning) was one of the main survival adaptations of early humans. as well as other tribal primates. but human evolution elevated group altruism, mutual reciprocity and shared learning to a new high.

    the “modern human” in cognitive-linguistic / evolutionary terms came to be between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. social organization during that time was very minimal, there were no complex institutional social forms.

    at the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago, the atmosphere changed, more CO2, and the ecosystem changed. [more profuse plant life than during arid ice ages] widespread farming became possible, but took another 5,000+ years to get started.

    much of what we assume to be human nature (social behavior) is actually very specific to the last 4,000 years or so, after farming began, and nomadic hunting/gathering stopped when people formed settlements. complex institutions formed, including military hierarchies, police to control peasants and slaves, etc.. “axial” religion to provide the psycho-social scaffolding for hierarchical patriarchy and “law and order”, tribal culture evolved into supertribal kingdoms, then, imperial culture, with the addition of authoritarian control. the idea of contemplative spirituality (purity myths, such as the world is full of evil, sin, and suffering that must be atoned for to receive salvation and redemption) was necessary to the system of warrior-mystic hierarchies that developed in all axial cultures. contemplative mysticism was a major departure from the “magical’ nature and “body” worship of nomadic tribes.

    so, the tribal war impulse was adapted to the needs of the ruling elites in hierarchical cultures.

    please note that the problem of group punishment of non-cooperative individuals was always present for our primate ancestors (construction of morals). such punishments can’t become so extreme that they become more maladaptive than the non-cooperation. some room for innovation and nonconformity has to be allowed, otherwise stasis sets in, and eventually becomes a threat to survival when new opportunities and/or threats emerge that require new cultural adaptations.

    the problem is that such hierarchies escape the kind of local wisdom, mutual reciprocity and corrective feedback loops that tribes operated on, and the hierarchies came to be seen as fragile and unstable, open to corruption and dysfunction. “the rise and fall of civilizations”

    sociopaths are both self-motivated to rise to higher levels in hierarchies than they are in tribal settings, and the “system” of hierarchy provides perverse incentives for sociopaths to rise. they are willing to engage in dehumanizing “managerial” behavior for the sake of gaining ego gratification, power and money that non-sociopaths are not.

    as social complexity has risen to levels that are utterly bewildering, the problem of the rise of sociopathic leaders, and the expansion of bureaucratic apparatus that serves them, has increased even further.

    the modern rise of individual achievement over older medieval communal social forms and practices is directly correlated to property rights in english law. as the commercial classes rose against the traditional aristocracy and high church elites, “primitive accumulation” (as Marx said) was accomplished by the commercial classes by the legal theft of the traditional commons. one of the main motivations was to force self-sufficient peasants off the land an into ghettos where their labor could be exploited. such antics required the use of military and police force against the peasant classes.

    so much for the enlightened origins of “capitalism”.

  8. A thread about Baltimore without a **single** mention of the city’s deindustrialization?!?! David Simon’s “The Corner” is eloquent on the subject, and Simon sure doesn’t dance around “normlessness and community disintegration”.

    1. Snake,

      I touched on the larger economic issues in the post. But I wonder at its relevance. Most of the once-great northeastern cities made no effective response to these trends, although a few did so effectively.

      As I said, the response to a crisis tells us as much or more than the crisis. The weak response then — as by the rioters now — is a problem to which I see few proposed solutions.

  9. “But I wonder at its relevance.”

    Well, yeah, me too. I wanted to mention “The Corner”, because I think it really is a classic about these matters. But you’re right, deindustrialization and the degradation of labor has been going on for a while now, and I’ve seen no serious efforts to stop it. If I had to guess, I’d say that redistribution of some sort is essential. Of work, by reducing the work week. Of wealth, by reinstating a simplified and steeply progressive tax code.

    But I don’t expect any of this to get any serious discussion, outside of a few leftie economics blogs. Bernie Sanders will likely talk along these lines, but he’s likely to get a Big Smear campaign right out of the gate. I imagine some of our enterprising “journalists” will point out that he seems to be adequately fed, and aren’t socialists supposed to share all their food with the poor? Hypocrite!

    1. Snake,

      “But I don’t expect any of this to get any serious discussion”

      This post — like most here — is not about the problem, but our response. The internet overflows with people discussing the world’s problems. But the significant thing is the relative lack of discussion about actions, what we should do about it. See today’s post for more about this.

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