Dianne Williamson: Rioting hurts the message
Michael Rogers lives a lifetime away from his middle-class roots in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he was raised on the city’s West Side and attended private school.
Today he lives and works in East Baltimore, in one of that beleaguered city’s poorest neighborhoods. Just 26, he’s co-founder and executive director of the Charm City Clinic, which provides health care to the impoverished community surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital. Doctors from Johns Hopkins offer free health screenings and staffers help clients gain better access to medical care.
For seven years, Rogers has devoted himself to this low-income community, befriending his neighbors and working as a community organizer on health and social justice issues. In the days following the death of Freddie Gray, he took to the streets and marched in protest. And when looting and violence broke out just blocks from his apartment, he grabbed his camera and documented the mayhem.
“It’s been a hectic week,” he said April 29. “I think there are two sides to the struggle people are giving voice to.”
A self-described “radical, anti-capitalist liberal,” Rogers has views grounded in his identification with the challenges faced by men of color in his neighborhood, challenges he’s witnessed firsthand. He said he’s seen Baltimore police treat his black neighbors more harshly than white citizens. He said he’s seen unnecessary arrests for petty crimes such as loitering. The despair of his neighbors is palpable, along with their fear and resentment.
And he is quick to tick off the grim statistics: From 2010 to 2014, 109 people were killed in Maryland by police, including 31 in Baltimore. During that same period, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements in connection with brutality and civil rights violations.
“There is a very acute sense that the murder of Freddie Gray is nothing new,” said Rogers, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the Johns Hopkins University. “This is part of the everyday life for the people who live here. There’s a constant and pervasive fear of police in my neighborhood. I don’t know any young black man who hasn’t had a negative encounter with police. For everyone in this neighborhood, every day life is criminalized.”
He said black neighborhoods are victims of “generations of systemic neglect” by Baltimore leaders. And he called the violence and looting, “remarkably restrained compared to the generations of structural violence and racism this community has endured.”
Some argue otherwise and I agree with Baltimore’s mayor, who on Monday noted the difference between peaceful protests from people seeking answers, and “the thugs who only want to incite violence and destroy our city.” Since then, some have slammed the word “thug” as the new N-word, even though it’s been used to describe white union bosses and dictators like Vladimir Putin.
Rogers’ views coincide at least in part with President Barack Obama, who called tensions between police and the black community “a slow-rolling crisis” that has simmered for decades.
“This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new,” the president said Tuesday.
The challenge, then, is to address these hard truths without victimizing innocent people in the process. Rogers called the rioting the actions of “people doing what they need to be heard.” He certainly knows his community, and these people have a right to seek redress.
But they don’t have a right to burn buildings, throw rocks and attack cops. As evidenced by the media’s focus on Baltimore in flames, such violence overshadows the message of those trying so hard to be heard, and reduces their anger to ashes.
Contact Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette columnist Dianne Williamson at email@example.com.