Baltimore and Black Lives Matter: A Reading List


Today, Baltimore is under a state of emergency as protesters decrying the mysterious, shameful death of Freddie Gray in police custody take to the streets. The word “riot” has been bandied about, and news cameras have descended on the city, offering a confusing picture of flames and stone-throwing, often with little context. To add nuance, background, and theory to the stream of news, here is some of the best writing we’ve seen on what’s happening in Baltimore.

The context and history of Baltimore:

Ta-Nehisi Coates is typically spot-on with his insistence that we return to the cause of the unrest:

…it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray. An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?

Coates cites Conor Friedersdorf on the unbearably corrupt and violent history of the Baltimore Police Department.

“A grandmother’s bones were broken. A pregnant woman was violently thrown to the ground. Millions of dollars were paid out to numerous victims of police brutality. And almost none of us noticed! … Baltimore protests are appropriate regardless of what happened to Freddie Gray, as is more federal scrutiny and intervention.”

The New York Times offers a more modest but probing feature on how Baltimore’s relationship with the police is “broken.” And “rough rides” — or driving an unbelted suspect around at top speeds — remain a common and awful tactic, according to this piece at the Baltimore Sun. This is what many believe caused or exacerbated Gray’s injuries:

But Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries. Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride. Others have also received payouts after filing lawsuits.

The socioeconomically stratified geography of Baltimore is crucial to understanding the story. This blog post by a resident biking the city offers a firsthand view of what is occurring. In Salon a few weeks ago, Brittney Cooper tackled the nexus of privatization and racism in creating killer cops.

Counteracting the “riot” media narrative:

Mic has a list of ten pictures of peaceful protesters, people cleaning up, or protecting businesses to counteract the photos of burning cars that mainstream media organizations are spotlighting. An eyewitness says that white sports fans helped push things over the edge on Saturday night: “Here were drunk, angry, white baseball fans and bar-goers who were equally guilty for the violence that happened that night and embraced the chance to fight and provoked some of it, and any accurate narrative must acknowledge that.” On a similar note, the Baltimore Orioles’ COO Josh Angelos unleashed a spectacular Twitter rant reminding fans about the root causes of the anger and unrest (namely, removing civil rights from the citizens of his city).

For previous contest on race and rioting, many people have brought up last year’s Keene, New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival riot by white youths to challenge the racialized angle of the media coverage. A few years ago, Chris Hayes went so far as to do a whole segment on “white people” in a style of a mainstream media take on young black people:

The history of “urban” riots in America:

At Bitch Magazine, Tasha Fierce writes passionately about black women in the movement, then and now. Two pieces discuss the larger rationale for property destruction. Think Progress examines the Baltimore riots of 1968, citing the Johnson Administration’s Kerner report, which examined its causes and effects; many others have been circulating Bayard Rustin’s moving and eloquent piece on the Watts riots and their aftermath. Its concluding paragrpah:

Like the liberal consensus which it embodies and reflects, the commission’s imagination and political intelligence appear paralyzed by the hard facts of Negro deprivation it has unearthed, and it lacks the political will to demand that the vast resources of contemporary America be used to build a genuinely great society that will finally put an end to these deprivations. And what is most impractical and incredible of all is that we may very well continue to teach impoverished, segregated, and ignored Negroes that the only way they can get the ear of America is to rise up in violence.