Understanding the Baltimore Protests Over the Death of Freddie Gray

05/01/2015 08:25 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

In 1961, Frantz Fanon published a very insightful book that has gone on to become one of the most important books ever published about anti-colonialism, and one of my personal favorites, The Wretched of the Earth. In this book, Fanon talks about violence in relation to anti-colonial movements, specifically the anti-colonial movement that was taking place in Algeria. Fanon argued that colonialism and imperialism are always instituted through violence by the colonizer, and that for this reason, the only way for the colonized to ensure their physical, mental, and political liberation is through the use of organized violence. In fact, I am being a bit too conservative with Fanon's argument. Fanon was not simply writing a book justifying organized violence during anti-colonial movements; he was asserting its necessity. Great thinkers such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela and Malcom X have also defended the utilization of violence.

However, this is not a blog post defending violence. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other great leaders of the civil rights movement, Mahatma Gandhi, and other great leaders in history have shown us, nonviolence is not simply an effective strategy but one that is necessary in order to maintain the moral high ground. The issue of violence as a means of protest has always been a complicated one. It is an issue that great philosophers, thinkers, and leaders have struggled with throughout history, and a definite answer has yet to arise. It is an issue that has also become more ideological than a useful tool in trying to dismantle and understand our thoughts. The reason I bring this issue up is in relation to the violent protests we saw in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in another case of apparent police brutality. The question for me becomes: How is one to understand -- though not necessarily justify -- the violent protests that erupted in Baltimore?

African Americans have had a long history of oppression in the United States. This history of oppression can be traced back to slavery, but it continued through the Jim Crow era and lives on today. So many people in the United States have doubted the continued existence of racism today. Many of these people, including the Supreme Court, in its decision gutting important parts of the Voting Rights Act, have asserted that racism is over and that America lives in a post-racial world. However, this is absolutely and completely ridiculous. Racism has taken a new form, and spotting racism is not as easy as looking out for the Ku Klux Klan member in a hood or the neo-Nazi with a swastika tattoo.

Racism in America has taken on an institutional form, and everyone is complicit in this form of systemic racism. In fact, this form of racism does not require any intentional action to exist; it simply requires that people go about their lives as they normally would. Some illustrations of the existence of institutional racism can be found in the following statistics. According to The Sentencing Project, the average American man's lifetime likelihood of going to prison is on in nine, but for a white American man it's one in 17, and for an African-American man it's one in three, and this is not because crimes happen disproportionately in African-American neighborhoods. The average American woman's lifetime likelihood of going to prison is one in 56, but for a white American woman it's one in 111, and for an African-American woman it's one in 18. Over 88 percent of people in America's overcrowded prisons are people of color. While the average poverty rate for white Americans is 10 percent, for African Americans it's 28 percent, and this is not because white Americans are somehow more hardworking than African Americans.

Michelle Alexander wrote a seminal contemporary book on racism called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and in it she relays the evolution of institutional racism in contemporary America, especially in relation to the so-called "war on drugs." The average income is lower in African-American communities than in white American communities, and the unemployment rate in African-American communities is almost twice what it is in white American communities. A white male with a criminal record is also 58 times more likely to get a job than an African-American male with no criminal record at all. According to an ACORN study, in 2001 African Americans were denied mortgages five times as often as white Americans were, and African Americans have a higher high-school dropout rate than Caucasian Americans, in an educational system that is increasingly segregated. Now, many may deny that these statistics demonstrate any form of institutional racism, but I hope that most are not so blind as to ignore the pressing racial reality in America.

It is within this context of institutional racism that one must try to understand the police brutality against African Americans. The Baltimore protest can be understood in the context of an incredible movement against the violent brutalities imposed on the African-American community, especially via police action, sparked by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice (who was only 12 years old), Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and so many others across the country. It is true that most police officers are not bad people, but the violence against African Americans can be understood as a direct result of the systemic oppression of and discrimination against African Americans in the United States coupled with the institutional impunity that police officers enjoy when incidents like this occur. The media is also very complicit in this, because even though 80 to 90 percent of the murders that happen in America are intraracial, major news outlets focus on interracial crimes 60 percent of the time, and 75-percent more if it is an interracial crime were an African-American male is reported to have killed a white female.

Now, like most people, I condemn violent protests, including what took place in Baltimore. However, the violence ought to be seen as occurring within the institutional context that has bred it. It is also very important to note at this point that most of the protests going on in Baltimore are nonviolent. I may not condone the violence in Baltimore, but I do understand it. Considering the violent and brutal system of institutional racism that African Americans have to live within every single day, it is a wonder that the violence is not more widespread.