04/29/2015 10:24 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2015

Baltimore Is Burning


Rioting is wrong. Rioting does not undo systemic racism. Rioting does not breed new economic opportunities, build better schools, or expand access to affordable housing. What is being destroyed in Baltimore is being destroyed in a brief flash of pain, and will take a long time to rebuild. And, maybe it won't be rebuilt. Maybe something else will be built there, and home won't be home anymore. But, let's be clear. The riots in Baltimore didn't begin with Freddie Gray. They began the year a Baltimore principal told me about school budget failures, and having to take turns with teachers to answer the phones because the system was bleeding money and couldn't pay the staff. They began with the repeated failure to convict police officers who use excessive force in cities across this country. America watched shows like "The Corner" and HBO's "The Wire" with a sense of detached voyeurism -- we could see their suffering through the television, and folks were glad we didn't have to smell it. We applauded the performances and the storytelling. And, when the show was over and the spotlight on Baltimore-style misery was shut off, we went back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The truth is, Americans forget about poor kids every day until they make noise, and disrupt our solitude and our quiet indifference by breathing too loud, talking too loud, or existing. And, when they explode from our systemic and dispassionate neglect... we are incensed, we militarize local law enforcement, and then we invite the media in to paint a picture of these insurgents with a broad racist brush full of slogans, tags, disdain. We label those same kids we were content to leave flapping in the wind as "thugs, criminals, and hoods" -- we dehumanize them so we can say it's not our fault.

People are asking why are they destroying their own communities. Is their rage nothing more than an unchecked, pointless, excessive and violent tantrum? I've taught kids in Brooklyn who'd never been to downtown Fulton Street. I've taught kids in the Bronx who'd never been on the George Washington Bridge. They are destroying what they have access to. Yes, it's illogical. But, the failure of law enforcement to give a plausible explanation for how Freddie Gray's spine came to be severed is also illogical. Are folks still trying to get their stories straight? And, let's face it, poverty is isolating. We use the police and social class isolation to keep poor Americans in their place and out of other people's backyards. We may not have "Peace Walls" like the ones you find in Belfast, but if you're a young Black or brown person walking in the "wrong" neighborhood, America will let you know you've stepped out of bounds.

Perhaps they are destroying their communities because they imagine their communities don't really belong to them anyway. Perhaps they know they can be displaced when gentrification comes calling. Youth is irrational. Rioting is irrational. But so is our continuing claim to democracy, due process, and justice. We have no credibility with these kids. In lieu of riots, what? Indictments? No. Convictions? No. Police accountability? No. Revised policies that dismantle legal privilege of the unjust? No. What is the viable alternative that these young people can believe in? What can we promise them? "If you put down that rock," ... what?

"If, upon further investigation, we find that a member of our police department acted egregiously, and in ways that resulted in the death of one of our citizens and that will damage the credibility of the entire department, we will expose that officer, prosecute that officer to the fullest extent of the law, and remove him/her from public service with no future benefits" ... said not one mayor ever.

Discipline, correction, and redirection of youth, and those who have lost their way, in any community can only come from those who operate from a place of authentic love, daily activism -- from those who keep coming back to give back, without agenda or self-promotion. Some officials have been measured and cowardly in their condemnation of police abuse (even when we have audio, video and eyewitness testimony), while being curiously outspoken and contemptuous in their denunciation of child rioters. Do they think their hypocrisy doesn't stink like rotten meat?

Rioting is wrong. Rioting does not undo systemic racism. Rioting doesn't breed new economic opportunities, build better schools, or expand access to affordable housing. But, Baltimore is burning because we can't keep up with the body count. Baltimore is burning because people are of greater value than property -- and the grownups should know that already.