One Police Plaza

Racial Nightmare: From Baltimore to New York

May 4, 2015

The nation’s racial nightmare moved from Baltimore to New York with the near-fatal shooting of a young white cop by a 35-year-old black man with what Police Commissioner Bill Bratton described as “an extensive arrest history.”

Rioting in Baltimore followed the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, another black man with an extensive arrest history, who prosecutor Marilyn Mosby charged had been arrested without cause and suffered a fatal spinal cord injury inside a police van.

No one has yet offered an explanation for the weekend shooting of 25-year-old NYPD officer Brian Moore by 35-year-old Demetrius Blackwell. Bratton said that Moore and his sergeant, Erik Jansen, while operating an unmarked police car, stopped Blackwell, who was suspiciously adjusting his waistband. “The male immediately turned,” said Bratton, “and deliberately fired several times into the vehicle, striking Moore in the face.” He died Monday.

In short, there appears to be no end to what seems like war between police departments and young black males. Nor is there agreement on its causes. After the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager who attacked a white cop, months of rioting followed, making Ferguson a symbol of the nation’s racial divide. The national media cited as a root cause the fact that Ferguson’s police force and city government were mostly white in a mostly black city.

But in Baltimore, three of the six police officers arrested in Gray’s death — including Caesar Goodson, who is charged with second-degree murder in Gray’s death —are black, as is Baltimore’s police commissioner and its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, which only shows that black mayors can be as incompetent as white ones.

Following Gray’s death, Rawlings-Blake was accused of giving the rioters “space” to let them vent or blow off steam. The police stood by as stores were looted and cars burned. Outside law enforcement appeared only after events had spiraled out of control.

The situation was reminiscent of Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991, where, under a well-meaning Mayor David Dinkins, the police stood by during three days of rioting.

As  former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who helped put down the Crown Heights riot, put it to Al Sharpton on MSNBC, the Baltimore police “were reluctant to engage and in retrospect that was a mistake.” More graphically, Kelly added: you can’t stand by and see a store pillaged and not have any police response.

Amid the Baltimore riot new racial rhetoric has spouted. After Rawlings-Blake called the rioters “thugs,” a Baltimore City Councilman said that calling the rioters “thugs,” was tantamount to calling them “niggers.” The hapless Rawlings-Blake apologized.

Now let’s turn to the arrests of the six Baltimore cops. As sincere and photogenic as prosecutor Mosby appears on TV, she’s a neophyte, with limited prosecutorial experience, on the job just four months.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson might have warned her that it’s easy to arrest; it's harder to convict. In 1999, Johnson charged four NYPD cops with the murder of the unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was shot 19 times after one of the cops imagined he was reaching for a gun that turned out to be a wallet.

Then, the police union went to work. Union lawyers convinced an appellate panel to move the trial out of the Bronx, where they felt the cops’ convictions were all but guaranteed. The trial was moved to Albany, of all places, where judicial authorities handpicked a judge. The cops were all acquitted.

There’s a cautionary tale here for the city of Baltimore and prosecutor Mosby. Supporters of the six cops have noted the alacrity with which she brought the arrests, including second-degree murder charges against officer Caesar Goodson, which, as the judicial process plays out, could prove problematic.

Meanwhile, supporters of Gray, who had planned a protest march before the cops’ summary arrests, turned the march into one of “celebration.” Should the cops be acquitted or Goodson’s charges reduced or something else occurs that is not to the protestors’ liking, Baltimore officials had better be prepared. 

In New York Mayor Bill de Blasio learned this the hard way. After the “chokehold” death of Eric Garner — yet another black man who after resisting arrest died at the hands of the police — de Blasio gave protestors virtually free reign across the city. Two NYPD officers were subsequently assassinated by a deranged black man, who traveled to New York from Baltimore. Many New Yorkers, cops and civilians, fairly or unfairly, blamed de Blasio for having created a climate that led to their deaths.

Following Gray’s death, de Blasio announced that protestors must obey police orders or face arrest. Last Thursday over 100 protestors were arrested. Back in December, the mayor had resisted calls by police union president Patrick Lynch that he make a similar statement concerning resisting arrest.

Those arrests led to a threat from Kirsten John Foy of Sharpton’s National Action Network. “If last night was the casting of the die, the summer is going to be hot. . . . The streets will be flooded, your stores will be shut down. The airwaves will be shut down. The city will be shut down.”

Now, let’s turn to the “broader social issue” that President Obama mentioned following Gray’s death in Baltimore. Despite trillions of dollars poured into African-American communities since President Johnson’s 1964 anti-poverty legislation, African-Americans as a group — black males in particular — remain on the lowest rung of the American totem pole.

Recent immigrant groups — whether Hispanic or Asian, whose first language is not English — have surpassed African-Americans in every category of success.

Take the Chinese, who during the 19th and early 20th centuries suffered discrimination as harsh and severe as African-Americans. You don’t have to be a social scientist to explain what has happened since discrimination dissipated for them. “It’s not that Chinese kids are inherently smarter,” says Tony Canapi, the president of the NYPD’s Asian Jade Society of officers. “It’s that their parents are on them all the time. They don’t want their kids to suffer the hardships they did. Education is the key. It trumps ethnicity, religion and race. Once you have education, nobody can take it away from you.”

The image of Baltimore’s Toya Graham, a black, single mother of six, has been plastered all over TV after she bopped her teenage son upside the head as he prepared to throw a rock upon leaving school as the riots began. But an equally important image has been absent: that of black fathers. Over 72 per cent of black children are born today to single mothers.

Finally, let’s put this into some perspective; the troubles of African-Americans have not occurred in a vacuum. Maybe we can begin to understand this by viewing Jacob Lawrence’s “One-Way Ticket” of his “Great Migration” series at the Museum of Modern Art. His 60 panels depict the great migration of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early the 20th century, each panel and understated caption beneath it, recalling the African-American experience in America of violence and terror.

Take Panel 42, of two black men in silhouette at a southern railroad station, with a hulking white sheriff, his gun belt about his hips looming before them and the caption: “They also made it very difficult for migrants to leave the south. They often went to railroad stations and arrested the Negroes wholesale, which, in turn, made them miss their trains.”

Or Panel 14, of a white judge, seated high and all-powerful over two sloping black men beneath him, and the caption: “Among the social conditions that existed, which was [sic] partly the cause of the migration, was the injustice to the Negro in the courts.”

And lastly this. In Panel 22, of three black men in handcuffs, heads lowered, with thick black iron bars in front of them and the caption “Another of the social causes of the migrants leaving was that at times they did not feel safe or it was not the best thing to be found in the streets late at night. They were arrested at the slightest provocation.”


Copyright © 2015 Leonard Levitt