The drivers behind Baltimore’s pain

The Observer editorial board

Sisters Jerrie Mckenny (left) and Tia Sexton embrace as people sing Amazing Grace Tuesday in Baltimore.
Sisters Jerrie Mckenny (left) and Tia Sexton embrace as people sing Amazing Grace Tuesday in Baltimore. AP

It goes without saying, or it should, that the rioting in Baltimore is inexcusable. It is also unsurprising, and it presents an opportunity for America to pause and consider what’s driving the outburst and what to do about it.

Nothing justifies the eruption Monday in response to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody. Offenders set more than 150 fires, looted stores and injured 20 police officers. Such behavior is tragic, and undercuts the message peaceful protesters delivered previously. Gray’s family, to its credit, called for calm, and President Obama on Tuesday rebuked the instigators as “criminals and thugs.”

Though the method is inappropriate, the anger behind it is not only understandable but morally demanded by the facts on the ground.

African-Americans lack trust in the police department in many U.S. cities – and for good reason in some places. In case after case, questionable actions by officers have led to tragic results. And so we see Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Walter Scott in North Charleston. All were unarmed black men (or boys, in Tamir’s case), killed by white police officers. Now Freddie Gray is dead.

Baltimore has not released details about how Gray’s spinal column was broken while in police custody. That’s part of the problem. The lack of any explanation, let alone charges, creates a vacuum that the rioters are filling.

The Baltimore Sun reported that the city has lost or settled more than 100 cases related to police brutality just from 2011 to 2014. The city paid out $5.7 million in settlements and spent an additional $5.8 million on outside law firms during that time. The toll on public trust in the police department cannot be measured in dollars.

An even broader problem driving the unrest in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere is the sense of hopelessness among too many poor, young African-Americans today. Some are raised in an environment with substandard education, no positive role models and no economic opportunities. Despairing of any real shot at a better life, they rage following a spark like Freddie Gray or Michael Brown. With no ladder out of their pit, they calculate: What do I have to lose? It all feeds a complex cycle that has been building for decades and is difficult to short-circuit. It will require police departments working to improve their relationships with their communities, as Charlotte has begun to do. But it will take much more than that.

A 17-year-old named Dewayne Fowler stood before 500 people at Charlotte’s Westin Hotel on Tuesday. The crowd had just heard how he grew from a rage-filled 11-year-old to a determined high school graduate thanks to the work of Thompson Child & Family Focus. He gave most of the credit to Cedric Coit, a Thompson worker who believed in him for years.

We need a lot more Cedric Coits. Without him, Dewayne Fowler might have been on the streets of Baltimore instead of on a Charlotte stage.