Back in 2013, creator of the HBO hit The Wire David Simon wrote a scathing attack on American capitalism arguing that the relentless pursuit of profit had created ‘two Americas’, one with a viable economy and future, and the other completely devoid of all hope. He wrote:
That’s what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.
That’s the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we’ve managed to marginalise?
Those people, mostly African Americans, are now expressing the rage pent up from decades of economic alienation, dire poverty and police brutality. While the vast majority are protesting peacefully, there are a significant number of rioters who are using the tragic death of Freddie Gray to vent their frustrations on a city and country that has not only forgotten them, but actively worked to make their lives miserable.
This is not to excuse those engaging in violent and destructive acts, but to try and understand where they have come from and what has caused the explosion of hate. Because the truth is that Baltimore is the America we have built, and Baltimore is the America we asked for.
The statistics on the neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up are horrifying. As Think Progress reports:
Freddie Gray grew up in a neighborhood particularly plagued by the problems that have long faced the city of Baltimore. In Sandtown-Winchester, more than half of the people between the ages of 16 and 64 are out of work and the unemployment rate is double that for the city at one in five. Median income is just $24,000, below the poverty line for a family of four, and nearly a third of families live in poverty. Meanwhile, somewhere between a quarter to a third of the buildings are vacant, compared to 5 percent in the city as a whole.
Rather than create a viable city to live in, Baltimore and thousands of cities across America spend their resources on policing communities and locking them up. Once you understand the environment many residents of Baltimore have grown up in, the only thing remarkable about the events unfolding this week is that so many have chosen not to engage in rioting and looting – a testament to the enduring spirit of the residents who have grown up with unimaginable violence and hostility.
The riots in Baltimore are the result of a toxic cauldron of poverty, racism, and social alienation that has been simmering for decades, and are a direct result of the America we have all participated in building. When you create a society based on a philosophy of consumption, selfishness and greed, you cannot be surprised its citizens reflect those values in moments of crisis. Just as Wall St moguls pillaged the economy when free from rule and regulation, so too do the poverty stricken when an opportunity arises. While the looters in Baltimore are engaging in criminal activity, they are simply copying their leaders – the difference being they are mostly black and poor while Wall St is overwhelmingly white and rich (it should come as no surprise that no senior executives went to jail after destroying half the global economy).
We should not be focusing on the rioting and looting going on in Baltimore, but rather the peaceful protests about an issue America must comes to terms with. There is too much poverty. There is too much racism. The police are routinely killing unarmed black men. Communities are divided. There is no hope. While you may not live in this America, millions do and they are making their voices heard whether you like it or not.
Just as we created the robber barons on Wall St, we created the looters in Baltimore. Until we understand that ‘they’ are ‘us’ we can never hope to stop it.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.