The HBO series “The Wire” comes to mind as I see images of Baltimore’s youth unleashing a violent rage that mostly reflects pent up frustrations and anger aimed (mainly) at law enforcement. For those who haven’t seen the show, its focus is power and how it’s exercised in the service of both law enforcement and the criminal element of Baltimore’s underclass while painting a morally ambiguous picture of both. Besides the obvious parallel of setting the show chronicles generational cycles of violence and poverty, the consistent abuses of law enforcement, as well as the diffuse nature of power channeled “officially” and “unofficially” that shed light on the explosive events of late.
The barbaric violence exercised by those entrusted to “protect and serve” this past year, from New York City to Ferguson to Baltimore, has ignited a spontaneous and sometimes violent revolt against police brutality and impunity. Every abuse of power is now magnified in the imagination of folks who’ve been consistently marginalized. The reaction to such barbarities is predictable. As an astute observer has noted, it’s like “lighting a match where the kindling is pretty dry.”
Like in the show, there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” here. There is no morally unambiguous judgment we can make in light of such events. However, we can prioritize our outrage. We can choose to first be outraged by the heinous killing of a young man thanks to his treatment while in police custody and only then consider condemning violent reactions against an institution that systematically perpetrates similar crimes. We can choose to first be incensed by the impunity enjoyed by much of law enforcement before we criticize looting perpetrated by some who will never enjoy such license. We can choose to first be angered by the assassination of young men of color by an organization entrusted to protect us before protestors who block traffic in the hope of highlighting the issue annoy us.