May 26, 2015
Ernest Satterwhite, Contre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Lever Jones, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brison, Charly Leundeu Koenig, Naeschylus Vinzant, Tony Robinson, Anthony Hill, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray are names most people have heard, though passing familiarity may not reveal what they have in common: all are African American men and all were unarmed when they were killed by police between February 2014 an April 2015. Their names are not an exhaustive list of unarmed people killed by the police, nor were only African American males the only ones killed in such a way. However, during that time period, as well as historically in the United States, African America men are far more likely to be killed by the police than their white peers, and this is especially true when discussing shooting where the victim was unarmed. It has led many to believe that African American males are in inherent danger any time they interact with police officers.
For some of the men, their deaths prompted tremendous public outrage. For other of the men, their deaths were simply an unfortunate repeat of a problem that is occurring across America, a phenomenon that is somehow simultaneously too frequent and too infrequent to elicit an outcry. In the scenarios where protests did erupt, the local administrations seemed to fear the potential for violence and mayhem, and, in some instances, those fears proved founded. Riots erupted in response to some of the deaths, though the exact cause of the riots is still disputed. City and police officials suggests that riots are primarily because lawless people use the opportunity of peaceful protests to engage in criminal behavior, particularly looting. However, eye witness accounts of the riots seem to suggest a more complex cause; in many instances, there are reports of police either initiating violence or treating peaceful protestors like criminals. However, even if police or city officials are responsible for escalating some of the peaceful protests to riot status, it is undeniable that America has a history of riots in response to racial unrest. This leads one to wonder what it is about race-based conflict that appears to promote rioting behavior.
On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray was arrested for the possession of an illegal switchblade, which turned out to be a springblade knife that is not illegal under Maryland law A2 (Perez et al., 2015). At the time of his arrest, he was in healthy physical condition. By the end of his transport in a police van, Gray was comatose, although the eyewitness video of his arrest shows a physical condition that might suggest he received a serious injury during the initial arrest. The police transported him to a trauma center, where he died as a result of injuries to his spinal cord. Although eyewitnesses indicated that the police used excessive or unnecessary force against Gray, the majority of his injuries appear to have occurred during his ride in the police van. It is undisputed that he was not secured during the ride, despite the fact that Baltimore’s official policy was to secure prisoners during transport.
Baltimore’s policy requiring that prisoners be secured for transport did not develop in isolation. Baltimore had a disturbing trend of prisoners being injured while transported. Moreover, there is some evidence that these injuries were not incidental. On the contrary, it seems that Gray may have been the victim of a practice known as a ‘nickel ride.’ “That's where they put their captive in the back of the van, hands bound behind his back so he cannot hold on to anything or protect himself, and otherwise unrestrained. Then the driver of the vehicle accelerates repeatedly, whips around corners and periodically slams on the breaks, causing the helpless captive in the back to slam against various parts of the vehicle, often with his head” (Lindorff, 2015). This is not simply a Baltimore problem; it is a well-documented practice in a number of cities, and, like other incidents of excessive force, it seems to impact African American males at a larger rate.
Flight from Police
One of the things that people repeat when investigating the death of unarmed people in police custody is that most of these suspects have, at some point in the incident leading up to their deaths, fled from police officers. The common refrain is that had they not attempted to flee from the arresting officer, then the officers would not have used violence, excessive or otherwise, and the person would not be injured. However, fleeing from police officers might actually be a reasonable response, if the police officers in a particular area have a reputation for using excessive force. For example, in the death of Walter Scott, he was tased by the police officer who later shot him in the back multiple times. This same officer had been named in a lawsuit alleging that he engaged in excessive force by using tasers when their use was not indicated by protocol (Parton, 2015). If a routine stop for a non-violent crime is likely to result in a beating, tasing, or shooting, then fleeing from the police may be an absolutely reasonable response by even non-criminals. Even while acknowledging that police brutality is not the norm in police behavior, one must concede that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by the use of excessive force. This frustration and fear has understandably led to protests and concerns. However, those protests and concerns have led to riots, which many people do not understand.
On April 25, 2015 a protest turned violent, which resulted in 34 arrests as well as injuries to police officers. This initial violence seemed to spark a wave of violence and looting. Local businesses were looted and burned. Maryland’s governor responded by issuing a state of emergency, deploying the Maryland National Guard, and establishing a curfew in order to help maintain control over the city. These were tools and responses similar to those used during the Ferguson riots. A3 On May 3, the National Guard began to withdraw from the city and the city’s night curfew ended. The damage to the city was significant. One of the most meaningful losses may have been the burning of a CVS drugstore building; the city had worked to bring a pharmacy to that neighborhood, and the burning of the CVS means that many of the residents of that area will again be in a position where it is difficult for them to fill prescriptions. In other words, the rioting, burning, and looting only had a negative impact on the local community, leading most people to wonder why people responded by rioting.
The answer to that question is complex. On the one hand, riots appear to be part of a social phenomenon known as group behavior, in which people will step outside of their normal behavior when in a group setting. That is especially true when it comes to criminal behaviors that are normally seen as anti-social; when an entire group is engaging in the behavior, it suddenly becomes pro-social. However, when looking specifically at race riots, it is critical to understand the underlying rage and frustration that permeates the social conditions that exist prior to the riot. Riots provide an opportunity for expressing that rage and frustration that simply does not exist in the everyday.
Furthermore, police efforts to prevent riots may actually encourage rioting. When police respond to peaceful protests as if they are potential criminal events, they are treating the gathered people like criminals instead of like citizens with legitimate complaints that they have a protected legal right to protest. When the underlying concern is that, because of race, people are treated like criminals rather than citizens, the police presence reaffirms that feeling. If police are then hostile or aggressive to protestors, it reinforces the notion that society finds violence towards minorities acceptable. The resulting rage can easily trigger the types of individual criminal behavior and aggression that can lead to a riot.
A5 Lindorff, D. (2015, April 23). Did a ‘nickel ride’ kill Freddie Gray? Philadelphians know all
about police murder by van ride. Retrieved May 9, 2015 from Op Ed News website: http://www.opednews.com/articles/Did-a-nickel-ride-kill-F-by-Dave-Lindorff-Police_Police-Abuse-Of-Power_Police-Brutality_Police-Culture-150423-573.html A6
Niler, E. (2014, November 25). Ferguson: Why do people riot? Retrieved May 9, 2015 from
Discovery News website: http://news.discovery.com/human/psychology/ferguson-why-do-people-riot-141125.htm
Parton, H.D. (2015, April 14). The Walter Scott outrage nobody is talking about. Retrieved
May 9, 2015 from Salon website: http://www.salon.com/2015/04/14/the_walter_scott_outrage_nobody_is_talking_about/
Perez, E., Prokupecz, S. & Bruer, W. (2015, May 7). Sources: Baltimore police investigation
doesn’t support some of prosecution’s charges. Retrieved May 9, 2015 from CNN website: http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/06/politics/freddie-gray-baltimore-knife-marilyn-mosby-prosecution/