Bad Memories Coming To Life

To those of us of a certain age, the images from Baltimore last night brought back some bad memories from the 1960s. For most people, I suspect, the “urban riots” of that era are loosely connected with the civil rights movement, and it’s true the largest wave of disturbances occurred in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King in April of 1968. But in truth, riots in 1964 in Harlem and Philadelphia, and in 1967 in Newark, were ignited by allegations of police brutality. And the riots everyone remembers, the 1965 Watts disturbances that left thirty-four people dead and destroyed a large swath of Los Angeles, were touched off by a police arrest, and a major contributing cause was the LAPD’s practice of making very frequent arrests of young black men that didn’t lead to criminal charges but did make it impossible to get a job.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same practices became a gravamen of “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing much more recently, in places like Baltimore. Over the weekend, WaPo’s Paul Schwartzman and John Wagner examined allegations that such practices, highly associated with the mayoral tenure of Martin O’Malley, now mulling a presidential candidacy, poisoned police department relations with a big portion of the city’s large minority population:

It was as a crime-busting mayor some 15 years ago that O’Malley first gained national attention. Although he is positioning himself as a progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton, O’Malley also touts a police crackdown during his time as mayor that led to a stark reduction in drug violence and homicides as one of his major achievements.

Yet some civic leaders and community activists in Baltimore portray O’Malley’s policing policies in troubling terms. The say the “zero-tolerance” approach mistreated young black men even as it helped dramatically reduce crime, fueling a deep mistrust of law enforcement that flared anew last week when Gray died after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody.

Police in Baltimore — like their counterparts elsewhere — have had strained relations with African Americans for generations. But community leaders say the relationship reached a nadir during O’Malley’s tenure, thanks to a policing strategy that resulted in tens of thousands of arrests for minor offenses such as loitering and littering.

Although prosecutors declined to bring many of the cases, activists contend that those who were arrested often could not get their records expunged, making it harder for them to get jobs

There’s nothing about zero-tolerance policing that necessitates tolerance for police brutality, and brutality is certainly possible no matter what policing strategy a city deploys. But clearly a breakdown in trust between police viewed by a community as an occupying force and a community viewed by police as harboring a “criminal element” makes incidents of extreme force producing injuries and deaths combustible. And that’s exactly what seems to have happened in Baltimore, as questions over the death in police custody of Freddy Gray continue to go unanswered.

I have another bad memory from the 1960s that I hope will not return in real life: the polarization of public opinion into hostile camps carrying the banners of “justice” and “law and order.” We are quite possibly on the brink of a bipartisan breakthrough in rolling back the bad criminal justice policies of the 1980s and 1990s, when mass incarceration of nonviolent or relatively non-dangerous offenders, disproportionately black and brown, of course, became a national pastime. But as John Judis pointed out yesterday at National Journal, a special election in Staten Island is probably about to elevate to Congress the prosecutor, Dan Donovan, who had a lot to do with the failure of a grand jury to consider any action against the police officers who killed Eric Garner.

In some respects, the Staten Island election is atypical, since the island has often defined its politics against those of Manhattan and the other boroughs. But America is dotted with near-replicas of Staten Island. Baltimore, St. Louis, Richmond, Houston, New Orleans, and Atlanta have suburbs or exurbs that define their own politics against those of the more liberal cities nearby. In these places and others, the debate over police brutality, if it continues, is likely to serve as a wedge issue that splits the electorate along racial lines. And Dan Donovan and the rest of the GOP may well be the ultimate beneficiaries.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.