Yesterday President Obama shared his thoughts about what is happening in Baltimore. He had six points he wanted to make:
1. His thoughts are with the family of Freddie Gray, who deserve transparency and full accountability,
2. His thoughts are also with the police officers who were injured,
3. There is no excuse for the violence, it is counterproductive,
4. The overwhelmingly majority of protesters were peaceful and didn’t get the attention they deserve,
5. The incidents of police violence against minority and poor communities is a crisis that needs to be addressed,
6. And finally, he said this:
We can’t just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades…
If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only have to help the police, we’re going to have to think about what can we do — the rest of us — to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids; to make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons; so that we’re not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony record for a nonviolent drug offense; that we’re making investments so that they can get the training they need to find jobs. That’s hard. That requires more than just the occasional news report or task force…
But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant — and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they’re important.
Those last remarks reminded me of a speech then-Senator Barack Obama gave at Hampton University back in 2007.
He starts out by telling a story he’s heard recently about a pregnant women who got caught in the crossfire during the riots in Los Angeles. A bullet hit her and became lodged in her baby’s arm. Doctors immediately delivered the baby and took the bullet out of her arm. The baby was otherwise uninjured and survived the whole ordeal with only a scar to remind her of the events surrounding her birth.
Obama then goes on to talk about the kind of quiet riots that make up the daily life of too many young people.
These quiet riots that take place every day are born from the same place as the fires and destruction and the police decked out it riot gear and death. They happen when a sense of disconnect settles in and hope dissipates. The spirit takes hold and young people all across the country look at the way the world is and they believe that things are never going to get better. That despair quietly simmers and makes it impossible to build strong communities and neighborhoods.
And then one afternoon a jury says, “Not guilty.” Or a hurricane hits New Orleans. And that despair is revealed for the world to see. Much of what we saw on our television screens 15 years ago was Los Angeles expressing a lingering ongoing pervasive legacy…a tragic legacy out of the tragic history of this country, a history that this country has never fully come to terms with.
This is not to excuse the violence of bashing in a man’s head or destroying somebody’s store and their life’s work. That kind of violence is inexcusable and self-defeating. But it does describe the reality of many communities around this country. And it made me think about our cities and communities around this country and how not only do we still have the scars of the riots and the quiet riots that happen every day, but how, in too many places all across the country, we haven’t even bothered to take the bullet out. We have left the bullet in.
He’s right…especially when he said yesterday that what is happening in Baltimore is nothing new. We’ve seen it all before. I was reminded of that today when someone pointed to this review by Roger Ebert of Spike Lee’s film “Do The Right Thing.” That was the story of a riot that broke out in Brooklyn after the police killed a black man. Of course, it was fiction, but it demonstrates that we’ve been talking about this problem for a very long time.
Until we as a country decide that we’re finally ready to make an investment (personal, political and financial) in taking that bullet out, those quiet daily riots are going to keep exploding into the kind we saw in Baltimore…or a few months ago in Ferguson…or a couple of decades ago in Los Angeles…