The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

More on Baltimore and the Context of Protest


There was a watershed moment in the Baltimore protests that took place prior to the outbreak of violence that occurred Monday.  On Saturday, a group of protesters decided to take their protest from the streets of West Baltimore to downtown, right up to Camden Yards, the home of baseball’s Baltimore Orioles.  Upon the protester’s arrival, they encountered a heavy police presence, the first since the protests began, and the escalation of the conflict between community and police had begun.

This incident reveals a lot about what we expect from police, specifically urban police forces, in our society.  Since its opening 23 years ago, Camden Yards has been a visible symbol of Baltimore’s downtown revitalization.  The stadium, and the attractions of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, made the city a part of its metro area again after decades of withdrawal.  People felt safe to come back to the city for entertainment.  But when that insular bubble is burst by the realities of those isolated from them, our society compels our police to act on our behalf.  Quickly and with strong force.

I’ve seen, read and heard a lot of commentary that basically says, “how can the events taking place in Baltimore have race as its basis, when the city has a black mayor, a black police chief, and significant numbers of blacks on its police force?”  In my mind this matters little.  What matters far more is the role that has been bestowed on urban police forces, by a society that is far bigger than the one that exists within large city municipal boundaries.

Yesterday, I laid out a contextual case that urban violence has been a part of American cities since their inception.  However, with the Great Migration that brought millions of blacks to northern cities from the rural South, urban violence became racialized, taking on two forms.  From about 1910 to 1960, urban violence stemmed from the purported provocation of whites by blacks as they moved north.  From 1960 onward, blacks rioted in response and reaction to immediate events that have their genesis in the lack of economic, housing and educational opportunities in cities, and the lack of action to fix them.

Over that century, the nature of urban violence changed.  The race riots of the early part of the twentieth century were characterized by white mobs entering black neighborhoods to create destruction, with virtually no protection from police.  In fact, police often facilitated mob violence.  Rioters of this period did not act with anonymity; they marched in with impunity.  Post-WWII urban violence, however, was different.  It became anonymous; cross burnings and late night firebombings, meant to intimidate, were utilized.  People lost their appetite for direct and visible involvement in racial intimidation, but not for the acts themselves.

By 1960, we entered a new era, and this is when I believe the social contract with police changed.  While I definitely believe in the aspirational aspect of suburbanization, I believe that a segment of white America believed that cities were out of control, and the ’60s saw the acceleration of suburban growth as a result.  This acceleration meant two things: 1) white America would insulate itself from the uncomfortable realities of cities, and 2) what was going on in cities needed to be contained there, if not quelled.

In other words, American society entrusted police to get tough on crime and contain it “over there”.

This is evident in the kinds of politicians that were running cities in major northeastern and midwestern cities during the late ’60s and early ’70s.  Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was in office from 1955-76, but his latter years were characterized by a “tough-on-crime” approach that saw him approve a “shoot-to-kill” order for police during rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and also approve strong use of force during the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests.  Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo had a fraught relationship with his city’s African-American community that started when he was Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner.  In Detroit’s mayoral election in 1973, Michigan State Senator Coleman Young ran against Police Commissioner John Nichols.  Young ran on a platform of disbanding the police’s controversial STRESS (Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) decoy unit, while Nichols argued for its continuance.  Young narrowly won the election.

Where did this societal message come from, pleading police to contain crime in cities?  The media, which dutifully and salaciously reports on the crimes of the day.  Corporate elites, who worry about the impact that crime has on their ability to attract talent.  The small business community.  Representatives from the safer neighborhoods imploring someone to keep ugly realities away from them.  And suburbanites who do the same.

This is in part why it little matters if the mayor, or police chief, or police force, is largely black.  The mayor of a major city may be elected by the voters of that city, but his or her constituency is much larger.  If a mayor’s goal, as any mayor’s goal would be, is to grow or revitalize your city, then you want to appeal to the people outside of your city who can make a choice in your favor.  Suburbanites.  Students attending college in your city.  Business transfers.  Members of your city’s diaspora.  You make decisions that demonstrate your control over matters in your city.  You elect to protect the institutions or anchors that members of your broader constituency hold dear.

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