By Simon McCormack
Apr 29, 2015
This week's chaos on the streets of Baltimore has been decades in the making.
Violence erupted in the city on Monday after days of largely peaceful protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who recently died of injuries he sustained while in police custody. But Gray's death was just the latest point on a timeline stretching back generations, one that encompasses all manner of racial inequity and human indignity.
On April 6, 1968, just two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots broke out in Baltimore. When the dust settled on April 7, three people were dead, 70 were injured and more than 100 had been arrested, and numerous buildings were burned and destroyed, according to Baltimore magazine.
The Maryland Crime Investigating Commission Report of the Baltimore Civil Disturbance of April 6 to April 11, 1968 later summed up the event in a few sentences that could have easily been written yesterday:
[S]ocial and economic conditions in the looted areas constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites... Our investigation arrives at the clear conclusion that the riot in Baltimore must be attributed to two elements -- 'white racism' and economic oppression of the Negro. It is impossible to give specific weights to each, but together they gave clear cause for many of the ghetto residents to riot.
The decade following the riots saw significant white flight from Baltimore, as factory jobs in the Rust Belt city dried up. The city lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs between 1950 and 1995, according to ThinkProgress. As middle- and working-class whites left Baltimore in droves, they left behind a shrunken tax base and an enervated local economy.
"All the middle-class people moved out,” Mike Tsamouras, 74, told The Boston Globe in 2010. “We lost a lot of people.”
Between 1970 and 1980, the city's population dropped from 906,000 to 787,000. By 2010, Census data showed there were just 620,961 residents in Baltimore.
As factory jobs moved overseas, most of the opportunities for employment that replaced them did not pay very well.
A 2012 Brookings study found that jobs in low-paying industries like food service grew by more than 60 percent in Baltimore from 1980 to 2007. Meanwhile, jobs in high-wage industries increased by only 10 percent.
The gradual attrition of jobs that paid a decent wage rendered Baltimore particularly vulnerable to the drug trade, which has become almost synonymous with the city thanks to media depictions like HBO's "The Wire." Starting in the late 1970s, drug kingpins began recruiting children and teenagers -- who, if caught, could usually escape the criminal justice system more easily and more cheaply than adults -- to aid with the day-to-day business of selling illicit substances. For many young people, the drug trade offered much more lucrative possibilities than the weak local economy.
Compounding all these issues has been the subprime crisis of the past several years. Predatory lenders allegedly targeted black communities in Baltimore, steering people into untenable, high-interest mortgages that would eventually wipe out their wealth and leave the city riddled with foreclosed and vacant homes.
A damaged economy, high levels of crime, little opportunity to achieve something better: That's the context Freddie Gray lived in his whole life. In Sandtown-Winchester, the Baltimore neighborhood where Gray grew up, the unemployment rate is 1 in 5, about twice as high as the city average, according to a Baltimore City Health Department report cited by Slate.
Nearly one-third of the neighborhood's families live in poverty, and more than half its households earn less than $25,000 a year.
The neighborhood is also plagued by a "rate of lead paint violations almost four times as high as it was citywide," according to Slate. Lead paint is linked to a host of health problems and is highly correlated with increased levels of violent crime.
In addition to all this, residents of the neighborhood must contend with disproportionate levels of deadly violence. People who live in Sandtown-Winchester and the adjacent Harlem Park neighborhood are "more than twice as likely to be killed than residents of Baltimore overall," Slate found.
And civilian violence isn't the only kind rendering these streets unsafe.
Between 2011 and September 2014, the city of Baltimore shelled out $5.7 million to cover police brutality lawsuits, according to a Baltimore Sun investigation.
That's enough taxpayer money to pay for a "state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds," the Sun noted. And that figure doesn't include the $5.8 million in taxpayer dollars to cover legal costs for the officers accused of misconduct.
From the Sun:
Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones -- jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles -- head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.
Faced with intractable poverty, high rates of deadly violence and a "poison" relationship between citizens and the police, it's perhaps not surprising if many Baltimore residents feel like Pierre Thomas, 37, a protester who told NPR this week that calls for "peace" only come when the powerful feel threatened.
"Where was the peace when we were getting shot? Where's the peace when we were getting laid out? Where is the peace when we are in the back of ambulances? Where is the peace then?" Thomas said. "They don't want to call for peace then. But you know when people really want peace? When the white people have to get out of bed, when cops have to wear riot gear, when the cops start talking about, oh we got broken arms. Then they want peace."
"Peace?" Thomas went on. "It's too late for peace."
See below for more statistics about race, crime and the economy in Baltimore.
Source: Census Bureau, Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, The Jacob France Institute, Baltimore Police Department, The Baltimore Sun
Source: City of Baltimore
Source: City of Baltimore