“Why would people in Baltimore want to set fire to their own neighborhoods?” my son asked, exasperated in a Monday morning phone call.
I struggled to provide an answer that made sense then, but now, after a night watching a city respect the calming voices and decide to step back from the brink, I want to try to answer that; at least, in part.
And I know that as the leader of the community foundation for a city about the same size and character as Baltimore, I need to process what happened – to figure out causes and understand what pathways will lead to solutions. I am hardly alone in thinking this easily could happen in other cities, even in Pittsburgh.
I will not try, in any way at all, to excuse the worst outbreak of rioting in Baltimore since 1968; or, for that matter, fail to decry the fact that so much of the violence and destruction has hurt residents and businesses in disadvantaged parts of the city, places where people have struggled for years to build decent homes and paying businesses, and who can least afford to rebuild.
But there is something important for anyone who cares about creating healthy urban communities to learn from one of Baltimore’s most tragic episodes:
Many of the people lashing out and destroying cars and buildings in that city have suffered years—probably decades—of poor treatment from police who may have jumped to assuming guilt -- detaining and arresting them -- and sometimes treating them almost as roughly as they did Freddie Gray, the young Baltimore man who died after suffering a spinal injury in police custody. Years of such relentless mistreatment can cause a terrible anger and bitterness to well up.
Of course, there are many police departments with strong community relations records, and many police officers who do very difficult jobs right and do them well. They should not be conflated with the officers who abuse their authority. But it can be invaluable for those of us in the business of building a strong community identity to understand the wrath of those, particularly in African-American communities around the country, who have felt abused for years and see no evidence of improvement. To understand that wrath is not to excuse the violence it has produced, but rather to try to learn from it and summon the community will to make changes.
In recent months, we have seen a series of incidents around the country that has brought home this issue of police/community confrontation and the terrible anger and resentment that can build in African-American neighborhoods. Beyond issues with police, we also are uncomfortable witnesses to the frustrations heaped on residents in their interactions with unresponsive government agencies, under-employment and long-term unemployment.
I know my son. He is a bit of a tough guy. I believe that, if he felt he was mistreated year after year after year on several fronts, he would probably choose to fight back. I hope he would do so within the law. After all, our country leads the world in offering the protection of a robust rule of law.
But there is also the rule of economic disparity. Half the people who live in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood in Baltimore are unemployed. And, among young African-American men like Gray, that percentage is even higher. People who don’t have jobs, who don’t have means, or opportunity or education or any of the advantages my son and I have enjoyed, are not stakeholders in the community. They have little understanding of it as a force for good. That is true here in Pittsburgh, in this country, and elsewhere around the world. And those who are not engaged stakeholders—job holders, property owners, participating members of communities and their organizations—are far less likely to be protective of society, its norms, its culture, and the rule of law.
Since the 1970s, the data shows, America has been dividing along class lines (in which race can play a part) in terms of income, wealth, education and advancement —all the benefits that are likely to weave that stakeholder loyalty into the fabric of community and culture.
In his recent book, “Our Kids,” Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam decries the damage done by the opportunity divide in our country. He focuses especially on the devastation inflicted on children who grow up in poverty or disadvantaged circumstances. Putnam grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, half a century ago; and he uses the economic decline in Port Clinton to illustrate his larger point about America today:
“In 2011 in the aftermath of the Great Recession, if you drove east from downtown Port Clinton along East Harbor Road, the census tract to your left along the Catawba lakeshore had a child poverty rate of 1 percent, whereas the census tract on the other side of the road had a child poverty rate of 51 percent.”
In exploring what has happened in this country in the last 40 years in terms of disparity of opportunity and wealth, Putnam focuses in part on the importance of public education. But education isn’t just important: it is the essential. For many of those trapped in poor neighborhoods – in Port Clinton, in Baltimore, and, yes, in Pittsburgh – education has failed them and opportunity eludes them.
Without a public education system that expresses our absolute commitment to The American Dream, we will keep slipping. If we want to understand the trauma that many American families face – especially in urban African-American neighborhoods – we need only look at the distraught faces of Baltimore parents as they search riot-torn streets for young sons and daughters.
We face the same urban issues in Pittsburgh, and for that reason we should consider this:
The community outpouring in Baltimore that happened after the tragic fact to bring calm and a search for justice could happen here before such an explosion. We must search for ways to create stakeholder opportunities that build not just membership in community but an appreciation of its value.
That was the gist of an insightful response given this week by Pittsburgh’s Police Chief, Cameron McLay, in a round of media calls about how prepared Pittsburgh would be for such an event. The question that needs to be answered by every sector of the community, he said, is not “Are we prepared?” It’s “How do we prevent?”
Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation
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