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Disturbing the Peace for Justice in Baltimore

By Dennis O. Ojogho

A fire is raging in America. I do not mean a burned out CVS or flaming police cars. I mean the seemingly interminable blaze of structural racism that allows a black man in police custody to have his spine severed. It is the hot ember that justifies the shootings and chokeholds and senseless beatings of countless unarmed black men, women, and children by police officers in this country. It is the inferno that has made black skin a proxy for criminality and incarcerated African-Americans at a higher rate than South Africa’s black population at the height of apartheid.

And how tragic it is that so many in the United States, perhaps better than the people of any other country, have refused to acknowledge that this underlying racism with roots dating back four centuries even exists. They do this when they declare our country post-racial because our president is black. They do this when they condemn the urban black poor even as public school systems remain segregated and unequal, as infrastructure decays, and as gentrification, white flight, and redlining intensify structural poverty.

But every now and then, as in Baltimore last week, and in Ferguson last year, reactive violence to structural racism is laid bare for all to see.

Often, in any discussion about racism and violent reactions to it, those who refuse to acknowledge any legitimacy among the rioters invoke the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. They remind us that King was committed to nonviolence, while ignoring that he was as equally committed to justice. They remind us that King once said, “Nonviolence is a sword that heals.” But they don’t mention that he also said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” They forget that he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Using the King legacy to condemn the actions of those oppressed souls in Baltimore is misguided. King would not have advocated for rioting or looting, but he surely wouldn’t have condemned those in Baltimore for doing so. The real Martin Luther King, Jr., beyond the storybook images of his “I Have a Dream” speech, was a man who first and foremost possessed a supreme and radical commitment to justice. He demanded justice as much as all those people on the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson demand justice.

"True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice," King said.

We should always celebrate those brave souls who remained committed to nonviolence in the 1950s and 1960s to secure fundamental freedoms for people of color today. Without their sacrifices, people of color would still not be able to drink from any water fountain, eat in any restaurant, stay in any hotel, sit in any part of the bus, vote, or attend previously all-white schools without the fear of being killed. But even if rioters use violent means that we do not approve of, we should seriously consider the factors and structures that are leading them to such extreme measures.

After all, the problem we are confronted with today, embodied by the underlying violence and despair in our society exposed in Baltimore, Ferguson, and so many other cities, is in some ways a deeper and more difficult problem to root out. Structural racism has allowed 1.5 million black men to go missing in this country. Structural inequalities continue to devastate communities of color across this land. The difference is that there are no more easily seen "white only" signs or Jim Crow laws to point to. It has thus become easy for many to believe that America is the land of equal treatment and equal opportunity for all people, even as the suffering quietly call for change in their midst.

Until last week, quiet, nonviolent cries for change in Baltimore fell mostly on deaf ears. Now that the peace has been violently disturbed in Baltimore, maybe more of us will finally begin to listen.

Dennis O. Ojogho ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.

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