Until last Monday, April 27, I thought I knew a little about urban riots – why they happen and how to prevent them. Over 40 years ago my ministry took me near and eventually into Washington, DC’s so-called ‘riot corridor’ decimated during the 1968 uprising following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I spend over 20 years doing neighborhood development there – providing temporary housing for homeless families, restoring buildings, tutoring children, offering health care and job training. I listened to the stories of people who lived through the ‘68 riot and worked with some of them to bring about reconciliation and restoration.
When the Baltimore riot erupted, I was watching the Freddie Gray funeral activities from a local Baltimore TV station. The non-stop, uninterrupted news was broadcast from a helicopter hovering over the church – and then the teen gathering that ignited the riot.
For several hours I had a ringside seat on this children’s riot. From the helicopter’s cameras we watched kids huddle up and then disperse into groups for the mayhem that followed. While others eventually joined the kids, perhaps gang members, the core group was school kids.
It caught everyone, including the police, by surprise. Who could have anticipated that a riot would start as an after school escapade? Parents, grandparents and relatives were urged to call their children and tell them to come home.
The Baltimore riot was different. Different from what happened in Ferguson. This happened in the light of day, after school in full view of a watching city if not nation. Baltimore’s mayor retracted her immediate gut reaction describing the rioters as ‘thugs.’ Thugs and criminals work at night. These weren’t thugs and criminals. They were school children. Everyone thought they should have known better.
What became a riot in Baltimore started with children twittering and tweeting on their cell phones. They self-organized to demonstrate after school with no apparent intention to loot, burn and attack the police. It was more spontaneous than that.
Which leaves me searching for answers. The social ills that plague Baltimore’s poor, majority black neighborhoods are well known. It’s easy to understand why alienated youth given the opportunity would strike out against their hopelessness. They live with personal experiences of police brutality, unemployment above 50 percent, boarded up houses, and high incarceration rates. Baltimore has some of the poorest neighborhoods in Maryland, one of the richest states. The income disparities between black and white populations is as extreme here as anywhere in the country.
And yet, as volatile as Baltimore was and is following Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, this was unexpected and unprecedented. This was a children’s riot – instigated by children still in school who for reasons we don’t totally understand were radicalized to think that since they saw no hope for the better in their own neighborhood it was okay to loot and burn it down.
I use the word ‘radicalized’ cautiously given that it is used now to describe how Muslim youth are being drawn into the violence of ISIS. However different this is, still there is a parallel. How is it that some relatively privileged Muslim youth in the U.S. want to escape to the Middle East to join forces with ISIS. How does radicalization happen?
In a recent conversation a Muslim professor at American University described for me how as a youth in the Middle East he was radicalized and upon coming to America was de-radicalized. I would like to know more. How and why are young people radicalized to violence and then de-radicalized to become contributing citizens?
Do we really know why and how a few out-of-control Baltimore kids were able to start an after school riot? Most city leaders and pundits assume it was not a controlled or even planned event. And does anyone know how to de-radicalize them?
We’ll be watching to see what comes of the larger planned demonstrations this weekend. What will happen after order is restored, the National Guard leaves and Oriole fans return to Camden Yards? And what will become of the children recorded on video as they are arrested and prosecuted for looting, burning and attacking the police? What next?