The Children’s Riot

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?


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6 Responses to The Children’s Riot

  1. Oliver says:

    Tom, your article and the corresponding events raise more questions than we probably can find answers for in the ensuing months. It is indeed the stuff that case studies are made of. It is unfortunate that these kids would be referred to as “thugs” when they have been the victims of chronic and malignant under-service. The spontaneity of their response is as human as anyone adult would have done when frustration with the system reaches a boiling point.
    Baltimore is more than a microcosm of a national attitude. All politics is local, and the more significant question is, how did Baltimore manage not to explode before this moment? How long could a people remain docile in the midst of systemic disparities and marginalization. The real travesty here is that Baltimore has never really recovered from the riots of the 60’s. Since that time we have spent billions nation building in Kabul and Kandahar (Afghanistan). We have done likewise in the name of nation building and advancing democratization in Fallujah and Kirkuk (Iraq).
    There’s obviously a lack of a national resolve to remedy the urban squalor that is so prevalent in many cities. While, on the one hand, we seek to find the causation factor in the midst of Islamic radicalization we have neglected to pay attention to the deteriorating social attitudes that are a result of urban decay.
    Here in America we have been fortunate to have escaped riots and protests the likes as we have seen in London and Paris. There are other unintended mitigating factors that are responsible for such “luck.” Maybe another blog!
    My sermon on next week (Mother’s Day) is – “WOW, WHAT A MOM!” What a hero Toya Graham is! She was willing to do whatever it takes that her son does not become another Freddie Gray.
    So much for now. Thanks for keeping the fire burning!

  2. Russ Long says:

    Tom, the questions that you are raising are challenging and complex. I have always admired your work in D.C. I just heard Baltimore City council man, Brandon Scott commenting and he posed the question, “Where are the men?” In suburbia, we are seeing an unprecedented number of deaths due to heroin, a rise in the crime rate and far too many teen pregnancies. I see far too many young people without a dream. I wish I could say that our church is not part of these statistics but we are, and a common thread that runs through many of these situations is either a broken family or a father who is largely absent. When children do not feel valued, anger and its expression are inevitable and how that is expressed is neither rational nor measured. The damage is beginning to mount, and sadly we are already seeing generational rippling effects of these broken families.

  3. Mark Fuller says:

    Tom, my thoughts resonate with Brandon Scott’s question, “Where are the men?” Being on the front line of ministry, I am more focused on what the church can do to address the problem. I would like to know what initiatives you implemented during your ministry in D.C. that strengthened family relationships and encouraged men to take the lead in their homes. With the breakdown of the family, the church must take a more proactive role in my opinion. Our local school district reached out to us to help and we have set up a mentoring program for “at risk” kids in our community. It is relationally driven and we currently have around 60 of our people who have “adopted” these young people, providing support and a healthy role model. It will probably take a generation to see lasting change, but the initial results we are experiencing give me hope. The church must do more.

  4. Tom Rose says:

    I am not sure they are radicalized. You don’t have to be radicalized to pick up something and throw it or steal stuff from a store under siege. I did not watch as much as you, in fact very little, but I was struck, compared to the 60s, how out of touch the black ministers were in their dress, their manner, their preaching, with the kids rioting. They do not live or understand in the same world, and the same goes for the black lady mayor who can not relate to those kids. They called them thugs out of anger, but they are not connected spiritually, humanly, or by being the same color. From the black youth perspective we might as well been from another planet. Obviously I am generalizing and there are many exceptions to the rule. But then the question is how well do we relate to kids in the cell phone generation in general whether they are rich or poor. They are a minority we can communicate with, but so many live in another world from the world we live in. Even the kids in college are in a not reading generation or you might say they just read blips or little pieces of the whole. If they are very smart they can cover this void.

  5. Tim Evans says:

    Thanks for providing questions, thoughts, and historical reference. Many of us are searching for answers to questions we’ve never asked before. We are seeking to understand. We are wanting to make a difference in our corner of the world.

  6. Daniel Miller says:

    Thanks Tom, for your valuable personal reflections.

    Your comments cause me to reflect on the way in which the Soweto riots of 1976 transformed the political spectrum of Southern Africa. My father was ministering in Soweto at the time the streets of Soweto began to burn. The uprising was initiated by masses of urban school children whose lives were circumscribed by the vast urban slums in which they were being raised. These students were forced to learn in schools that taught in a language foreign to them. They studied without text books. Under the Jim Crow – style segregation of apartheid, these children saw no future for themselves within apartheit South Africa, apart from the menial labor and servant roles to which their parents were restricted. The Soweto uprising began a fifteen year era of « non-compliance » and large-scale resistance to apartheit. That era ended when the “enlightened” leadership of F.W. De Klerk entered into dialogue with Nelson Mandela for a peaceful transition of power to African rule.

    Within our conservative evangelical community I pray that the sensitive portrayal of the riots that you have cast here will help others to look with greater understanding on the events of the past few days. For people looking on at our great cities from a distance, it is easy to see the world in black and white, rather than shades of grey. It is easy to think of children of color as “their” children, to think of them as different than “our” children, to be convinced that they are obviously in the wrong. May we as an evangelical community become more conscious of institutional evil and the vestiges of racism in our own country that contribute to today’s cultural divisions. May the church be a bridging agency within our society, rather than an institution that reinforces divisions.

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