The following is an expression of thoughts and feelings of hope and possibility from a former resident of the Baltimore area. I’ll leave it to the people in Baltimore to give details about their organizing and struggles.
By now anyone with access to some form of media is familiar with the riotous uprising that took place in Baltimore on Saturday, April 25th and Monday, April 27th in response to the brutal death of Freddie Gray. Much has been written in defense of the protesters and about the structural conditions that generate the kind of anger that manifests itself in active resistance (you can read some it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, and here, and here; if you haven’t already) City and state leaders have mobilized an impressive show of police and military (read: National Guard) force in order to try to quell the most militant forms of resistance; but as they assert their control something is brewing the streets. While politicians and people who have a stake in business as usual talk about “investment” and “opportunity,” there are signs that the people of Baltimore are taking control of their lives and building alternatives.
Social change is a process of popular resistance, not institutional maneuvering. Movements organize to build alternatives to the structures that fail people in their everyday lives, and success often comes after prolonged struggle. In the wake of crises, it is successful organizing for alternatives that brings about dramatic social change. The “prefigurative structures” of social movements fill the void left by the abdication of state and economic power. Since Monday night, Baltimore’s residents have been demonstrating that there is another way than the structural violence of racism and class division. When the Baltimore school system closed its doors to students on Tuesday out of “security concerns,” the closure resulted in the denial of food for the 84 percent of students who receive free or low-cost meals. The structural void created by this decision was quickly filled by residents organized through community institutions including churches, social justice groups, and even bookstore/coffee shops (see image above). As police and National Guard units stand armed to protect property, residents, including gang members, come together to police their own communities. The scenes of conflict also turned into celebrations as people danced in the street and musicians played to entertain the people doing the real hard work in the aftermath of the uprising.
Baltimore may mark a turning point in a struggle that has been brewing for years (decades? centuries?), but not the turning point you may hear on CNN or MSNBC, and definitely not on Fox News. The aftermath of the uprising indicates an opportunity to truly build the kinds of alternatives necessary for ending the scourge of racist violence at the hands of police – building community structures and creating alternatives to existing policing models. Only time will tell, but there is hope that the uprisings from Ferguson to Baltimore are opening the space to organize for real change by and for the people directly suffering from the violence of racism and capitalism. As I write this, solidarity protests are under way in Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, and Washington, DC (yesterday there were protests in Atlanta, Chicago, Ferguson, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other cities). A movement is building.
Sociology, Criminology & Anthropology Department
University of Wisconsin – Whitewater