History is doomed to repeat itself when oppression and racism are normalized. The current protests in Baltimore sparked by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray are not surprising, but are certainly justified. Gray died in police custody after falling into a coma due to spinal cord injuries. Witnesses claim police officers used excessive force to detain Gray and drag him into a police van, which potentially caused his fatal injuries.
The Baltimore protests and riots echo similar protests in Ferguson, Missouri—triggered by the police brutality death of Michael Brown—and even the historical riots caused by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. These protests show us that the last 50 years of potential progress made in the Civil Rights Movement are null if citizens still need to protest the same brutal injustices that were protested in the 1960s.
One cannot claim “racism is over” without blatantly ignoring the systematic killings of black people by police forces. This ingrained racism is a disease spreading throughout the country—or, perhaps, it has just lingered since the days of King.
Privileged white people often devalue these protests and riots by criticizing the use of violence against violence. News media focus on the looting and destruction caused by riots and black people in Baltimore are called “thugs” by the city’s own mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
When black individuals riot against brutal police killings, they are ridiculed through a racist lens and their actions are used against them. Time and time again, however, white people set fire to garbage and property and flip over cars when their local sports teams win or lose. They are never condemned for this violent behavior in the same way black people are.
To say that “violence isn’t the answer” in response to the Baltimore protests and riots shows complete misunderstanding for the importance of the issues at hand. The black community in Baltimore protested peacefully days before the violent riots broke out—these protests were not appreciated or covered by major news outlets. It is the unfortunate truth that no progress will be made if victims are quiet and unassuming.
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” King said. Black Americans are stuck in a double bind—if they protest peacefully, no one pays attention or listens and police brutality continues. If they react with riots, they are deemed as savage and unruly.
This is a dangerous—yet crucial—time for addressing systematic racism. As police brutality continues, so does internalized racism and victim-blaming. If we do not end the injustices that have been fought against for 50 years, history will continue to repeat itself for generations to come.