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The hypocrisy of condemning the Baltimore riots

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 28, 2015

As the situation in Baltimore develops, we hear the usual chorus of white voices condemning the riots. Now more than ever, this strikes me as utterly disingenuous, not because rioting is a good thing, but because the people complaining about it tend to downplay or even ignore the situation which caused the riots in the first place.

In other words, they call for peace and nonviolence when it suits them—perhaps when they themselves feel personally threatened—but their calls for peace have been notably absent throughout the long history of murder of black innocents by white police.

The finger-wagging is especially ironic given that this nation was practically founded on a riot (I believe there is a major conservative political movement named after that event).

Of course, as Mark Shea points out, the rioters are a minority of otherwise peaceful protesters, but the media will hardly play it that way, just as when an untold number of pro-lifers march peacefully, they choose to focus on a handful of lunatics.

We may wish the protests were entirely peaceful, but as a friend once said, “Fraternal correction presupposes some measure of fraternity.” Condemning rioters is facile, even hypocritical, if we don’t first have compassion and try to understand why these explosions of outrage have occurred. In the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates sums it up:

An officer made eye contact with [Freddie] Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?

The people now calling for nonviolence are not prepared to answer these questions. Many of them are charged with enforcing the very policies that led to Gray’s death, and yet they can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death and so they appeal for calm. But there was no official appeal for calm when Gray was being arrested. There was no appeal for calm when Jerriel Lyles was assaulted. (“The blow was so heavy. My eyes swelled up. Blood was dripping down my nose and out my eye.”) There was no claim for nonviolence on behalf of Venus Green. (“Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black bitches I have locked up.”) There was no plea for peace on behalf of Starr Brown. (“They slammed me down on my face,” Brown added, her voice cracking. “The skin was gone on my face.”)

The typical conservative response (with the exception of libertarians) to these situations fits the profile of moderates drawn by Martin Luther King in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King noted that many people prefer order to justice. What they want is a “negative peace” characterized by absence of tension, rather than positive peace, which requires the presence of justice. They accuse those who bring hidden tensions to the surface in order to resolve them of stirring up trouble.

Or as Coates continues:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

Christianity may call for nonviolence, but let’s make no mistake: violence is the natural human response to violence, and Christianity does not ask us to abandon natural human responses without first understanding them. Those who call for calm and non-violence selectively and without compassion are not calling for Christian peace, but for the maintenance of the status quo.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: pja - Apr. 29, 2015 10:32 PM ET USA

    Mr Van - I must agree with "suns scotus" that you are talking nonsense, a very facile nonsense. There are many macro and specific local circumstances that caused both Mr. Gray's death and the ensuing protests and disorder. Without order there can be no rule of law and hence no room for justice. BTW, the man largely responsible for restoring order and preventing additional loss of property and perhaps life is Gov. Larry Hogan, who happens to be white, conservative, and very pro-life.

  • Posted by: Thomas Van - Apr. 29, 2015 5:52 PM ET USA

    In response to shrink, regarding "natural human responses": The point is not that you can't objectively say it's bad, but that it's hypocritical to condemn the destruction of property without condemning the destruction of life more loudly. As for your abortion example, yes, I'd say that if you fail to have compassionate understanding for the reasons a scared young girl might seek an abortion, your condemnation of the act will have little value, either for yourself or the girl.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 29, 2015 2:45 PM ET USA

    Something, probably the incredible silence on the nature of Mr. Gray's apprehension, is so unsettling that it suggests a corruption that reaches far into the halls of power. If I lived in Baltimore, I should be afraid to riot.

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Apr. 29, 2015 2:41 PM ET USA

    this is kind of twisted logic. of course there's hypocrisy in some quarters. and so white folks who are echoing the same thing blacks folk are saying? when the good they seek is just, mindful of the community, and protective of life? the tea party analogy is a cheap shot to those folks . . . that analogy limps quickly - the tea was directly tied to the unjust tax they protested. and how just is a welfare system that promotes fatherless homes and perpetuates the poverty it seeks to cure?

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 29, 2015 2:12 PM ET USA

    What a bizarre article. 1) Van doesn't know what caused the riot. 2) Van doesn't know the culpability of the cops who killed the kid. 3) This assertion is just weird: "Christianity does not ask us to abandon natural human responses without first understanding them." Hey, abortion is a 'natural human response' for a scared girl. Can't say bad, unless I first understand her? Hmm, this is weird logic. Van, settle down and wait for the facts before you put bizarre ideas to print.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 29, 2015 12:31 PM ET USA

    Are you not falling prey to the same issue you're contending with? Are all police guilty and therefore all "rioters" justified? I don't think the focus in Baltimore is on justice here but rather that destruction and looting that is being conducted under the banner of justice. Where's the outrage from those communities that have had their voice stolen by those who seek anarchy? Granted we are all sinful but that doesn't justify sinful behavior in the name of justice!

  • Posted by: richard.clarke1185 - Apr. 29, 2015 12:27 PM ET USA

    while what happened to Freddie Gray never should have happened and needs to be fully investigated and if the actions of the officers was responsible for his death , they need to be held accountable. He ran after making eye contact because of his past issues with the police ... he had been arrested 22 times in the last 7 years for selling drugs and for weapon possession. That does not justify his death. The riots are the result of the economic and social situation in the city of Baltimore.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Apr. 28, 2015 10:37 PM ET USA

    With all due respect Mr. Van, you are talking nonsense. The year is 2015, not 1963, and the city is Baltimore, not Birmingham. The people who condemn the riots condemn police brutality too. They don't, however, assume every cop is guilty before the investigation is even begun, and even guilty cops are entitled to due process. The riots were caused by race baiting rent a mobs intent on creating racial division and chaos, not in seeking justice. Some of the same ilk write for the ATLANTIC.

  • Posted by: ebierer1724 - Apr. 28, 2015 8:54 PM ET USA

    Amen to that!

  • Posted by: polarhide2365 - Apr. 28, 2015 7:58 PM ET USA

    I worry that Mr.Van might be exhibiting an animus toward conservatives. If nothing else political labels produce more heat than light and are not helpful in getting to the justice of the matter. Catholic Culture subscribers most probably vote conservative. But one would be hard pushed to imagine Catholic Culture subscribers would want "order" without justice in Baltimore.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 28, 2015 5:36 PM ET USA

    You are right: violence is a response to violence. And the police having to deal with hooligans and criminals and gang members in the poor areas of inner cities who shoot each other at the lightest "provocation" are not immune to this principle. Of course, police can act illegally and immorally like everyone else, but claiming that the police is racist and therefore we "white ones" cannot condemn the riots is illogical and wrong.