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In West Baltimore, some residents see rioting as a rational response to daily despair

Baltimore — When a few dozen members of the 300 Men March movement paraded somberly past William Stewart's West Baltimore stoop Tuesday afternoon, spreading their organization's message of peace and calm in matching black T-shirts, the 27-year-old rolled his eyes.

He begrudgingly returned their "Peace, brother" and "How y'all doing?" greetings. But he doesn't really agree with the stance the men who've dubbed themselves "Baltimore's anti-violence movement" — pleading for a stop to the violence and even physically separating protesters from police — have taken.

It's not that Stewart is completely for the riots that erupted Monday after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died on April 19 after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody. But his personal experiences with the police and general hopelessness about the way people like he and Gray — who he says was a neighborhood acquaintance — are treated won't let him be too strongly against them, either.

"Do I condone what they did? Hell no. Am I okay with it? Yes, I am."

"At the end of the day I don't condone them setting stores on fire," he said from his perch just blocks from where Gray lived, in the city's Gilmor Homes (locals call it "Gilmor Projects") public housing development, on a dark street with faded multicolored rowhouses. "But it got the point across. Do I condone what they did? Hell no. Am I okay with it? Yes, I am. Because at the end of the day, you mean to tell me it takes 3,000 people to go all around one town for the mayor and the president to say something about what goes on in Baltimore? It should have been happening for years."

Stewart is one of the everyday people in West Baltimore who are invisible in the narrative that tends to pit the young people Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called "thugs" and Obama called "criminals" against the ministers and civil rights leaders who've made desperate pleas at press conferences for "positive change" and "working together." Stewart and others like him see the story of Gray's death and the possibility that the officers will go unpunished as utterly predictable. They may not have participated in or celebrated the violence — the looting, the setting fires, the destruction of local businesses — but they're acutely aware that these things are exactly what forced a flood of national news outlets to show up where they live. Their real despair over the all-too-familiar topic of police misconduct means that the riots, to them, were understandable. And even, in some ways, right.

Everyone understands police violence and misconduct

A West Baltimore block party Tuesday afternoon featured speakers addressing Monday's riots

At an impromptu block party in West Baltimore Tuesday, speakers addressed Monday night's violence.

"Y'all mad at the police! I know! I get it!" a middle-aged woman with a scarf wrapped around her dreadlocks shouted into the mic at a West Baltimore block party when it was her speak from atop a box that served as a makeshift stage. In fact, just about everyone gets it: among black people in West Baltimore, there's simply no question about whether grievances with the police are legitimate.

This problem is well documented. The Baltimore Sun reported last September that the city has shelled out more than $5 million in the past four years in lawsuits accusing police officers of assaulting citizens — most of whom were African-American and almost all of whom were ultimately cleared of criminal charges. The article chronicles outrageous brutality against victims including a 15-year-old boy, a pregnant woman, and a 65-year-old church deacon.

"Rough rides" — when police vans are driven recklessly, sometimes seriously injuring passengers who are handcuffed and not wearing seat belts — are common enough that the Sun reported police have multiple alternative nicknames for the practice, including "screen test" and "bringing them up front."

In response to the Sun's investigation into brutality lawsuits, Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who leads the department's Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau, told the paper that officers are mandated to police in a manner that doesn't violate constitutional rights. "We will not let officers get away with any wrongdoing," Rodriguez told the Sun in 2014. "It will not be tolerated."

The people who are living it, though, don't talk about "wrongdoing." They don't talk about "police misconduct," or use phrases like "a few bad policemen" or "racially biased policing" that you hear in media accounts of what's become a regular national story since Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. When they complain, they usually just say "the police" — suggesting that in their minds, lawless, cruel treatment is not a recent plague or a problem with a few bad apples, but rather a permanent characteristic of the entire department's identity.

A 45-year-old woman hovering half behind the screen door of a rowhouse just across from the Gilmor Homes, who didn't want to give her last name, shot nervous glances at her 23-year-old son, who sat visiting a friend in front of the house two doors down. "I worry about him every day, about something happening to him. [Freddie Gray] could have been mine. It could have been anyone's child," she said, adding, "I'm as worried about something happening to him with the police as I am about anyone else. It doesn't matter who you are. They think we're all the same. "

A West Baltimore street near the Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray lived

Children play on the street in the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived.

Stewart, who remembered Gray as a "nice kid" and a "totally regular guy who never hurt anyone" said he himself could have easily been the one with the deadly spinal cord injury after an encounter with officers.  "That's how they treat us," he said. "They'll beat the shit out of you and lock you up. I've been arrested unjustly plenty of times."

His neighbor, a 27-year-old named Melvin who only wanted to give his first name, called the Baltimore City Police Department "the biggest gang out here."

He ticked off their tactics rather casually: "They've slapped my face for nothing ... they take us to other districts, just to get us beat up. They'll drop you somewhere far from where you live and leave you; they'll take the battery out of your phone... We're talking years and years of this shit. People's fed up with it."

The consensus that this experience is so commonplace — that being antagonized by the police without any remedy is simply part of life for black people in certain parts of Baltimore — is jarring.  "I haven't met a young person in their teenage years who hasn't been harassed," said Noche Dias, a 26-year-old youth organizer from New York City who traveled to Baltimore after Gray's death. "I've talked to mothers who have told me their sons were killed by police, and everyone says they've been treated like a criminal. Everyone."

Not as simple as "thugs" and "criminals"

Baltimore's mostly young protestors who were blamed for multiple police injuries and looting Monday night — police were also caught on video throwing rocks back at them — have been dismissed as everything from wholly irrational to purely criminal.

By the end of the night, police said 20 officers were injured and over two dozen people were arrested. A CVS drugstore and a senior center had been destroyed by fire. The National Guard was called in, a state of emergency was declared in the city, Baltimore public schools were closed, and a weeklong curfew was put in place.

An earlier statement by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appeared to have been ignored. "It is idiotic to think that by destroying your city, you're going to make life better for anybody," she'd said Saturday, as the protests first became violent. "Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who, in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for."

At a press conference Tuesday, Obama echoed these sentiments, saying rioters should be "treated as criminals" and accusing them not only distracting from "multiple days of peaceful protests that were focused on entirely legitimate concerns," but of being wholly counterproductive. "They're destroying and undermining opportunities and businesses in their own communities," he said.

But according to Mark D. Smaller, the president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, the psychology of rioting means it shouldn't be written off quite so easily as pointless destruction. "These groups can become the vehicle for expressing anger, rage and helplessness," he said in an email to Vox. "One must keep in mind that this behavior is not simply random, but a group or community's way of communicating their frustration at chronically not being listened to, responded to, and finally marginalized."

Raphael Blake, 40, who was walking somberly alone through Tuesday's block party, sees riots as more than random. That's why, he said, while the violence saddens him, the protesters have good reason to be skeptical of the refrain of political and religious leaders — and people like the members of the 300 Men March group — that the youth must calm down and look for peaceful solutions.

"If you protest peacefully, they don't give a shit"

"You want to ‘sit down and compromise and talk,' but about what? These mayors, these preachers, they're trying to sugarcoat it, but the youth don't want to hear that shit, 'cause they're rubbing elbows with the oppressors. The kids might not understand the policy and politics exactly, but they understand what's happening to them. They might as well shut down the system," he said with a shrug. "They're already set up."

Stewart said his personal experience — and his disappointment with the recommended peaceful approach — won't allow him to criticize those who took the response to Gray's death in a more destructive direction. "I was one of the ones who started the peaceful protests ... the first seven days [after Gray's death], when it was fine and dandy. I walked about 101 miles in peace. But if you protest peacefully, they don't give a shit," he said.

27-year-old William Stewart sits outside his West Baltimore home

William Stewart, a neighbor of Gray's, says the peaceful protests he participated in didn't do much.

Some even see the riots as rational. According to Heather Gautney, associate professor in Fordham University's department of sociology and author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era, this analysis makes some sense. "Critics of the rioters claim there are alternative, more rational means of making social change and realizing justice, but what are these means?" she asked. "The rioters in Baltimore and elsewhere know that the chances of making change within the system are few — that the system has turned against them — so they react with rage, a sense of abandon and revenge, and desire to tear it down and start anew."

"Why would you destroy your own neighborhood?" is a question that rang out on cable news as cameras recorded protesters destroying parts of Ferguson last summer, and again as buildings burned in Baltimore Monday. The implication is that the destruction and violence is a meaningless, illogical response — hurting one's own neighborhood to protest the actions of outsiders. But Gautney said it's wrong to paint all riots as irrational outbursts. "Riots like the ones we are seeing in Baltimore, and before that in Los Angeles in 1992, should be viewed as rational responses to injustice," she said. "Riots highlight the injustice and violence that's prevalent in impoverished neighborhoods in this country."

"The CVS? They got insurance, they can rebuild. Freddie Gray had insurance, but it's not gonna bring back his life."

And Stewart — as someone who lives in one of those neighborhoods — can see how that could make the destruction ultimately worth it. "The CVS? They got insurance, they can rebuild. Freddie Gray had insurance, but it's not gonna bring back his life."

The potential to highlight injustice is why Paul, a 50-year-old born and raised in Baltimore who initially dismissed this week's looting with a resigned, "It's teenagers. What are you gonna do?" said that when he saw the destruction to his community, it didn't particularly hurt him. "It was coming," he said. "They probably think this is gonna end up in the history books because they caused this ruckus. And you know what? They may be right."

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