What We Need to Know About Baltimore

Blessed are the academics, the journalists, the pollsters who now head into riot-affected Baltimore neighborhoods to ask residents what’s going on. We need information. We need to ask residents of West Baltimore in particular why they think the riot happened. We need to ask them about root causes. Specifically, we need to test our collective hunch that the practices of the Baltimore Police Department were a major factor in why some people decided to burn and smash last night.

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Why Do People Riot*?

That’s a silly question, historically speaking. There is no one answer. In the United States, different groups have attacked other groups and property for a wide range of reasons–toward vastly different ends. Here, I want to consider why people in Baltimore recently, and Ferguson last summer, smashed and burned things, taunted and, in rare instances, attacked police officers. The answer, I think, turns on understanding the special role of the police in American society.

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Police Politics, Then and Now

The recent police shooting deaths of African Americans and the protests they have inspired have started a conversation about racial justice and policing. To some degree, I think that conversation is richer and more promising than it was in the 1960s.

Partly I think it is a matter of information. We simply know more about what police do on the beat, how to train them in the use of force, and what sorts of tactics most offend and anger urban residents. Those were new facts in the 1960s, at least to the broader white public. Even among scholars, before 1960 it was virtually unknown what police did everyday, in what situations they used force, how they decided whether or not to make an arrest, etc. The riots drew attention to these issues. President Lyndon Johnson appointed commissions to study policing and police-community relations. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, established in 1957, and the Community Relations Service, established in 1964, also gathered data from cities across the country. Not coincidentally, the fields of rioting and policing came to prominence in the 1960s. Continue reading