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The Real “Looting”: From Slavery to Policing and Beyond

Recent US protests are part of a growing movement against systemic racism, including the looting of Black wealth and violence against Black people.

The system that people in Baltimore rose up against stretches back across the centuries. (Photo: Slave shackles via Shutterstock)

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In April, another unarmed Black person was killed by police. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American male, was arrested by Baltimore police on April 12, given a “rough ride” and a week later died of a spinal cord injury he received in the police van.

Much has been, and will still be, written about Baltimore. However, one word that has been overused in that coverage is “riot.” We must keep in mind: The protests and property destruction in Baltimore may have been a spontaneous reaction to police violence but they were not isolated. They are part of a growing uprising against generations-long systemic racism across the United States.

The system that people in Baltimore rose up against stretches back across the centuries. Pundits and the mainstream media also focus incessantly on “looting,” pointing to a relatively small amount of property damage in Baltimore in order to delegitimize the uprising. Here, we must remember that the real “looting” is the looting of Black wealth through generations of slavery, racial discrimination and exploitative economic policies.

The slave system fueled the US economy for generations and enriched many slave masters and capitalists.

From the 1500s to late 1800s, European slave traders imported more than 12 million slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere to work on plantations. Slavery was a massive, intricate economy that built modern capitalism. Along with performing other services like domestic work, slaves were exploited to grow cash crops like cotton and sugar, and to produce commodities that were sold in international markets for profit – a key component of capitalism. Slaves, themselves, were also considered property and traded on international markets. The slave system fueled the US economy for generations and enriched many slave masters, capitalists and other wealthy people.

Numerous financial institutions benefited from slavery. In fact, Wall Street was initially built as a slave market in the 1600s. Aetna sold insurance to slave owners who wanted to protect their “investments” in case a slave died aboard a slave ship. Slave owners were also compensated for losing their “property” – i.e. human slaves. Wachovia and JP Morgan Chase’s predecessor banks gave loans to slave owners and accepted slaves as “collateral.”

Slavery was a transfer of wealth from unpaid, exploited Black labor to White European slave owners, capitalists and other White people who benefitted from the system. As a slave state and plantation colony, Maryland was a key part of this system. Slavery not only laid the foundation for modern capitalism, but it also ensured that Black people would be at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, while White people were at the top, for generations after slavery’s demise.

To keep Black socioeconomic and political power subordinate to White people after slavery, a system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow was established in the former slaveholding South. In 1910, the Baltimore city government passed a residential housing ordinance that restricted African Americans to living in certain areas. Justifying the policy, the Baltimore mayor said, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”

Slavery and segregation contributed to present-day racial inequalities. The racial wealth gap persists.

Baltimore exemplified nationwide policy and practice of racial discrimination. Federal housing policy prevented African Americans from moving into White suburban neighborhoods, which received federally subsidized construction loans as long as developers excluded Black people. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) refused to insure mortgages for Black families regardless of whether they lived in Black or White neighborhoods. The practice of denying mortgages and other financial services to African Americans became known as “redlining” since “neighborhoods were colored red on government maps to indicate that these neighborhoods should be considered poor credit risks as a consequence of African Americans living in (or even near) them,” according to Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein. This meant Black communities were deprived of wealth and economic resources to uplift themselves.

While legalized racial segregation ended in the 1960s, schools and neighborhoods remain just as segregated as – if not more than – they were 50 years ago. Moreover, the sameinequities exist, with many important economic resources largely absent in African-American communities. As a result, poverty is highly concentrated in predominantly Black and Brown communities like Baltimore, Washington, DC, and elsewhere.

Slavery and segregation contributed to present-day racial inequalities. Poverty remains higher among Black people. In 2013, the poverty rate for White people was 9.6 percent, in contrast to 27.2 percent for Black people, according to US Census data.

The racial wealth gap persists. According to a Pew Research analysis of Federal Reserve data, in 2013, the median net worth of all US households was $81,400. But for White households, it was $141,900; Latino households had $13,700, while Black households had $11,000 in net worth. Black and Latino households were hit very hard by the housing bubble and recession since their communities were targeted for subprime mortgage loans and most of their wealth came from the value of their homes.

Indeed, the risky subprime mortgage loans with which Black households were systematically targeted were then turned into complex financial instruments that tanked the economy but made a tiny group of Wall Street investors very rich. For example, Wells Fargo loan officers deliberately and systematically singled out Black people in Baltimore and suburban Maryland for toxic, high-interest subprime mortgages. Loan officers “referred to Blacks as ‘mud people’ and to subprime lending as ‘ghetto loans,'” according to The New York Times. One loan officer, Beth Jacobson, who is White, told The New York Times, “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”

Black unemployment usually far exceeds White unemployment or the national average. At the end of 2014, the national unemployment rate for White people was 4.5 percent; for Black people, it was 11 percent.

In Freddie Gray’s Baltimore neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park, 51.8 percent of the working-age population was unemployed between 2008 and 2012, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative. Median household income is $24,006, and more than one-third of homes in the area are vacant or abandoned.

Racist Police Brutality Throughout the United States

The United States’ police system also traces its roots back to slavery. Slave insurrections threatened the stability of the slave economy so slave owners utilized various methods, such as the legal system and systematic violence, to keep slaves in check. Slave patrols, a component of this systematic violence, helped birth modern US policing. During slavery, slave patrols would monitor, search, arrest, detain and terrorize Black Africans – runaway, enslaved or free – in order to punish and return slaves to their masters. Slave patrols’ practice of stopping and searching free and enslaved Black people was a predecessor to stop-and-frisk. Once slavery ended, the slave patrols and their practices morphed into Southern police departments.

In Northern cities, the main purposes of US police were maintaining social control of “dangerous” people seen as prone to disorderly, violent or immoral behavior (immigrants, the homeless, African Americans, Native Americans) and suppressing labor uprisings. Social control – via order-maintenance policing – and political repression remain key components of US policing to this day.

Known in Baltimore as “rough rides” or “nickel rides” – and “joy rides” or other names in other regions – the form of violence that Freddie Gray experienced occurs when police vans are intentionally driven in a way that causes pain or injury to unbuckled but handcuffed detainees. Numerous people and their families have sued the City of Baltimore and received payouts for receiving injuries during police van rides. “The most sensational case in Baltimore,” according to The Baltimore Sun, was that of Dondi Johnson Sr., a 43-year-old plumber “who was arrested for public urination” in 2005. Johnson “was handcuffed and placed in a transport van in good health. He emerged a quadriplegic,” The Sun reported. He died two weeks later of “pneumonia caused by his paralysis.”

During a seven-year period ending in 2012, a White police officer killed a Black person nearly twice a week.

Like Gray, Johnson told his doctor that he was not fastened to his seat in the police van when it “made a sharp turn” that sent him “face first” into the van’s interior, according to court records obtained by The Sun. The lawsuit quoted in The Sun adds that Johnson was “violently thrown around the back of the vehicle as [police officers] drove in an aggressive fashion, taking turns so as to injure [Johnson] who was helplessly cuffed.” After he died, Johnson’s family sued and the jury agreed that the police treated him negligently. Their initial $7.4 million award “was eventually reduced to $219,000 by Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals because state law caps such payouts,” according to The Sun.

In 1997, Jeffrey Alston was paralyzed from the neck down in a Baltimore police van after he was arrested. Seven years later, in 2004, he sued and was awarded $39 million by a jury. However, he and the City settled for $6 million. The Sun also mentioned, “In settlements, the city generally does not acknowledge liability; the officers involved in the case did not face disciplinary actions.”

Black people and other people of color are disproportionately killed by police officers in Baltimore and throughout the country. Social science studies have shown that people, including police officers, are more likely to shoot Black suspects than White suspects. In fact, unarmed Black suspects in those simulations were more likely to be shot than armed White suspects. Since there is no national database on police killings, this means a variety of sources, such as independent press or organizations, have had to document the killings themselves. The FBI does collect data on police killings, but they are based on information volunteered by police departments. Thus, the FBI’s information, as with other sources, is incomplete. While each source on police killings is incomplete, put together, they reveal stark racial disparities in police-involved shootings.

The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement estimated that police officers, vigilantes and other members of law enforcement kill a Black person every 28 hours. A December 2014 ProPublica analysis of FBI data on police killings revealed that young Black males are 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than young White males. Looking back on FBI data from 1980 to 2012, ProPublica’s analysis found that more than half of police shooting victims were nonwhite. FBI data on police killings obtained by Vox shows that of the 426 people killed by police in 2012, 46 percent were White, 12 percent were Latino and 39 percent were Black. Additional FBI data also reveals that, on average, police kill 400 people a year. During a seven-year period ending in 2012, a White police officer killed a Black person nearly twice a week.

Throughout Maryland, 109 people died in police encounters between 2010 and 2014, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Of those, 69 percent were Black – even though Maryland’s Black population is 29 percent – and 41 percent were unarmed.

The US Carceral State

The United States has the world’s largest prison population with more than 2.4 million peoplemostly people of color – behind bars. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than White men. One in every three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lives compared to one in every 17 White males. And in the education system, Black students are suspended more often and disciplined more harshly than White students.

The typical justification for this situation is something along the lines of, “Well, Black people commit more crime!” Not quite. Most Black people do not commit any crime. The ones who do commit crime, especially violent crime, represent a small minority of the community. People will often point to arrest statistics to argue that Black people commit more crime but that is a flawed measurement. Not everyone who commits a crime gets arrested. Arrest statistics only count who goes through the criminal legal system – which are often people of color – not who actually commits a crime. Communities of color are also more heavily policed than White communities, which means people of color are more likely to be arrested and show up in crime statistics than White people.

Crime throughout the country is at its lowest point in decades. So-called “Black-on-Black” crime is also at its lowest point in years and decreasing faster than “White-on-White” crime, according to a Demos study. It’s important to note that crime is committed by all races and most crime is intraracial.

Mainstream discourse on “crime” leaves out crimes committed by the US government and large corporations.

Moreover, the discourse on crime is deeply racialized and politicized. Many White males have committed mass shootings and other egregious crimes, such as James Eagan Holmes, the shooter who killed 12 people and injured 70 others in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. Yet, White men are not collectively blamed for those acts nor criminalized like Black people are after an act of violence or criminality is committed by a Black person.

Plus, mainstream discourse on “crime” leaves out crimes committed by the US government and large corporations. For example, the FBI’s national database on crime – the standard-bearer for measuring crime rates in the country – focuses on individual crime that occurs in communities but largely discounts crimes of the powerful, such as aggressive war, torture, human rights abuses, violations of international law and constitutional rights, economic plunder, money laundering, and various forms of corporate crime and malfeasance. These crimes inflict greater harm on larger numbers of people than day-to-day crime committed by individuals.

African Americans have been hit with the brunt of the so-called war on drugs. Black and White people use drugs at similar rates and White people are more likely to deal drugs than Black people. However, African Americans are more likely to be arrested and locked up for drug offenses than White people.

Moreover, the US government plays a role in fueling the international drug economy and bringing drugs into the country. During the 1980s, the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua – a right-wing guerrilla force that was trained, armed and funded by the CIA – funneled cocaine from South America into the United States in order to raise money for their war against the left-wing Sandinista government. Many Contra fighters were drug dealers, even while they were on the CIA’s payroll. This helped fuel the infamous crack epidemic that destroyed many Black inner-city communities, such as South Central Los Angeles, through increased crime and gang violence. Thus, Black people are blamed for a so-called drug problem that is not of their making.

Growing Resistance

What happened in Baltimore is not an isolated incident. Ever since the protests against the police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014, a vibrant social movement has been growing, with interlinked protests and organizing efforts against police brutality, institutional racism and mass incarceration accelerating around the country.

The movement’s momentum has taken many people, including myself, by surprise. In November 2014, I covered a protest in Oakland during the day of the Ferguson grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown case. Like so many protests, I expected this one to be a gathering of a hundred or so people to be angry for about an hour and then leave right after. But this protest was far different. After the grand jury refused to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Brown, hundreds of people gathered in Oakland to protest the decision. The protest grew so large that it wound up taking over one of the Bay Area’s major highways.

It will take a lot more than a commission to halt police brutality and eliminate institutional racism.

The anger – not only at the verdict, but also at the system – was palpable in the crowd, which included many young people. Marissa Johnson, a freshman at University of California, Berkeley, told Truthout, “The fact that Darren Wilson was not indicted is just preposterous to me and I just felt like I needed to do something about it. I couldn’t just sit around and see another White man being let go for killing one of our brothers.” Johnson also wasn’t surprised with the grand jury verdict. Solomon Kamara, also a UC Berkeley freshman, simply said, “I’m doing this because he [Michael Brown] could’ve been me.”

One protester, a Berkeley resident who declined to be named but preferred to be called “Lucy,” said, “As a person of color [Mexican-American], it’s my duty to come out here. And just show that I don’t support that there was no indictment of Darren Wilson and to show that Black lives do matter.” However, Lucy added, “I feel like even if there was an indictment, there would still not be justice because there’s an ongoing war on Black people in America.” It seemed that people had reached a tipping point.

The protests in Baltimore are not separate from this movement. In fact, the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement announced their solidarity with protesters in Baltimore and referred to the national movement against racist police brutality as an “uprising.”

On May Day (May 1), longshore workers, labor leaders, families of police brutality victims and hundreds of people shut down the Port of Oakland to protest police brutality. There were several similar protests throughout the country as well. A recent poll found that 96 percent of Americans expect what happened in Baltimore to happen in the upcoming summer months.

The Baltimore uprising has also forced members of the ruling political class to respond. After the uprising, Maryland state attorney Marilyn Mosby charged the six officers who arrested Gray for their role in his death. Admitting that the uprising forced her response, she told the protesters, “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace.'” (Of course, charging the six officers is actually Mosby’s job; the response was significant, but should not be considered a particularly progressive step.)

The Baltimore uprising shows that many people, especially African Americans, have reached a tipping point.

Additionally, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan) introduced a bill that would establish a commission of experts to issue recommendations for reform of the criminal legal system. According to The Huffington Post, the bill would have Congress and the president “appoint 14 experts in law enforcement, civil liberties, victims rights and other areas to review the criminal justice system. The group would have 18 months to issue recommendations aimed at increasing public safety and improving relations between communities and law enforcement.”

However, it will take a lot more than a commission (or a vaguely encouraging sign from an official) to halt police brutality and eliminate institutional racism within the criminal legal system.

Responding to a question about the Baltimore uprising, President Barack Obama condemned the looting, but also acknowledged that decades-long poverty, economic inequality and police corruption were grievances behind the unrest. While looting did occur, President Obama’s reference to it as “violence” is misplaced. The real violence came from Baltimore police – not the protesters.

Former President Bill Clinton called for an end to mass incarceration in the aftermath of the Baltimore uprising. He admitted that his policies put “too many people in prison and for too long” and “overshot the mark.” Clinton’s policies greatly expanded the prison system during the 1990s. His 1994 crime bill built more prisons, expanded police forces and allowed states to implement longer and harsher sentences. As first lady, Hillary Clinton lobbied for her husband’s bill.

Like Bill, Hillary, who is now running for president, is singing a different tune. In a recent speech, Hillary also called for ending an “era of mass incarceration” but said little in terms of policy proposals, aside from advocating for body cameras in every police department. However, a recent Fusion investigation found that body cameras, rather than providing a means for police accountability, “usually serve police more than citizens charging misconduct.” The “key problem” is “officers control the record button. They decide when to turn on and off the cameras and have little to fear when violating department policies about recording.”

What happened in Baltimore is not one, isolated riot.

The Baltimore uprising, along with the protests in Ferguson and beyond over the past few months, show that many people, especially African Americans, have reached a tipping point when it comes to routine police brutality. The issue of property destruction is somewhat beside the point. Property destruction occurs very often in moments of social upheaval. In fact, property destruction and violent confrontations with police occurred during the 2010-2011 Arab uprisings but the mainstream media still sympathized with the protesters – contrary to how the same press routinely condemns protests in the United States that have even a small instance of property damage. When people – whether in the Arab world or Black America – are oppressed by systematic violence and economic depravation for generations, it is inevitable that they will erupt in chaotic anger. So to issue moral judgments on whether property damage during moments of social upheaval are good or bad achieves very little.

What happened in Baltimore is not one, isolated riot. It is part of a massive uprising against systemic police brutality in the United States. Thus, it is not unreasonable for 96 percent of Americans to expect more Baltimore-like uprisings to occur this coming summer.

Given that the kind of institutional racism embedded within the policing and judicial systems is rooted in generations of slavery and oppression, it will take far more than police body cameras, commissions and statements by political leaders to uproot it. Throughout history, social movements have proven that they have the ability to force radical political and social change during times when status quo politics cannot do it. The Black Lives Matter movement is one of them.

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