Baltimore got the celebration this afternoon that many in Ferguson, Missouri longed for last summer and fall. The decision of Baltimore’s State’s Attorney to indict all the police officers connected with the death of Freddie Gray while in their custody turned demonstrations about the case into street parties today. The announcement that the cops had been charged with the most serious charges possible and faced decades in prison was exactly what the city needed to restore the peace that was disrupted by violent riots earlier in the week. But even as the nation sighs in relief at the prospect of calm in Baltimore, the upcoming trial and the ongoing debate about the significance of the case may raise more questions than can be answered by the indictment of six officers. If, as may happen, the officers are not convicted, the prospect of violence will be great. Nor is it likely that much light will be shed in the debate about the future of troubled urban areas like Baltimore or law enforcement in the rush to jail the cops in the case that has given new life to a largely misleading narrative of racism.
Unlike in Ferguson, protesters need no longer demand that police accused of a role in the death of a young black man be arrested and indicted. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby immediately became a media heroine when she gave demonstrators and pundits calling for quick justice what they wanted during the course of a lengthy address that blasted the accused for their conduct.
Mosby handled her press conference ably. But the haste with which the state’s attorney charged the officers and her choice to avoid using going through the grand jury process, leaves open the possibility that her decision had more to do with politics and the need to keep the peace than justice. The multiplicity of charges as well as the second-degree murder count also makes it likely that she is hoping to offer a plea to some of the officers in order to convict others. The guilty should be punished severely. Yet it remains to be seen whether she has overcharged the police. But just as the accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence, so, too, must the country hope that the evidence exists to support the accusations of murder. If not, then Mosby is earning temporary applause that will eventually blow up in her face as well as that of the rest of the city.
Looking beyond the fate of these individual officers, the danger here is that the case of Freddie Gray will, regardless of the evidence, become a rallying cry against police around the country as well as feeding often false charges of racism.
This week’s riot has set off an ocean of commentary about the fate of the inner cities and renewed the debate about the extent to which government can solve the problems of cities like Baltimore. Some of these exchanges have been thoughtful. But many have been absurd. The idea that calling rioters “thugs” is evidence of racism shows how far the discussion of race has been debased by a debilitating political correctness. Al Sharpton’s call for the nationalization of police, Michael Moore’s demand that they be disarmed can be dismissed as fodder for the MSNBC crowd and not much more. N.D.B. Connolly’s New York Times op-ed in which he raised the specter of slavery to depict Baltimore — a city with a black mayor and state’s attorney and an integrated police force — to be a bastion of racism highlighted the way the left hopes to parlay this tragedy and any others it can rope into the conversation into political capital.
It goes without saying that the plight of those trapped in inner cities with failing schools and dysfunctional economies are right to want change. But no matter how Freddie Gray was killed, nothing in this case changes the fact that cities like Baltimore have been governed by the political left and often by minority politicians for decades. Racism is part of the reality of American history. But the collapse of these cities is the fruit of a failed liberal government project. Liberals and Democrats point to the Baltimore riots as the justification for a renewal of the same big spending policies that have already repeatedly failed. Nor will an attempt to shoehorn isolated incidents of police misbehavior into a general narrative of racism that makes it hard for law enforcement to work bring peace to neighborhoods. That’s especially true of those that badly need police to defend the safety and property of citizens beset more by crime than a notional oppression that has little connection to their lives.
The danger here is not just that justice is always sacrificed when mobs exercise influence over politicians who fear to anger them (such as Baltimore’s mayor who called earlier this week for giving thugs “space to destroy). It’s that a productive dialogue about how to expand economic opportunity and improve education — the only factors that can heal broken cities — is being drowned in a sea of misleading rhetoric about race and police violence.