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The newspapers tell us that the Baltimore rioting is “ugly” or even more irritatingly that there is “unrest.” There is a suspicious aesthetic turn to almost all the reporting and commenting on the subject, akin to the way white Southerners of a certain generation dubbed the Civil War an “unpleasantness.” But the aestheticization of the recent Baltimore riots, like the makeover of its inner harbor in the 1970s and 1980s, is really a form of avoidance. What is being avoided in this case, I think, is the moral issue.
Who’s right and who’s wrong? Are we forbidden to ask these questions? However difficult they may be, politics and even policies become senseless unless we try to do so. The avoidance is due to the simple – but apparently difficult for some – answer one must give: It is wrong for the state apparatus to kill black youth; it is wrong for the police to continue this systematic practice of which Freddie Gray is only the most recent victim. By the same token, it is right to protest it.
If it is strange to see commentators avoiding the moral issue in a notoriously moralistic country, then even more surprising is to see these writers fuss as if they were so many technocrats, trying to make Baltimore work, trying to make “our cities” function as they need to. No doubt technocrats can serve a useful role in balancing the opposing viewpoints of citizens, but what is ridiculous is when citizen commentators themselves do no more than assume the role of balancers of opinions that they refuse to express, or temperers of positions when they stand by none.
The truest citizens in the old sense – in the sense of people who stood for something in the agora – are the people who went to the streets in Baltimore. It does not take great perspicacity to see that in the US, as in Europe, there has been a deepening of fascistoid tendencies in the society as a response to the crisis that began in 2008. A right-wing populist, latently racist movement took shape as the Republican Tea Party faction, while a wave of state and vigilante violence has been unleashed on black people, with key milestones in an undeniable trajectory being Sanford, Ferguson, and now Baltimore.
While the connections between these two facts (the birth of the Tea Party faction and the racist state violence) are not obvious, the specter of fascism is surely not far from US reality. Of course, there is a problem because many people think that the fascists of today will necessarily identify themselves by goose-stepping down main street or donning armbands. But contemporary fascism is not as foolish as the cartoon stooge who puts on a sign saying “kick me.” Nor was historical fascism, we may add, since its most infamous variant disguised itself as “socialist.”
Because this is the lay of the land, those people who merely talk about offering a better social deal for black youth, or who recite statistics about unemployment and lack of opportunities, seem to me to understate the case. They seem like so many biblical mothers who go before a not-too-Solomonic judge and ask for only half a baby. As I see it, the people who acted like true citizens and demanded the whole baby (in the face of a fascistoid state) were those who took to the streets in Baltimore and did so in rage.
One final note: it is not true that rioting and disorganized popular violence never leads to anything positive, though it is true that it’s usually only the first step. But then you cannot take a second step without taking a first one, and without a first moment of rioting there would be no US Independence (preceded by food riots in Boston) and no Venezuelan Revolution (preceded by the rioting and sacking of the Caracazo) to name just two well-known examples. Of course, nothing would be neater than social change that is pure perfectioning without impulse, direction without movement, weighing and balancing without conviction and rage. The problem is that it wouldn’t exist.
Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.