When there are riots, people inevitably say, “Well, I understand things aren’t perfect for everybody, but there’s no reason to get violent.” There’s always a sense that somehow, the rioters are more to blame than whatever ill they’re upset about. Always a paternal finger wag at the “misguided” young people who don’t know how to behave like humans. Always the caveat, and always the focus is on what is to be done about the rioters. It never occurs to us to ask whether riots might not be a top-down phenomenon, in which a government pushes a group of people to the point where violence is all but inevitable. I’d like to examine that idea in some detail, if you’ll indulge a story by way of exposition.
Several years ago, I was peripherally involved in a social work case with a client we’ll call Fred. When I first encountered Fred, he was in a program for ex-convicts to return to work. Unfortunately, he was also set to be kicked out of the program for stealing. It was an open and shut case. He’d asked for a pair of boots to which he was not entitled, and was told no. So he stole them, and admitted to the theft when confronted. The only question was what was to be done with him. Would he be reported to the police for the theft, or would he be quietly discharged and left to his own devices? After much debate, his case worker decided he would be charged. I don’t know what happened to Fred after that, but I assume he went back to jail.
Statistically, Fred’s case isn’t very interesting. He’d first gone to jail for check fraud, and then several more times for various misdemeanors. By the numbers, the chances he would return to prison despite the work program were quite high. There are a lot of people who spend most of their life in and out of jail for small crimes and misdemeanors. But I want to tell you Fred’s whole story.
Fred got married young (we’ll call her Mary), and had children early, but it was okay because he had a good job and a promising future. There was more construction work than he could get to, and Mary was able to stay home with the kids. Within a few years, they were able to put a down payment on their first home. Then the Great Recession hit. Construction work dried up. The housing market collapsed, which meant he couldn’t sell his house for something more economical. Mary had never wanted anything but to be a mom, but she was forced to work 34-36 hours a week at Walmart to make ends meet. Fred started mowing yards and doing odd jobs for whatever he could get. They managed to get a small welfare allowance.
That’s when everything went to hell. After childcare expenses, Mary barely made anything at Walmart, but it was literally the difference between paying the mortgage and going into default. Fred was going house to house looking for work, then stocking shelves on the graveyard shift, so some months were better than others. During the bad months, his 80 hours of work weren’t enough to buy food for everybody. Their meager food stamp allowance didn’t make up the difference. Fred and Mary didn’t always eat, but they made sure the kids ate.
When Fred went to jail, it was for intentionally writing a bad check. If he didn’t buy food, the kids wouldn’t eat, and that was unacceptable. So he wrote a bad check, hoping he could get work the next day and cover it. He couldn’t. And then the chain of overdrafts hit. By the time it was all done, he was several hundred dollars in debt to the bank. Right after that, he got hurt while doing yard work and had to go to the hospital. He didn’t have insurance anymore. There was no way he could cover all the bank fees. So he was charged with deposit fraud.
Due to a lovely quirk in state law, Fred’s crime was considered a felony, even though it was a small amount of money and his first offense. The judge listened to his testimony and sentenced him to three years in prison. Fred had spoken with his public defender for a total of twenty minutes before his court date.
While Fred was in jail, Mary simply could not make ends meet. The house was foreclosed upon. Now homeless, she turned to a male friend who took her in and helped take care of the children. As often happens, one thing led to another, and Mary divorced Fred.
Fred got out of prison early. The Recession was still in full swing, and it was very difficult for anyone to find work, much less an ex-con. So it was back to odd jobs and night shifts for minimum wage. Mary sued him for child support and was awarded a healthy portion of what he’d make in a good month. On bad months, he had to choose between child support and rent. Sometimes he chose rent. He never did get caught up on child support. He was arrested several times for delinquency.
By the time I encountered Fred, a sympathetic judge had determined he would benefit from the work program I mentioned at the beginning. He was being paid a small salary for learning a trade. Never mind that he knew a trade, and being an ex-con was the problem, not being unskilled. He was also making money under the table doing landscaping on weekends so he could get caught up on child support. He was hoping the IRS wouldn’t get wind of it, because the taxes on that money would mean he couldn’t cover all his bills and child support.
That’s why he stole the boots. He needed them because landscaping is really tough on boots, and he couldn’t afford to replace the ones he’d been wearing for years. He stole the boots so he could take care of his children.
I mentioned at the beginning that Fred’s story isn’t all that interesting statistically. Having told you his whole story, I want to stress that it’s still not out of the ordinary. Fred never wanted anything but to work and take care of his kids. When he wasn’t in prison, he was working. He couldn’t remember a time since the Recession when he wasn’t either working 80 hours a week or in jail. He had certainly committed crimes. He did write a bad check. He did steal work boots. He was delinquent on child support. The thing is, once he had that first conviction, nobody seemed to believe his story, and every time he did something criminal for the noblest of reasons, he got the book thrown at him.
The fact is, at every single step of the line, the system failed Fred and Mary. It wasn’t that there was one point where if things had gone better, they would have been okay. From the moment the economy crashed, they were doomed. And they hadn’t done anything wrong. Fred’s entire life was ruined because he bounced one check. The first time he went to jail, it was for want of a meager meal for four. The last, it was for want of a pair of boots so he could go to work.
In America, we blame the poor for everything. If I were to show Fred’s criminal record to a hundred people, I’ll bet ninety of them would define him as a deadbeat dad and petty criminal. And really, he was a devoted and loving father who sacrificed everything he had to try to make things work for his family, and his life was ruined over enough money to cover a round of golf for a Wall Street hot shot. And that’s where we have to take a big step back and question the whole system.
As you’ve probably guessed, Fred and Mary were black. And that adds a whole new level of frustration to the equation. Fred’s story happens thousands of times with minor variations all over the country, to both white and black people. But there’s a big difference. In addition to Fred’s arrests which led to jail time, he had over 20 “encounters” with the police where he was searched, harassed, questioned, detained, and never charged. This doesn’t happen to white people as a rule. Black people are sentenced more harshly than whites. Had a white judge listened to “Fred White’s” story of woe after bouncing the check, he’d have probably gotten off with probation and had the felony charge dropped. Once that felony was on “Fred Black’s” record, his hopes of getting work in construction disappeared, even as the economy started to recover. Black ex-con working on the job site? No, thank you. Had Fred White needed new work boots to go to his second job, someone would have found a way to circumvent the rules and get him some boots. At every step of the way, Fred Black got screwed because he was black.
That’s why we need to think very carefully before we pass judgement on rioters. The American system is badly broken, and things are not good for most of us. Even with the ACA and some Wall Street Reform, there are literally millions of people in America today whose lives may be ruined for want of a boot. Or the cost of one meal. And these millions of people walk down the street looking at cars that cost more than they’ll make in three years. They serve food to people who make a hundred times more money, and then they go home and feed their children Raman noodles. They are in poor health. Their schools are failing them.
And the worst of it all is how the wealthy shove it in their faces. They tip $5 on $50 because their Coca Cola wasn’t refilled fast enough. They wag their fingers condescendingly and tell the poor to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” They call them lazy. Malcontents. They accuse them of having no morals. And whenever a poor person does something criminal for a noble reason, they throw the book at them and ruin their lives, all while maintaining that arrogant superiority. It’s enough to make someone very, very angry.
That’s how it is for the white poor people. For many blacks in America, it’s much worse than that. Add to that the fact that fifty years after Civil Rights, blacks are routinely and blatantly discriminated against. Add to that the fact that millions of black men who have never committed a crime still see white people lock their car doors around them. Add to that the systematic police discrimination and harassment of black people. Add to that the fact that black people are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites for the same crimes, and then can’t find work after they get out of jail. Add to that the fact that schools in primarily black neighborhoods are woefully underfunded and are not educating students so they can find work after high school.
After you add all these things together, realize that for most of the Mondawmin Mall “purgers,” someone, probably lots of someones in their neighborhood could tell the same story as Fred. This is the life they look forward to, and nobody has given them any hope that things will change. They will do the best they can, and with luck, they’ll only be harassed, arrested, prosecuted unfairly, and spend their lives in and out of prison. Unless something changes drastically, they may find themselves with eight bullets in the back, or choked to death, or “rough ridden” to death, courtesy of America’s Finest. I can understand why they’re mad. For all the rioters who continued the unrest and forced the National Guard to come in? I can understand why they’re mad, too. They have no reason to believe justice will be done in Freddie Gray’s case, and they have no reason to trust the police to be either honest or fair in handling the unrest.
With all this out in the open, maybe we can dispense with all the somber formalities associated with scolding the rioters. There have been enough people in high places giving paternalistic lectures on civic responsibility. We get it. Now, let’s start talking about the people who really caused the riots — the fabulously wealthy people who bought the government and sold the poor for profit, and then added insult to injury by allowing black neighborhoods to become hunting grounds for racist police. Let’s talk about fixing those problems, and maybe we won’t have to deal with this riot thing again.