April 29, 2015 at 6:00 pm EDT | by Lateefah Williams
Baltimore and the intersection of oppression
Baltimore, Maryland, gay news, Washington Blade, open walls

Baltimore, Md. (Photo public domain)

The world is now focused on the civil unrest in Baltimore. In recent years, an alarming number of African Americans have been killed by law enforcement officers around the country. The murder of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man, by the Baltimore police is not the sole reason that people are so outraged, hurt and upset.  Rather, it’s the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Many African Americans, particular those who are low-income, have been trapped in the cycle of poverty, lack of opportunity, police brutality and systemic racism for generations. In Baltimore, African Americans have been repeatedly targeted and abused by the police without any repercussions against the officers. According to a 2014 report by the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore “has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects.” All but one of the victims pictured on the cover of the Sun article are African American.

We should all be outraged at oppression faced by any community and, let’s be clear, the civic unrest in Baltimore is about generations of oppression. It’s important that while viewing biased media images portraying all of the protesters as aimless, violent looters, we do not forgot what the protests are truly about—the loss of a young man’s life at the hands of the police. A young man who was alive and asking for medical attention when he was arrested, yet died with a broken back and a crushed voice box a week later.

The protests on Saturday drew more than 1,000 people and the protesters peacefully marched and chanted for miles. The limited violence on Sunday did not occur until the protesters were met by drunk Baltimore Orioles fans near Camden Yards. Even then, the overwhelming majority of protesters were still peaceful and first-hand accounts indicate that in several instances white Orioles fans initiated confrontations with the mostly black protesters. While Monday’s protests drew more people bent on causing destruction and are now the focus of the national media, we cannot allow the narrative to be changed.  The focus must remain on ending police brutality and improving the desperate living conditions that too many Baltimore residents and low-income people around the nation face. We cannot allow the media and others who lack empathy for the plight of low-income African Americans to make this story about looting and rioting.

Members of marginalized groups should all be concerned when other marginalized groups are oppressed. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You do not have to be African American or low-income to understand that brutality against Freddie Gray impacts all of us. The LGBT community, regardless of race or socio-economic status, should be concerned that too many police forces across the nation use excessive force against young, black men.

After all, I’m sure that more seasoned members of the LGBT community can recall the Stonewall Riots. The similarities between the two events can’t be overstated. Both events began after the police targeted members of a marginalized community. Both events have been categorized as riots (and rioting definitely occurred), yet legitimate protests against systemic discrimination were the primary focus of both acts of civil disobedience.

The Stonewall Riots and the LGBT community unification and organizing that followed are often seen as the bellwether of the modern gay rights movement. Thus, it is disheartening when I hear LGBT people making hateful comments about those engaging in civic unrest in Baltimore (including the peaceful protesters), while praising those who engaged in rebellious acts at the Stonewall Inn in the late 1960s. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condone violence or looting and the people who took advantage of Freddie Gray’s death to wreak havoc did the cause a disservice. However, the deep-rooted anger is understandable and if the LGBT community would take a step back and truly ponder the situation, the community will realize that the anger and rebellion is coming from the same place as it did at the Stonewall Inn.

Feeling oppressed, brutalized by the police, hopeless, unheard and unseen can be a dangerous mixture. When you add to those factors that many of the rioters are young people who were born into poverty, have not been given the tools to escape poverty, and have not been taught how to effectively advocate for themselves in a way that brings attention to their plight, rioting is what we end up with.

People see them for the first time. People are actually talking about the conditions that gave rise to the uprising. It’s a shame that it takes committing destructive acts in your own community to get the necessary attention to improve living conditions and stamp out brutality. While those goals may not be on the minds of those causing the most damage, those who are rioting are clearly hurting from generations of oppression. Let’s not lose sight of that in our tendency to judge. Let’s also not lose sight that these events began with more than 1,000 peaceful protesters. Now is the time to stand with Baltimore to ensure that the conditions that have led to the civic unrest are eradicated.

Stonewall Inn, Baltimore riots, gay news, Washington Blade

The Stonewall Inn in 1969 (Photo by Diana Davies; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Lateefah Williams’ column addresses the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. Reach her at lateefah_williams@msn.com or @lateefah4DC.

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