‘Delicate Balance’

04.28.15 9:25 AM ET

Baltimore Mayor Gave Permission to Riot

Before condemning the thugs who are looting and burning the city, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake talked about giving ‘space’ to people intent on destruction, showing a startling lack of common sense.

Yes, she said it.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stood before the news cameras over the weekend and really did say, “We also gave those who wish to destroy space to do that as well.”

Police carry an injured officer from the streets near Mondawmin Mall on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics.  Police said at least seven officers were injured -- one of them was unresponsive -- as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of the shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

She uttered these words while explaining how she had sought to maintain “the very delicate balance” between the right to protest and the safety of police officers as a week of demonstrations over the death of Freddie Gray began to turn violent on Saturday.

“We work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate,” she said. “And that’s what we saw.”

After that success over the weekend, she apparently took the same approach on Monday. And this time those who wished to destroy just kept destroying and destroying as the situation escalated to where Maryland Governor Larry Hogan activated the National Guard.

Rawlings-Blake was only 21 at the time of the Crown Heights Riots in 1991, when New York Mayor David Dinkins held the police back in order to let protesters “blow off a little steam.” But, the destructive result was something anyone who runs a city should have studied.

Baltimore now suddenly became Crown Heights on steroids.

And to make matters worse, each thrown brick and bottle, each trashed car, each store looted and burned was an insult to Freddie Gray’s twin sister. Her brother had become the second young man to suffer fatal spinal injuries after being arrested for a petty crime and loaded into a Baltimore police van. She nonetheless remained a voice for peace.

“My family wants to say, can you all please stop the violence?” Fredricka Gray said. “Freddie Gray would not want this.”

Monday began with the chilling word from the Baltimore police of a “credible threat” that the Black Guerilla Family, the Crips, and the Bloods had formed an alliance to kill white cops as if were suddenly back in the 1970s and the time of the Black Liberation Army.

Yet, as hundreds of mourners attended Freddie Gray’s funeral, we seemed to be in our own time after all, with the mayor and the police commissioner both African-American and both pledging that justice would be done. Fredricka Gray was burying her twin and you had to hope that her plea for nonviolence would be heeded.

But with the afternoon, the city seemed to tumble even further back in time, before the 1970s to the riots of 1968 sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now, as then, the throwing of bricks and bottles was followed by trashing police cars and looting stores and setting fires. All you needed was somebody to shout, “Burn, baby, burn!”

Rev. Jamal Bryant, senior pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church, came from Gray’s funeral to one of the flashpoints.

“This is not what the family asked for today of all days,” he told reporters. “This was a day of sacred closure.”

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He saw reasons for the violence, but no excuses.

“It’s frustration, anger, and disrespect to the family.”

He spoke of his parishioners joining the Nation of Islam in forming a “human wall” in an attempt to contain the trouble for which there proved to be no immediate containment.

As night fell, the transmissions over the police radio were of a city going mad.

“There’s 100 of them in the shoe store. People are even getting out of their cars to go into the shoe store.”

“A group of black males breaking into a grocery store from the rear.”

“No units are to go there alone…. Do we have any other units?.... I need at least three or four cars to go there.... Do we have any other units?”

“Is anybody else coming up there?”

“Male armed with a handgun.”

“We have an individual in custody. We need a wagon.”

“We don’t even have a wagon.”

“There’s about 30 of them! We need backup.”

“Nobody’s up here right now.”

 “I got multiple fires inside the park. I got one beside the conservatory.”

“I see other ones.”

“I can’t cover you.”

“We got looting at the CVS and the 7-Eleven. I’m trying to keep people out of both places. It’s really dark out here tonight.”

“We have gunshots, a woman screaming.”

“Do not drive into locations you can’t get out of. We will not jeopardize our lives for those stores.”

“Breaking into store in the shopping center…. Security says he is armed. He is alone.”

“I have the injured officer back at his command. I’m heading out.”

“A curfew in the city.”

“That’s crazy.”

 “I hope they make it so not nobody can come out. Then I don’t got to go to work tomorrow.”

The mayor reappeared before the news cameras and insisted that the media had twisted and taken out of context her remarkable words over the weekend. She said she had been talking about protesters, not thugs “who want to incite violence and destroy our city.” She seemed deaf to the echo of her own words, when she had spoken earlier of giving room to “those who wish to destroy.” That is a pretty good definition of a thug.

“What we see tonight that is going in in our city is very disturbing,” she now said with considerable understatement. 

She reported that the National Guard would be deployed as soon as it was available, no doubt to restrict the space of these destroyers. There would be a 10 p.m. curfew starting Tuesday.

“This is not a lawless city,” she assured everybody.

She pledged that the thugs would be tracked down thanks to “police videos,” a twist to an uproar that had been sparked by a civilian video taken of Freddie Gray being dragged to a police van.

“We will be holding people accountable,” she promised.

She gave not the slightest glimmer of feeling that she should be held accountable for anything. She may have made her initial ascent from City Council president to mayor because her predecessor had been locked up for embezzlement, but she had since been elected to a full term with 87 percent of the vote. She seemed to consider that an unshakable endorsement.

And she rightly felt that Baltimore had been making considerable progress since days so benighted that the city jail had essentially been run by the Black Guerilla Family. The gang’s jailed leader impregnated four corrections officers, two of whom were tattooed with his name, one on her neck.

“This is my jail,” the leader, Tavon White, was recorded saying from behind bars. “My word is law…. If I told any motherf---ing body they had to do this, hit a police, do this, kill a mother---er, do anything, it get done. Period.”

But White’s reign had ended with a series of indictments, and it seemed that the rule of law was beginning to return to Baltimore. Homicides were leveling off. The new police commissioner boasted that he had fired 50 members of the department for misconduct.

Then came the death of poor Freddie Gray. The mayor clearly shared the anger over the failure of the arresting officers to summon medical assistance for Gray when it should have been clear to them that he was in serious distress. She also shared the anger over the failure of the cops to strap him in with a seatbelt even though that had led to the other Baltimore man dying from similar injuries in a police van.

Yet she seemed not to understand what was seething in her own city, what was liable to flare beyond any immediate controlling if the true destroyers were given space.

Gray’s death showed what can happen when the police turn callous.

The riots showed what can happen if the police are believed not to be in control.

Rioters who rampaged after a cellphone video of an arrest will themselves be arrested with the help of police video.

And the good people of Baltimore will have to rebuild, as they had to do after the long-ago riots of 1968 that followed King’s murder.

King no doubt would have found the city’s present mayor to be smart and decent and right out of his mountaintop dream.

If only she had a little more common sense.

If only she were not deaf to her own words.