It’s no secret that police in the U.S. are killing people at an alarming rate–more than one per day for the past 15 years. Police killings, particularly ones caught on tape, and especially the killers’ subsequent, seemingly inevitable acquittal, have prompted massive non-violent demonstrations, clashes with police, riots, and even a couple of vigilante shootings of police officers. While well-publicized, these incidences of mass, civil unrest are nevertheless statistically anomalous responses.
So why did the events in Ferguson and Baltimore unfold in such an anomalous manner? There have been plenty of articles from major publications that detail the economic conditions that Baltimore’s Black population faces; though even these very same articles admit that Baltimore is by no means anomalous in these regards. This obsession with the economy likely has to do with social science’s reliance on statistics to prove points, and our society’s willingness to track and quantify every economic transaction down to two decimal points, while simultaneously refusing to even keep track of how many people are killed by the police until six months ago.
What deserve more attention, perhaps, are cultural phenomena and mass perception. There were two other well-publicized police killings caught on tape in April alone, one of which was committed by a volunteer police officer in what looked like a premeditated blood sport. Still, the moment I heard the death of Freddie Gray being reported as a “custodial death,” I was relatively confident that there would be a massive reaction. For hundreds of years, the closest that citizens could possibly come to proving police murder, albeit with circumstantial evidence, was the custodial death. Civil unrest as a reaction to custodial deaths is seemingly as predictable as a peasant rebellion due to a grain shortage. Even in an age where audio/visual evidence of police murder is abundant, the taboos surrounding custodial deaths live on, as do citizens’ well-developed “repertoire of contention.”
Age-old taboos may also provide the best explanation for why arson is such an effective, yet divisive mode of contention. As civil rights activist Phillip Agnew so eloquently explained on The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, shipwrecked sailors do not garner attention by shouting, or writing messages in the sand, or letters in bottles, but by burning things. Humanity’s complex relationship with fire is as old as time. Fire is simultaneously our greatest gift and curse, and must be wielded with extreme caution. This is why the police and the mainstream media try to portray the arson of rioters as out of control, and why demonstrators resort to arson so infrequently, and typically use it so discerningly. Playing with fire practically assures a demonstration publicity–though not necessarily sympathetic publicity–and draws a line in the sand like no other act. Popular interpretations of the act ultimately decide its effectiveness.