Freddie Gray, a black man arrested by police in a West Baltimore neighborhood, died earlier this month after he obtained spinal injuries and police delayed medical attention. The exact cause of his injury is as yet unknown, but is under investigation.
What is clear, however, is the community response being seen and the tensions across America that continue to be stretched to the breaking point. After riots erupted, resulting in fire and property damage, as well as multiple injuries to police officers, the city called in the U.S. National Guard to help control events. A curfew was put in place, and a number of local businesses and institutions either closed or changed their hours to reduce risk of damage and danger.
Events in Baltimore, just like events in Ferguson, Oakland, and other cities, are symptomatic of problems within the U.S. law enforcement system and issues within the nation’s psyche. Discussions of racism and both conscious and unconscious prejudice are perhaps some of the more important conversations that will come out of these events.
Prejudice is a silent social epidemic. Because of its historical nature, there’s no vaccine, and because of either guilt or shame, there is often not enough conversation. And because so many of the disadvantages statistically falling on the shoulders of black and minority Americans are present from birth — socioeconomics, lack of opportunity, prejudicial treatment, and so on — it’s impossible to unknit the ways in which the United States still fails to provide equality to its citizens.
But education and awareness certainly play a role, and the controversy and anger sparked by events in the past few weeks and years should be taken as an opportunity to revisit and open dialogue about things that need to be recognized and changed.
This is something that can be aided and abetted by community and even sometimes government (particularly in training regarding racial sensitivity) involvement, but for the most part, when discussing systematic political or structural efforts, it’s going to be in reference to police reform. One of the biggest faces on that front is likely to be the attorney general.
Loretta Lynch was no sooner confirmed and sworn into office when she was confronted with the next chapter in America’s policing tragedy. It will be an incredibly important period.
Following the deaths of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, Pew Research polling showed that on racially divided lines, many black Americans had doubts about whether police relationships with minority Americans would see any improvement, with only 21% saying they expected improvements. By a three-to-one ratio, more blacks believed the relationship would worsen rather than improve.
Lynch’s confirmation was a drawn-out process, put on hold for quite some time while members of Congress worked to pass a problematic sex trafficking aid bill. She eventually came to replace Eric Holder, who was not well-loved by Republicans in Congress, and who undoubtedly created a difficult entrance for Lynch.
Not only does she bear responsibility to President Obama, who undoubtedly chose her for her similar views on immigration, but Lynch must also attempt to smooth the way with the GOP. She also holds a great deal of responsibility for handling proceedings with police forces across the U.S., as well as the events that are currently unfolding. Her background is particularly well-suited to addressing these issues.
Lynch was a federal prosecutor and has had to take a hard line with punishing officers in the past, but she also is in good standing with police and has had a strong relationship with them in the past. There is a degree of trust there, but also a proper appearance of objectivity, given her time as prosecutor.
“She is in a good position because she has earned credibility with the law enforcement community to begin with,” said James Cole, a former deputy attorney general, to the Los Angeles Times.
Lynch’s fresh face in the attorney general’s office is both an advantage and disadvantage, but her background in dealing with police reform and investigation into Baltimore’s events should help to make her a trusted third party. Her statement given on Baltimore’s riots and the death of Gray was released Monday, in which she addressed current events and steps moving forward.
“I condemn the senseless acts of violence by some individuals in Baltimore that have resulted in harm to law enforcement officers, destruction of property, and a shattering of the peace in the city of Baltimore,” said Lynch, adding that perpetrators “do a disservice to his family, to his loved ones, and to legitimate peaceful protestors who are working to improve their community for all its residents.”
She said that there would be an independent criminal civil rights investigation made into Gray’s death, involving both the Civil Rights Division and the FBI. “The department’s (DoJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has also been fully engaged in a collaborative review of the Baltimore City Police Department,” she noted.
Lynch also said she’ll be working with leaders in the area both to keep residents safe and to safeguard the “civil rights of all residents.”