A prisoner riding in the same police van as Freddie Gray says the Baltimore drug dealer spent his time “banging against the walls,” reports the Washington Post. That’s an apt metaphor for Baltimore’s response to Gray’s death.
People who sack the communities they inhabit strangely find it inconceivable that a person would destroy the body he inhabits. They blame the police—for Gray’s demise and their city’s.
The inmate says Gray spent his time in the van “intentionally trying to injure himself.” The tactic certainly rings familiar to the people who burned and pillaged their environs—or anyone who has ever watched (or starred in) Cops. And if not for the singing jailbird’s plea for anonymity, one could be forgiven for deducing that the admission represents another instance of a man “intentionally trying to injure himself,” too.
Maybe instead of a form of suicide, Gray’s violent maneuverings (should the facts bear out this explanation for his injuries) within the van should earn the designation “uprising,” “insurrection,” or one-man “revolution.” And such words, of course, and not “riot,” more accurately characterize the brick-braining of cops, joyriding of stolen cars through intersection bonfires, and the looting of local businesses of such basic household necessities as Wonder Bread, Charmin, and Night Train. At least that’s what several angry faces told me on television.
So don’t call the insurrection a “riot” and don’t call the rioters, er, insurrectionists “thugs.” This drama requires a good thesaurus to tell it the way the central characters wish it told. Like a lot of compelling stories, it also requires a suspension of disbelief.
And like many captivating tales, ironies abound. “No way can this happen in our city,” the famous moralist Ray Lewis counseled. “No. Young kids you got to understand something, get off the streets. Violence is not the answer. Violence has never been the answer.”
Another literary device, foreshadowing, played out Wednesday afternoon inside the locked gates of Camden Yards, where the Orioles defeated the White Sox before an official attendance of zero. Other Baltimore businesses may soon wonder where all the customers went. None will wonder why they went.
Symbolism glared. The forces of order sat listlessly on the sidelines as the forces of lawlessness marched. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake spoke on Saturday of how she “gave those who wished to destroy space to do that.” The mayor accused the media of twisting her words. Her words were, to put it mildly, twisted.
The “space to destroy” comment reflected and influenced the spectacle of police standing as passive spectators while mobs burned, looted, and destroyed. “They were told to stand down and let them destroy property,” Wicomico County Sheriff Michael Lewis admitted. “I apologize if I’ve upset people, but I believe in saying it like it is. The radio call said, ‘Stand down, stand down, retreat.’”
Cable-news cameramen captured more criminals than the police. That’s the consequence of giving plunderers “space to destroy.”
Leaving aside the mom who slapped her masked son upside the head (beware the reaction of child-protective services!), the story lacks for heroes. More importantly, the collective brat-fit lacks a point or purpose beyond catharsis.
Baltimore’s most famous man of letters certainly knew something about gripping narratives—and the literary devices that make them so. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” describes an old family’s ancient manse with “fungi overspread the whole exterior” and the “crumbling condition” of its stones. The home’s dilapidated state serves as a metaphor for the condition of its human inhabitants.
One sees something similar in post-riot Baltimore’s smashed windows and burned-out row houses, surely a physical manifestation of the norm of illegitimacy, atrocious schools, and the city’s status as the “heroin capital of America” that experiences an estimated one-in-ten residents sharing the opiate addiction of so many of Poe’s characters.
Like the best yarns of Edgar Allan Poe, this horror story set in his city doesn’t enjoy a happy ending.
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