Choosing Sides in Baltimore

Like so many cities and communities over the past year that have come to our national attention, Baltimore is suffering. But what is happening on the streets of Baltimore is different from what is being portrayed across the country. Watching the news, I feel as though I’m meant to pick a side – either for peace, or for continued protest.

I share the outrage and feelings of injustice over the death of Freddie Gray. Like so many, I am sickened by the brutality and abuses heaped on members of this community by law enforcement and systems of racial and economic inequality that keep families trapped in cycles of poverty. I witness the anger. I understand the inability to wait any longer, to remain patient. I raise my voice with them, demanding something better. Something that we as human beings and citizens deserve.

I don’t believe that violent protest, looting, and setting police vehicles on fire is a means towards sustainable, just solutions to these issues. Much of the looting that took place on Monday was dissonant with the peaceful protests responding to the death of Freddie Gray that have been happening for the past several days. Even Baltimore’s gangs came together to condemn the violence, rioting, and destruction of Baltimore communities. The protests in Baltimore have been almost entirely non-violent, and it is shameful that days of peaceful protest seem to be forgotten in light of one day of chaos.

I believe that non-violent action can achieve real change, but it’s incredibly difficult and requires a long-term commitment and a willingness to suffer. I think many people misunderstand non-violence as a method of active protest. Engaging in non-violent protest is more than refraining from violent actions. Being non-violent does not mean being passive, and it does not mean giving way. As Martin Luther King, Jr. describes it, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Non-violence training, in the manner of the Civil Rights Movement, reconditions us to change how we respond to others and how we perceive our role in affecting change. To be non-violent means to be aggressively present to the current situation, and unshakable in one’s commitment to remaining so. Being non-violent means staying the course without escalation, physically using our bodies to bring about change and build trust in our communities. It’s a practice that requires daily exercise.

Once violence and looting broke out across the city on Monday, officials immediately began calling for peace, requesting that protesters remain non-violent. They were speaking to those who were attacking businesses and setting fires, but in the aftermath of such actions, too many people are accusing Baltimore protesters of forsaking peace for violence by continuing to protest, sometimes in violation of the State of Emergency. Maybe it’s necessary to distinguish between what we mean by non-violent and what we mean by peaceful; maybe it’s necessary to lay out the differences between quiet, peaceable protests and active displays of outrage and frustration that are loud, that are powerful, yet remain non-violent. I believe the best response came from Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, in which he says,

“When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.”

Being as conflicted as I am over the Baltimore protests and the chaos that erupted alongside them, it is tempting to issue 140 character viewpoints or to take sides when the news is telling me that protests are the same as riots. I’m told that we can be on the side of the outrage, or we can be on the side of peaceful non-violence. But I am on both sides. I agree with the protesters. I understand – as best I can not sharing their experiences – the outrage, the anger, the frustration. I even empathize with the feelings that lead to fires and looting. Like the majority of protesters in Baltimore, I think that violence is not the right response. I think there’s a better way, a more effective way. But remaining non-violent requires some sense that the opposition will eventually come to the table to negotiate real change, real reform, real peace. I cannot choose either of these sides presented. Baltimore is a city with a complicated history and a complicated present, and dividing ourselves into sides, especially when those lines are drawn between people in this way, does nothing but further exacerbate the damage done and fuel the unjust violence and abuse of Baltimore citizens like Freddie Gray.

What is the role of the interfaith community in these situations? What is the role of the secular, non-religious community and its leadership? How can we be models for peaceful collaboration despite our differences? How can I live out my Humanist commitments to total equality and communal responsibility? Perhaps we should choose a side after all. We choose the side of truth, advocating for justice, and for reform where there is racism and brutality. We choose the side of love, supporting the many people hurting and seeking reconciliation and forgiveness. We choose the side of restoration, cleaning up what’s been damaged – not only the damage inflicted over the last few days, but the deeper, more painful damage inflicted on this community and its citizens over the last several decades. We choose to stay, long after Baltimore disappears from the headlines, and continue to serve this community and work towards healing.

Over the past couple days, many have demonstrated that they are on the side of the hundreds of local Baltimore residents who are out praying, protesting, cleaning up, having difficult conversations, loving this city, believing that hope can triumph over outrage, and that redemption is happening. We must strive to be representatives of hope. Not a passive, apathetic hope that says, “This will all blow over”, that allows these actions and these people to be forgotten as soon as the National Guard leaves the city. We must strive to be representatives of the real, substantial hope that people and systems can and will become what they should be; that we can become our best selves and live in harmony with one another; that we can be part of that change.

This image was originally published by, and is available through Wikimedia Commons.

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