Violence in Baltimore evokes 1968 riots after MLK assassination

Michael Walsh
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One of four men arrested by police in downtown Baltimore, April 8, 1968, spreads his arms wide. William A. Smith, Associated Press photographer, said he saw police confiscate whiskey bottles filled with gasoline. It was one of the first instances of arrests downtown, which had escaped three days of violence in the city. (AP Photo/files)

The Baltimore riots of 1968

The violence that erupted in Baltimore on Monday after Freddie Gray’s funeral reminded many of the riots following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. On Tuesday, the city grappled with the aftermath as community leaders recognized a connection to the past.

For two weeks in April 1968, rioters devastated Baltimore by burning and looting businesses; the National Guard was deployed throughout the city to keep the peace.

In the end, six people died, hundreds were injured and roughly 1,000 small businesses were looted or set on fire.

Ironically, the violence stemmed from outrage over the April 4 murder of King, one of the century’s greatest proponents of nonviolent civil disobedience.

“We certainly understand at that time why a city like Baltimore and quite honestly the nation at large was outraged and pained,” Katrina Bell McDonald, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said in an interview with Yahoo News. “The riots were an expression of pain over the fear that black liberation might die with him. Being a little girl, I was so sad that such a great leader was shot down that way.”

Violence has once again spilled over into the streets of Baltimore. Many people across the nation are upset with what they see as systemic police brutality and unaccountability.

Monday’s rioting started in West Baltimore and spread to East Baltimore and neighborhoods near downtown by midnight. Participants threw rocks and cinder blocks at police officers.

Police say that at times, they responded with pepper spray as they walked side-by-side clearing the streets; 15 officers were hurt, including six who were hospitalized, according to authorities.

For the first time since 1968, National Guard troops were sent to join the state and city police officers.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama said that the “senseless violence and destruction” undermines businesses in their own community, effectively robbing jobs and opportunities from people in the city.

“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive,” Obama said. “When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement. They’re stealing. When they burn down a building, they are committing arson.”

The commander in chief also said the violence distracts from the peaceful protesters who voiced their legitimate grievances over the weekend. 

“They were constructive, and they were thoughtful,” he said, “and frankly it didn’t get that much attention. And one burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again.”

Gray, 25, died of a spinal cord injury a week after Baltimore police officers held him down, handcuffed him and placed him into a police van. Authorities are still investigating his death.

“It ought to not be police policy to arrest a man for looking a cop in the eye and then running,” Hollis Robbins, director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told Yahoo News. “I wish there were a way to say that that didn’t involve the uprising last night.”

Back in September 2014, the Baltimore Sun uncovered that the city had paid out roughly $5.7 million since 2011 related to lawsuits accusing police of excessive force, false arrests and false imprisonment.

Robbins notes that the investigative report has gotten a lot more attention since Gray’s death.

Though the violence reminds many of 1968, McDonald says that the 1992 Los Angeles riots parallel this situation even more, particularly how the police beating of Rodney King was caught on video.

“It was painful to see what happened yesterday,” she said. “We need a comprehensive conversation in this nation about what it will take to truly provide equality for everyone.”

McDonald, whose husband is a former Baltimore police officer, argues that police departments nationwide need to train their officers to value being members of the communities they serve.

“When my husband served here, I was very proud of him,” she said. “He was always of the mind that he had to be in connection with the people he served. I would always be proud of how he commanded respect but at the same time respected the other people.”

The office of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says Monday’s chaos resulted in nearly 200 arrests, 144 vehicle fires and 15 structure fires.

“We cannot let this be a repeat of 1968,” Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott told the Baltimore Sun. “The neighborhood they’re in right now is still burned down from 1968.”

Many religious leaders in Baltimore signed a statement urging people to choose peaceful methods of demonstration. 

“From the days of our nation’s earliest civil rights sit-ins, Baltimore has a long tradition of peaceful and respectful demonstrations,” it reads. “Together, as leaders of different faiths in our city, we join Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and call for our citizens to honor and continue that history as we pray for the family of Freddie Gray.”

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