About . . . . . . Classes . . . . . . Books . . . . . . Vita . . . . . . . Links. . . . . . Blog

by Peter Moskos

July 13, 2015

"Dear Sir or Ma'am..."

In late May Rolling Stone had a poorly conceived article about Baltimore police and riots. On May 30th I wrote this letter to the editor:
I applaud Matt Taibbi ("Why Baltimore Blew Up") for keeping the focus on Baltimore after the nation's attention seems to have shifted elsewhere. But Taibbi seems more intent on attacking police and Broken Windows – something never tried in Baltimore – than the crime and police issues that uniquely affect Baltimore.

If Baltimore police were to blame for the riots -- if overpolicing and too many arrests caused the violence -- why didn’t the "uprising" happen back in 2003, when Baltimore arrests peaked? (Tiabbi is in error when he says Baltimore arrests peaked in 2005.) It seems worth mentioning, at least in passing, that arrests have dropped every year since then, 65 percent in total.

If one were to put facts before anti-police ideology, one might blame the riots and subsequent increase in homicides on incompetent political leadership and the underpolicing of criminals. Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner, in particular, stand out for their incompetent handling of events after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Regardless, I find it odd that an article about policing and riots in Baltimore omits any mention of criminals and fails to quote a single Baltimore City police officer. I suppose it's easier to simply blame Baltimore cops, but the next time I urge Taibbi to perhaps speak to a few.
They didn't publish it.


Anonymous said...

You mean the Matt Taibbi who was fired by First Look Media for sexual harassment and general dickishness and the Rolling Stone that reported the UVA false rape got their facts wrong and wrote a hit piece instead of reporting a real story? Shocking! Just shocking!
Guys like Taibbi and Radley Balko might just not like cops but they work for billionaires like Pierre Omidyar, Jeff Bezos, and the Koch brothers. What incentive do the oligarchs have for spreading hate against police? Do they actually care about the rights of black people all of the sudden or do they just want an issue that will get liberals to turn against public employee unions?

Alex Elkins said...

Useful letter. They should have published it. The Broken Windows angle was misleading. I think Taibbi had in mind "zero-tolerance" but then went on to use his Broken Windows material from other cities (if I recall the article correctly).

The onus was on you, however, to prove connection between underpolicing/political failures and the riots. I think riots are more likely to take place after explosive incidents, such as the death of a representative or vulnerable community member at the hands of police. They don't take place in perfect correlation with the actual ebb and flow of police practices. You're right to emphasize politics, though. That does matter.

I don't see why it's important to emphasize criminals when discussing riots. Sure, rioters are technically criminals. But that strikes me as reductive. People riot not to commit crimes, though they surely do so in the process. They riot to take retaliatory action against a perceived oppressive system. To say that they are criminals underplays this sociopolitical context and, I'd argue, distorts the meaning of the event for many participants and observers. Emphasizing rioters' criminality strikes me as no less ideological than what Taibbi was doing.

Peter Moskos said...

"They riot to take retaliatory action against a perceived oppressive system." I could not disagree more.

Nothing like removing narcotic-filled safes before burning down the drug store to stick it to The Man.

Also, who is "they"? Is it the guy who cut the fire house? Is it the one who carjacked? Is it the guy pulling out the safe? Because I *don't* this was an organized rebellion (I suspect neither do you).

So let's give individuals agency for their actions. There was no meeting of potential rioters. No statement of cause. No petition to redress grievances. This was no more a retaliatory action against a perceived oppressive system than were any of the killings over this past weekend.

Related, I also use the word "criminals" because I suspect the people doing the worst of the rioting (not the mass of protesters, mind you) were exactly the same hard-core criminal individuals who might otherwise have being dealing, fighting, fussing, and shooting each other. There were no homicides on the night of the riots. That still amazes me.

Alex Elkins said...

Good reply. I appreciate the pushback.

Your response reminds me that the city has not set up a commission to investigate the riot, to study its participants. That astonishes me. We don't know who did what or why. Your guess is as good as mine (though perhaps better because you know the city). For a long time, in the 1960s, everyone assumed the criminals were rioting until social scientists produced hard data that showed that no, that wasn't true. I was sloppy in writing "they."

But I think the larger point stands. People generally riot because they are protesting or enacting some kind of street justice. White riots, a long time ago, were also about street justice. They, too, were rioting against a perceived oppressive situation: the fact that black people were moving into "their" neighborhoods. Emphasis on "perceived."

That we argue today (just as in the 1960s) over whether the participants were pure rebels or pure criminals speaks to the politics around the issue of inner-city riots and the politics of race in America. I don't really have a stake in deciding one way or the other. I trust your knowledge of the city and the police force, but I think calling the rioters criminals, pure and simple, mis-characterizes the event and why it came about.

You are surely right that "hard-core criminals" participated. They possibly did awful things. A hardcore group (not necessarily violent repeat offenders) willing to break social conventions and loot, smash, and burn usually is all it takes to draw in people who wouldn't ordinarily do that. I'm not sure calling those people criminals, however, restores their agency. Nor do I see how calling them protesters denies them agency. But I see your point, which I take to be a counter-move against people who, in your view, dreamily call the Baltimore riot a rebellion.

You're right, I don't think Baltimore in 2015 was an organized rebellion. It was likely organized in some way, though. All the riots in the 1960s were. Not in the way the politicians at the time imagined: there was not a core group of committed rioters traveling the country stirring up trouble so that the Soviets could exploit the ensuing political disarray. But on a local scale, small groups, usually young men, did get together and plan small concerted action. A few broken windows often proved enough to draw in more reluctant, but committed, onlookers.

Peter Moskos said...

Yeah, some of it is a gut reaction against "rebellion." But I also think it important to make a distinction between protesters and rioters. When I say criminals I do not include the protesters. The rioters *were* criminals.

[And honestly, just between you and me here, I don't even give a shit about looters after the first entry and the place burning down. I'd *prefer* people to get the pampers and even the beer before everything goes up in smoke. Call it a classic 19th century volunteer fire brigade, if you have to.]

This riot did not have to happen. It was not inevitable. I firmly believe it could have been prevented by better leadership and better policing on that day (particularly at the mall). I think too much focus on the so called "causes" of the riots ignores the agency of rioters and the non rioters.

So the people there that *didn't* steal safes full of drugs and light stores on fire? What about those on the streets trying to save life and property? Were they not angry and pissed off? Did they fail in their duty as righteous victims of oppression by *not* rioting? I'm being a little facetious here, but of course not.

I think some people riot when they think (often correctly) they can get away with it. Rioters had a party. On that night, the bad guys won. I see it much more on the micro level. But day-to-day policing is on an individual micro level.

hotrod said...

Rolling Stone publish a crap story about an emotionally charged controversial issue? Never happen - oh, wait -


Also - imo, Taibbi has an ongoing issue with relating complex topics which involve bad outcomes. It's not as easy to read as the typical blog post/web article, but I recommend reading the following in full - it hits Taibbi pretty hard, but also offers insight into how non-SMEs "understand" complex topics.


I'm biased - Megan McArdle is my favorite blogger and she and Taibbi have scuffled in various forums.

Alex Elkins said...

"I think too much focus on the so called "causes" of the riots ignores the agency of rioters and the non rioters.

So the people there that *didn't* steal safes full of drugs and light stores on fire? What about those on the streets trying to save life and property? Were they not angry and pissed off? Did they fail in their duty as righteous victims of oppression by *not* rioting? I'm being a little facetious here, but of course not."

I agree with all of what you say here. I also agree that police practices immediately before protests turn violent are hugely important. What police do and don't do during peaceful protests often--though not always--is the deciding factor in whether some protesters decide to cross the line.

Rich Giordano said...

I took the link from your blog post to read the Rolling Stone article and I can see why you would be somewhat exasperated. This overarching idea that these policies are a conspiracy to impose control over a distinct group of people which is reflected in this foolish use of "uprising" and "rebellion" to describe riots is difficult to take. However, I think elsewhere you've made note of how the emphasis on numbers of arrests, tickets, etc. can warp how cops actually put broken windows into practice. I would add an emphasis on fines to generate income for a municipality as potentially doing so as well. Perhaps most significant, since it tends to encompass both of these, poor supervision which fails to emphasizes the how as well as the what can create the kinds of problems Taibbi wants to focus on. I do think it's easy, absent good supervision, for cops to get the message, and act on it, that their mission is to drop a large net and see what they catch. It shouldn't be surprising, especially when as I think you've also remarked this often is accompanied by a rude, surly attitude, that this can generate a good deal of animosity.