A popular line of conservative argument in the wake of Baltimore's riots says that "liberalism" itself—big government everything, Democratically controlled city halls and councils, easy-to-qualify-for welfare systems—is the cause of the violent protests in the wake of Freddie Gray's death in policy custody. After decades of complete control by liberal Democrats that poured massive amounts of tax dollars into social programs, economic development plans, shitty public schools, and more, the results are so dismal that Baltimore residents explode in a combustible mix of anger, rage, and violence when an accidental spark sets them off.
This line of thinking is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it shows that on some level conservatives have internalized the old "root cause" argument about urban dysfunction happens. It's not simply individual moral decline but a system of social and economic deprivation that gives rise to riots. Second (and somewhat in contradiction to the first point), it also shows that conservatives are trying to dis-remember the lesson of Ferguson, which was that police misconduct predictably generates outrage and anger from those who deal with it most frequently.
Both of these points are on display on a very interesting piece by Fox News' James Rosen, who notes that he attended Johns Hopkins back in the day. Rosen makes a distinction between "literalists" and "impressionists" when it comes to reactions to Baltimore's riots. Literalists, say Rosen, are like former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who argued that each rioter should be dealt with forcefully for their criminal actions. They focus on the here and now, on what's in front of them. Impressionists, such as Nick Mosby, the city councilman who is married to the prosecutor who has charged six police in Freddie Gray's death, say something different:
"What it is, is young folks of the community showing decades old anger, frustration, for a system that's failed them. I mean, it's bigger than Freddie Gray. This is about the social economics of poor urban America."
As Rosen notes, both literalists and impressionists
are indeed recording the Baltimore Riots of 2015 with strong doses of accuracy. Where some see the commission of thousands of discrete criminal acts, many captured on video, others peer through an invisible veil to glimpse the effects, as Mosby put it, of "a system that's failed."
Rosen runs through numbers that support the notion that big-government, liberal policies implemented in Baltimore over the past four decades have improved little or nothing and thus constitute the "system that's failed." Indeed, writing for a conservative, Republican-friendly news org, Rosen concludes with this zinger:
Almost 88 percent of Baltimore voted for President Obama in 2012. And earlier this year, Obama indicated that he has in turn been impressed by the governance he has observed in Baltimore – at least since 2011, when [Democratic] Mayor Rawlings-Blake assumed office. In remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in the East Room in January, Obama singled her out by name and said he was "proud" of her.
So conservatives do believe that "root causes" breed crime and that liberal policies that have failed to encourage economic growth or educate children are at the core of the problem.
Yet what's left unsaid in the piece is also worth noting, especially in the context of other high-profile cases of clear police misconduct: This all started when a black man died under suspicious circumstances in police custody. Baltimore may well have been a powder keg just dying to explode, but what and who exactly provided the match to blow the whole place sky-high? That's not incidental to anything that followed.
One of the truly beneficial things to come out of last summer's awful series of police killings (especially that of Michael Brown in Ferguson) was the discussion—initiated by Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash—that police militarization was a serious problem that contributed to breakdowns in trust, authority, and order. That was also the case in the death of New Yorker Eric Garner.
Yes, by all means, we need to be discussing how liberal policies have manifestly failed urban residents, especially the racial and ethnic minorities who live in inner cities. But we lose the thread of police misconduct spurred on by militarization and drug-war insanity—something to which conservatives have long turned a blind eye—at the cost of being able to address one of the major root causes of all sorts of problems.