Who are the Real Thugs in Baltimore?

freddie gray casket

The brutal beating of 25-year old Freddie Gray by Baltimore police on April 12th, and his subsequent death from spinal injuries on April 19th, has created a whirlwind of discussion, protest, and rebellion in the port city known for it delicious seafood and sports franchises.

Sadly, Gray’s death is the most recent in a decades’-long line of Black murder by the hands of racist police. In fact, such treatment has occurred for centuries, if we include the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, enslavement of our ancestors, brutal treatment by organized Southern slave patrols, and lynching by racist white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, all of which predate what we now term “police brutality.”

Predictably, this incident has Baltimore residents  (and Black people the world over) incensed . Police crushed Gray’s voice box and severed 80% of his spinal cord while “restraining” him. They also failed to provide adequate medical assistance for brother Freddie.

In response, Black residents of Baltimore took to the streets, first with peaceful (though angry) marches.The tide turned when some protesters – mostly youth – became violent and began burning and looting stores, damaging cars and businesses and pelting the police with rocks.

As images and video of these rebellions spread across the nation, a civil war of words ensued among Black folk. Some  (like myself) related to the anger and frustration felt by Blacks in Baltimore and throughout the country, who tire of seeing their people murdered by state agents. This group empathized with the rebellious youth, even if some of us felt their approach was destructive and ineffective.

The other group seized upon the rebels, calling them thugs, animals, fools, and impulsive idiots for burning and looting. Some in this group went on to reveal their class bias, by making references to the rebels destroying property, damaging commercial businesses, and stealing merchandise. As the situation stands, many whites, police officers, bourgeois Black folk, and elected officials (including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) perceive these youth as ” thugs.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, speaking at her press conference yesterday, said the City of Baltimore was being, “destroyed by thugs who in a very senseless way are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.” She then went on to announce a week-long city-wide curfew from 10pm-5am; She revealed that she called Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and asked him to declare a state of emergency in addition to calling in the Maryland National Guard.

The Mayor of Baltimore in essence agreed with many – including some Black and Latino folk on social media – who view these youth as violent and incorrigible thugs foaming at the mouth with destruction and violence. Fortunately, many of us observing these developments see things differently. And this begs the question, “Who are the real thugs in Baltimore?”

Speaking just weeks before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King answered this question when responding to the occurrence of riots in his time:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

By 1968 when Dr. King issued this statement, the Civil Rights Movement had already lost momentum, affected by broken presidential promises, legislation without teeth, a violent white backlash, disillusioned civil rights workers, and the emergence of a more radical and skeptical Black Power Movement.

Yet King was still largely respected as an international ambassador of nonviolent struggle and peace. Rather than tout the establishment position of degrading Black rebels, calling them thugs, and decrying their “senseless acts of violence,” King courageously and accurately exposed the real thugs: “the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.” Perhaps then, the real thugs are those individuals and institutions responsible for creating those intolerable conditions. By making this statement, King skillfully voiced disapproval of violent rebellions while empathizing with those involved. He essentially said, “I don’t agree with your method young people, but I understand WHY you do this, and I recognize the unseen societal hand that is responsible.”

 I agree with Dr. King’s sociological analysis. Furthermore, I contend that the real thugs in Baltimore are the media that  criminalizes Black people and the police who repeatedly use unnecessary force in their interactions with us. The real thugs are the architects and managers of Baltimore’s public school system, who receive large salaries, benefits and privileges to educate 84,976 students, 82% of whom are Black and poor. This system chronically struggles with mismanaging resources and issues of academic proficiency. Less than 60% of the city’s high school students graduate. What promising job, career, business, or position of leadership is this educational system preparing Black youth for? None! Their role – like that of public schools everywhere – is to ship our youth off to prisons where they can exploit their labor by paying them 20 cents an hour, or prepare them to be semi-skilled and obedient workers at the bottom of the economic totem pole. Allow me to be more specific about Baltimore’s real thugs…

Baltimore PD officers harassing Freddie Gray before killing him

The real thugs in Baltimore are the police. Just last year the Baltimore City Council met with Police Commissioner Anthony Batts to discuss practices of harassment like handcuffing people before formally arresting them and going through resident’s personal property without warrants, Police misconduct is such an issue with the Baltimore PD that the U.S. Department of Justice  announced plans ( 6 months prior to the Freddie Gray incident) to conduct a ” thorough, independent and objective review of the city police force after hearing more concerns from residents about excessive force and other misconduct by Baltimore officers.” In one four-year period, the city of Baltimore paid $5.7 million dollars to 100 people people due to police brutality litigation and court settlements!

The real thugs in Baltimore are the political and economic systems. Roughly one-quarter of residents live below the Federally established poverty line. A 25-year study conducted by Johns Hopkins University compared the lives of 800 poor white and Black children in Baltimore. The study examined their lives from first grade to about 30 years of age. The study found that poor whites without much education fared better than many educated Blacks; whites with prison records fared better than their Black counterparts; Whites received more high-paying working class jobs than Blacks; Black families were more likely to be displaced by highway construction, railroad construction or other public works projects; Most poor Black children remained poor as they got older, even those with formal education. Black infant mortality is 9 times that of whites.

We need the Mayor of Baltimore and Black folk with similar thoughts to understand the despair and frustration of those youth, and more importantly, to address the larger systemic issues that lead to Black poverty, hopelessness, despair and outrage. Let’s put this into perspective. Cops are attacking and killing people; Notwithstanding the corporate media’s constant replaying of “riot” activity, rather than the attack on Freddie Gray, for the most part, young rebels are attacking -as one friend on Facebook noted – “inanimate property.

Woe to these political attack dogs! It’s shameful that more Black folk today don’t exhibit King’s wisdom and compassion.Too many of them blame the victim and degrade our neglected, forgotten, despised, and criminalized youth, without examining the underlying socioeconomic conditions at play. In doing so, such Black people have betrayed the mandate of the Civil Rights Movement and people like Dr. King, who they claim to respect. When Dr. King fought to desegregate schools, housing, and political structures, he did so thinking we would get into these positions and use our education, influence and skills to advocate for our people, not advocate against them!

The real thugs here are those I cited. They have the resources, education, and networks to address systemic issues (strange how the mayor cited the “thugs,” instituted curfew, called in the National Guard, but didn’t address the issue of police brutality, Freddie Gray’s death, or intentions to resolve the larger problems). Instead they, and many of you have no outrage against the educational, political, or economic system that denies, neglects, and kills so many Black people in slow and agonizing fashion. Interestingly, their “outrage” only appears when poor and unprivileged Black people fight back the only way some know how: by destroying cars, commercial businesses and property, the very THINGS you disconnected bourgeois Negroes love so much.

 These young people we’re so quick to denigrate are victimized by the institutional thuggery of those with power and privilege who refuse to use their resources to remedy societal inequity. These young rebels simply need political consciousness, guidance, and real leaders/organizers who see them and their anger as valuable, even if misdirected.

The videos of Black youth damaging cars, burning CVS, and looting stores will stay in your minds for weeks. But there is no video clip to show you how our youth are killed slowly every day by public policies, school systems, prisons, courts, job markets, and a society that does everything imaginable to crush their spirits and leave them living in abject poverty, dysfunction and disgrace.

If you continue in your pro-establishment, Devil’s advocate thinking, you will expedite the day when these young people stop throwing bottles and rocks, and begin throwing Molotov cocktails and automatic gunfire….and when that day comes, people like YOU, will be their targets along with white cops and other institutional oppressors…..STOP TALKING LIKE YOUR ENEMY AND SIDING WITH HIS THINKING! STOP BRINGING UP FREDDIE’S PRIOR ARREST RECORD TO DIVERT THE ISSUE! IDENTIFY AND ADDRESS THE REAL THUGS IN BALTIMORE! THEY KILL YOUR PEOPLE AND KEEP THEM POOR, POWERLESS, AND UNEDUCATED!


Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” 

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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