Threats to Liberty

Source: Slate

MAY 7 2015

Conspiracy theorists worried about imaginary government oppression dismiss real government oppression.

By Dahlia Lithwick

A woman faces a line of Baltimore police officers in riot gear during protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray on April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. – Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The two big news events of the past few weeks are not completely unconnected. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody led to rioting, curfews, and the National Guard in Baltimore. Perhaps serving as a comic counterpoint, rising panic over “Jade Helm 15,” a U.S. military training operation, has led to panic, bluster, and wild theories about military plans to invade Texas.

At first blush, the two events have nothing in common. Folks in Baltimore took to the streets to protest yet more lethal police violence directed at black men. People in Texas, inflamed by shock jocks and conspiracy theorists, protested that President Obama plans to take over Texas by way of underground tunnels built to jail “insurgents” under the nation’s abandoned Walmarts.

As a matter of partisan politics, the two situations have been accorded almost equal gravitas. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has opted to take the alleged threat to the liberty of Texans seriously. Last week he ordered the Texas State Guard to “monitor” the military exercises, evidently because “it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights, and civil liberties will not be infringed.” Pretty much everyone else, outside the tin-foil beanie world of AM radio and Chuck Norris, dismisses the whole controversy as absurd at best and profoundly wrong-headed at worst. But politics is politics, so Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are also now on board with the radical cry for protecting our citizens from our military.

Both protests express deeply held anxieties, fears, and mistrust of authority and government power. But race and regional anxieties make the citizens of Baltimore all but invisible in Texas. So the people warning against government oppression in Texas see their own fears as valid and Baltimore’s as trivial, illegitimate, or self-created.

Instead of finding common cause with the citizens of Maryland, conservative media attempted to demean and erase them. Fox News took to the streets of Baltimore to attempt to show that “thugs” and rioters—and not centuries of injustice—were to blame for the riots and looting. Ana Marie Cox notes the bizarre coining of the phrase “voluntary head injury” to attempt to blame Gray for his own severed spine. James Rosen observes that conservative commentators rushed to blame liberalism itself for the unrest in Baltimore—policies that supposedly increased poverty and inequality and social injustice.

“Such groups are evidently
untroubled by a militarized police force
so long as it’s deployed
only against poor blacks”.

The paranoid delusion that animates Jade Helm protests can likewise be seen as entirely self-inflicted. It bubbles up from Tea Party nuttery about President Obama’s hostility toward Texas. In the words of Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, “People who have grown leery of federal government overreach become suspicious of whether their big brother government anticipates certain states may start another civil war or be overtaken by foreign radical Islamist elements, which have been reported to be just across our border.” Shock jocks on the far right push the idea that underground tunnels will move federal troops around the country, confiscating guns and penning conservatives in camps. Alex Jones is floating the theory that all this is a precursor for a third Obama term. The leader of the pro-gun Oath Keepers told listeners on a “patriot movement” radio show that the purpose of the operation is to enable the federal government to identify possible resistance leaders for a future military takeover.

What does it say about the possibility of a postracial America when whites in Texas are more motivated by the imagined danger of a black president than by the real dangers faced by black people in American cities? And what does it say about race in America when black protesters fear local government, while whites fearing military takeover turn to state militias? And what does it mean when groups like the Oath Keepers—terrified of Obama’s Walmart invasion—were all but silent in Ferguson, evidently untroubled by a militarized police force so long as it’s deployed only against poor blacks?

Certainly it’s easy to dismiss the paranoia now spreading its way through the Jade Helm websites as loony, cartoonish fever dreams (which it is) and to see our concerns about government and militarized police as valid, empirical, and legitimate (which they are).

But there are commonalities here as well: Both are inflamed by social media, old media, and the porous boundary between news and entertainment. Travis Gettys notes that video clips purportedly showing a military buildup in the rural Southwest—including the parking lots of Walmart stores—“have been widely shared in recent days on social media, where the conspiracy theories have taken on lives of their own.” Baltimore protests were not only fueled by social media but became conflated with popular movie plots, even taking on elements of the franchise The Purge.

But perhaps the single most ironic similarity between the two stories is that both stem from similar fears: fears of a militarized police state, anxiety over lawless authorities, worries about privacy and personal property, a yawning gap between haves and have-nots. These grievances are fueled by what we know about police, the military, and the collapse of the line between them. And—perhaps this is the tragedy—while the events in Baltimore last week were a reaction to genuine abuse and injustice, those people on the far right who are pushing the Jade Helm narrative, who doubtlessly believe that their fantasy takeover is equally plausible, cannot find common ground with people who are living out their very fears.

To be sure, we can’t begin to reasonably compare the realities of social injustice in American cities with the imaginary ISIS fighters massed on the imaginary tunnels on Southern borders. But it’s a sad comment on the polarization of America that we can’t see that in both cases, the real fear is state power and police militarization, and we will never manage to work together to address that problem. Back in the earliest days of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, more than one observer suggested that the two groups always had more in common than their leaders would have you believe. And even though we are more certain than ever that this can’t possibly be true, the fact that our nightmares and theirs sometimes overlap is surely more than a coincidence.


One response to “Threats to Liberty

  1. Source: Slate

    The Deep, Troubling Roots of Baltimore’s Decline

    If we want to save Charm City, we must begin by reversing 100 years of segregation.

    By Jamelle Bouie

    BALTIMORE—“We want people to register to vote, because that’s where the change is made,” said State Sen. Catherine Pugh, standing near the smoldering remains of the CVS on North Avenue, and handing voter registration forms to anyone who caught her eye. The street was thick with people—children on a day off from school, adults from the neighborhood, a few street musicians, an incense-waving activist, at least two men with bullhorns, and a gaggle of reporters—and it was a good day for any politician to show her face and shake a few hands. After handing a form to a young man and giving him a pen to fill it out, she turned back to finish her pitch for why this—more than ever—was the time for traditional political action. “I am a senator, I was a city council member. I know that by being there, it does make a difference, and if you don’t vote, it doesn’t happen.”

    Pugh is a politician, and politicians—if they do anything—support the system they serve. But you can forgive the residents of West Baltimore—and East Baltimore, both united by huge blocks of long vacant homes and long boarded businesses—if they’re cynical about civic engagement. Since the civil rights movement, but especially since the 1968 riots—sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination after 15 years of nonviolent protest—Baltimore has been a largely black city. This is mostly a function of population decline, stemming from the riots. From 1970 to 2000, the city’s population fell by nearly one-third, from 906,000 to 651,000. At the same time, the number of black residents rose. In 1950,just 24 percent of Baltimoreans were black. By 1980, it was 54 percent, and by 2000, it was 65 percent.

    Now, Baltimore is a city of 620,000, and the large majority—63.7 percent—are black. And unlike Ferguson, where demographic strength lagged political representation, Baltimore’s black residents have turned their presence into black mayors, black city councils, and black representatives to Annapolis. Far from a rarity, black leadership in Baltimore is a given that even extends to the police. Throughout the 1980s, the city worked to bring black Americans on to the force and promote them up through the ranks. As writer Stacia Brown notes for the New Republic, “The city believed the presence of black people in politics and law enforcement could foster greater trust and more open communication between black citizens and their government.”

    All of this was a vital and admirable contribution to the city’s civic life. And yet, the basic position of Baltimore’s low-income blacks didn’t change.

    In the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived before he died in police custody on April 12, one-half the residents are unemployed and one-third of the homes are vacant. Sixty percent of residents have less than a high school diploma, and the violent crime rate is among the highest in Baltimore. You can paint a similar picture for the neighborhoods and housing projects on the east side of the city as well. If you are poor and black in Charm City, your life—or at least your opportunity to have a better life—looks bleak.

    Baltimore is stuck, captured by the injustices of the past as well as the countless, individual choices of the present.

    But then, this is by design. In the early 20th century—as in many American cities—Baltimore civic leaders endorsed broad plans to “protect white neighborhoods” from black newcomers. The city was flush with waves of immigration—from abroad as well as the South—and more affluent blacks were leaving the older, poorer neighborhoods to move to predominantly white areas removed from the poverty and joblessness of the crowded slums. In short order, politicians and progressive reformers—motivated by benevolence, politics, and an en vogue scientific racism—endorsed segregation plans and racial covenants meant to cordon blacks—as well as Italian and Eastern European immigrants—on to small parts of land in the inner city.

    By the 1930s, black Americans had grown to 20 percent of Baltimore’s population but were confined to 2 percent of the city’s landmass. And there was desperate need for new housing, as both formal and informal segregation kept blacks from expanding neighborhoods or moving into white areas (the same was increasingly less true of European immigrants, who—with upward mobility—could integrate into mainstream society). In the 1940s, local, state, and federal leaders pushed public housing to relieve the crisis. But it was segregated. Blacks would receive new housing in their neighborhoods, and working-class whites—in turn—would receive new homes in their own. Five of six public housing projects—McCulloch, Poe, Gilmor, Somerset, and Douglass—would be placed in the most dense black neighborhoods of East and West Baltimore. And while the war boom would deliver partial prosperity, many of these areas still lacked a stable employment base, even as they continued to grow with rapid influxes of new black residents.

    In 1950—following complaints from white residents over plans to expand public housing—the mayor and the City Council agreed to limit future building to existing “slum sites” where the majority of blacks lived. As they had done for the past four decades, white leaders prepared to limit black migration in the city as much as possible. But there was still a housing problem; blacks were still moving to Baltimore, and there weren’t enough units for the new residents. Both dynamics, working together, led to a decade-long project of “urban renewal,” as the city used federal funds for “slum removal” to make way for new, high rise public projects. Renewal displaced 25,000 Baltimoreans—almost all of them black—and the new high-rises were built with segregation in mind. By the time construction was finished, the new projects had bolstered and entrenched the segregation of the past. The black areas of 1964—and of the 1968 riots—are almost identical to the black areas of 50 years prior.

    Page 2

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