Baltimore Is About Policing Not Poverty

America mixes a punitive attitude to crime with a law-enforcement system that routinely denies basic rights.

The not-so-thin blue line.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Politicians in the U.S. don't talk much about poverty. There aren't many votes in it. But every now and then a riot happens and the issue comes briefly back to the surface.

This is a shame in two ways. First, it's a shame that poverty gets so little attention. Second, it's a shame that, when it does, the discussion is so much beside the point.

This week President Obama joined a panel discussion at Georgetown University on poverty and opportunity. He exchanged views with Harvard's Robert Putnam (author of "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis") and Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post provided scrupulously biased moderation.

The president said some wise things. It was impressive that he agreed to take part at all. (Actually, he should do panels more often: The format suits him.) But why has he been talking more about poverty lately? The New York Times explains that it's because of the "eruption of racial tensions" in Baltimore, Ferguson and New York.

After the rioting in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray last month, Mr. Obama called for national “soul searching” about poverty and accused Americans of failing to pay attention to the plight of the poorest citizens except “when a CVS burns,” a reference to the looting in the city. The simmering racial tensions, he said, must be addressed in part by confronting poverty. 

It's true, Americans only pay attention to poverty when a CVS burns. Of course, this accusation applies first and foremost to the country's leaders, starting with Obama himself. He exemplifies the attitude he's complaining about. You could even say he is partly responsible for it: If the president won't start the conversation about poverty before pharmacies are set alight, who will?

Just as important, though, the sudden focus on poverty obscures the immediate issue. The pathology to be explained in these cases is not racism or poverty -- pressing as those subjects may be -- but the seeming frequency with which American police officers kill unarmed people without clear and compelling reason. Rioters came on to the streets not because of poverty or racial grievance, but because of questionable official killings and the perception of patterns of abusive policing.

Of course, there's a racial connection. It so happens that the people killed in Baltimore, Ferguson and New York were black. (It must also be noted that in the Baltimore incident, three of the six police involved were black.) There's a link between rioting and poverty as well: If you don't own much and live in a slum, you're unlikely to have much respect for other people's property. But the tensions didn't erupt over poverty; they didn't even erupt over race. They erupted over policing.

The cry wasn't "Ferguson, feed your people." It was "Hands up, don't shoot."

Long before any CVS was burned, this was a subject worthy of the closest attention. I've argued before that the U.S. system of criminal justice is a national disgrace. America has married a severely punitive attitude to crime with a law-enforcement apparatus that routinely denies basic rights -- in practice even if not in theory. This is a disgusting combination.

The U.S. has more or less abolished the jury trial. It has chosen prohibition plus mass incarceration as its preferred approach to controlling illicit drugs -- a policy that is a proven and widely recognized failure on every dimension and would be immoral even if it worked. Its plea-bargain system for disposing of cases gives prosecutors awesome and largely unaccountable powers of coercion, especially over people lacking voice or resources.

Policing is only part of the problem -- but an important part. Police in U.S. inner cities have one of the hardest and most dangerous jobs I can think of. The great majority of officers, I don't doubt, are good and brave people doing their best to serve the people. They deserve admiration and thanks. However, one of the main questions raised by Ferguson and the rest is whether a system is in place that can identify and deal with the small minority of officers who don't conform to this standard.

The answer seems to be no. Every appearance suggests a culture that shuns criticism and resists scrutiny. The checks and balances that Americans take for granted in every other aspect of civic life don't extend to law enforcement, where the power of the state is most fearsome.

Astonishingly, this isn't just a matter of custom and practice. In Baltimore, city officials were initially unable to "fully engage" with police involved in the Freddie Gray case because the officers are protected by Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights

I'm aware this will seem hyperbolic to many readers, but it's nonetheless true that the United States, land of the free, has gradually replaced its system of justice with a substantially unchecked regime of control and suppression. Most of the ceremonies and all of the self-righteousness of judicial propriety remain in place. This means nothing to the people -- black or white, poor or middle-class -- who find themselves crushed in the jaws of this machine.

I commend your recent words on poverty, President Obama. How about some soul-searching over law enforcement?

    To contact the author on this story:
    Clive Crook at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    James Gibney at

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