A Sustained Burn

Don’t just mourn the violence in Baltimore.

Remember the reason.

Keep this in mind when you question why people looted their own neighborhoods, torching community centers and businesses: Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury sustained while in police custody.

Then remember these painful truths: Black men are dying in police custody and from police gunfire or force. We see the videos. We hear the accounts. Eulogies highlight this bloody plague of racial injustice.

No, rioting is not the best way to draw attention to the desperate need for better schools, for more jobs, for safe neighborhoods and better housing. Injuring police and destroying property will not promote justice or end racism. But do not lose sight of what brought us to this point: Freddie Gray is dead. The 25-year-old man suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody.

Rocks are thrown. Matches are lit. Windows break and buildings burn.

Rage erupts and suddenly, in desperate, jangled moments, senselessness and hopelessness intersect at a haunting question: What does calm do for those who have watched brothers, sons, neighbors, co-workers or friends die in police custody or from police gunfire? Has it brought change? If we stand silent in sorrow, will our mute profile yield justice on our streets or genuine compassion and regard in our hearts?

Rocks are thrown. Matches are lit. Windows break and buildings burn.

While leaders pray for peace and we watch video images of a woman castigating a young man for joining in the violence, we wonder why so many turned to destruction. We lament the curfew, the empty ballpark at Camden Yards, the National Guard presence in downtown Baltimore and the attacks on police.

But do not forget the core of this crisis: Freddie Gray’s mourners gathered this week at the New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore for a funeral that we associate with a black man’s injuries suffered in police custody.

I find myself fixating on the words of the Rev. Donte L. Hickman Sr., pastor of Baltimore’s Southern Baptist Church. I read his words, stark in black and white, on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times: “We have to get these streets under control.”

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Extinguish hatred. Tamp down the fire. Bring peace to a roiling city.

Public schools in Baltimore resumed classes on Wednesday. Local residents worked to clean up debris and repair damages from the days and nights of rage.

It’s a relief, but we have a long way to go. Let a greater need sear our collective consciousness: We must bring our police under control.

We arm them with deadly weapons and give them authority over others.

Now we must control them. We must stop rogue cops from abusing their authority. We must investigate and prosecute. We must sensitize and train and demand better treatment of those they confront on our streets.

Remember Freddie Gray, then look beyond Baltimore, far beyond. Look beyond high-profile deaths of unarmed black men killed by white police officers, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.

Tell yourself we deserve better, then think about how we can change, how we can give struggling compatriots a better life, safe homes and a sense of shared respect, regard and compassion.

To our police officers, I say this: Thank you for your service. You put your lives on the line. You pledge to serve. We need to feel protected and I know in many cases so much is done to create a sense of community, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. Sacrifices and dedication by police make our lives better.

But I also want to say this to our police officers: Read the lengthening list of tragedies resulting from confrontations with police. Force yourself to face a dreaded truth: Racism in the United States is a deadly reality on our streets. We cannot deny or ignore the role police have played in this violence.

To our dedicated officers who remain true to the oaths they have taken, I say this: Look around. Help us bring wayward officers under control. Help us restore faith in all that you try to do to serve, to protect. Do not allow your work and dedication to be consumed by conflagrations in our cities.

In the days after Rev. Hickman and other community leaders in Baltimore watched flames engulf so much they have worked to build, let us draw strength from those seeking to unite. Let us stand together against violent racism and police aggression, against senseless suffering in all its many forms, against ingrained hardship and blatant neglect.

Don’t just mourn the violence.

Learn from it. Learn from the death of Freddie Gray.

Then do something about it.

Highlight and reward good cops, punish and get rid of the bad. Develop and adequately fund outreach projects bringing together people from different backgrounds. Become sincere about poverty relief and job creation.

Fires of hatred, distrust and racism threaten all of us. It’s time to clear the smoke and go forward. Together.