John Kass: Despair seen in Baltimore is rife in other cities

Americans watched the fires burning in Baltimore, and the police retreating, the mayor there already having given the thugs all the space they needed to destroy.

I figure that’s when you felt it. Whether you live in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or any other large urban area, you felt it:

This could happen here, as it has happened before.

Here’s all that it takes: A bad police shooting, or a merchant killing a black kid for stealing candy, some frightened white guy on the train with a gun, and political activists begin shouting race.

Watching the fires burn in Baltimore, remembering those fires burning in Ferguson, Missouri, you may have given a passing thought to civil society. And how thin is that wall that protects it, as if it were built of paper left out in rain and dried in the sun, so easy to poke through, so easy to burn.

Some of you may have opted out, but I just couldn’t. I remember Chicago in the 1960s and the white migration out, and the black migration out soon afterward, the same thing happening in Detroit and other cities.

Then as now there was the anger and the fires and the looting and the politicians wringing their hands, afraid to offend, later meeting with gang leaders to have “a conversation” for peace.

It is the liturgy of race and rage and violence that many of us, unfortunately, now know by heart. And it was a warning.

The first warning, of course, came as they all do: unintentionally, this time from the foolish mouth of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

She was commenting on the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police. Gray’s spine was severed. Six Baltimore cops are under investigation.

Protesters wanted to protest. Most were peaceful. And that’s when she issued her now famous quote that should be seared on the mind of every mayor in the country.

“It’s a very delicate balancing act,” she said, “because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”

Space to destroy? They used that space all right. They burned cars in it, and businesses, and senior citizen housing, the cops retreating to give the rioters “space to destroy,” the thugs advancing, as the rest of us watched.

One man, an African-American in his late 20s, was interviewed as the rocks began to fly. He sounded heartbroken, talking of how stupid it is to destroy your own neighborhood.

And I felt for him and for all the African-Americans watching, cringing, I’m sure, seeing those vicious thugs so prominent, dominating the news, the law-abiding pushed out of the frame.

In Ferguson, the giant thug Michael Brown was crafted into a hero by political operatives of the left using the real history of police violence against African-Americans.

Brown wasn’t a hero. He was a large and violent man. He shouldn’t have died, but he also shouldn’t have tried to grab a cop’s gun.

Yet he was made into a hero by cynical manipulators of the left because he was black and the cop from Ferguson was white. They waved their arms, “hands up, don’t shoot,” a posture that some of rioters used in Baltimore the other day.

What’s different in Baltimore is that there are no easy racial answers. The mayor is African-American, as is the police chief and the city council president — the one who met with the gang leaders and apologized for calling the rioters “thugs.”

Large urban areas are aging fortresses that for generations have housed failed liberal policies designed to benefit Democratic politicians. There is a cost to such failure.

Democrats court Hispanic voters and accommodate unskilled labor from Mexico and elsewhere in big U.S. cities while all but consigning unskilled urban blacks to the economic dust heap.

And urban public education, for example, continues to shovel thousands upon thousands of kids out the door with few skills for the future. The administrators have nice pensions, the vendors make a profit, and the party bosses are supported by these special interests.

There are success stories, yes. But far too many kids are left to pick up rocks.

“You know it could happen here,” said Patricia, a middle-age woman working in a sandwich shop on Chicago’s South Side, on 55th and Halsted, where my family lived when I was a boy. But we could have been in any large city.

“All it takes is something,” Patricia said. “Some good young man getting shot by police. Some child getting shot by some store owner. Something like that and then we’ll be Baltimore.”

There was a liquor store. A few old gents strolled past, sipping breakfast out of brown paper bags. Farther down the street was a convenience store, where I met the manager, Mohamed Nassir.

“You pray to God to stop it, but the people are so angry,” said Nassir, from Yemen. “Why are they angry? I can’t read their mind. But it is there.”

In Baltimore and other big cities, in black neighborhoods, there is despair. Understand it. But understand the cynical policy and the party bosses that helped create it.

It is a despair that is sullen. It is tired and it is numb.

And it is flammable.


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