There is absolutely no excuse for the riots and the fires in Baltimore. Violence is never the appropriate way to seek redress of grievances in a civil society.
But just because we don’t condone, does not mean that we can’t empathize with the rioters and their concerns. If we want to prevent future violence of the same sort, we have to explore the reasons that motivated so many people suddenly to break loose of the social bonds that restrain all of us most of the time and to burst into rioting.
We know the origin of the Baltimore riots is the death of African-Americans everywhere in the United States at the hands of police, who are quicker to arrest blacks, quicker to use force on them and quicker to draw their gun and fire at them than they are when confronting whites. The death of Freddie Gray from a spinal cord injury while in police custody was the proximate cause of the Baltimore riot, but behind it stand years of rough treatment of African-Americans by the Baltimore police and the crescendo of recent publicity surrounding other African-Americans essentially murdered by police in Ferguson, Tulsa, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Cleveland and elsewhere.
The equation is simple: riots about unfair and brutal treatment of minorities by local police departments will end when local police departments stop treating minorities unfairly and brutally.
As they always do after spontaneous violence flares up in reaction to injustice, the rightwing news media has thrown all its support behind the police while tarring the entire community with blame for the violent actions of what is always a minority of the neighborhood where rioting occurs. Meanwhile, the mainstream news media seek to conflate the rioting with the police brutality that instigated it on the moral and ethical level.
Both may be unacceptable, but two factors make the police actions far worse. For one thing, it is the police actions that constitute the injustice which foments the violence.
More significantly, the violence in the community is unplanned, a spontaneous outbreak of people who have often suffered for decades. As the U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson substantiates, the police violence against African-Americans is often part of a larger, long-term policy of unjust discrimination that includes racial profiling, more frequent arrests, larger fines and prison terms and more frequent applications of violent force. To blame equally the rioters and the police who kill, hurt and hassle people because of their color is to misunderstand the dynamics of racial discrimination in America.