Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Musings on Baltimore

Over the last several days, I have posted many articles, and several links to ways to help bring real solutions to the explosive situation in Baltimore, starting with a restoration of peace, calm, and safety for all, so that the real issues can be addressed.  The issues are real, and challenging, and complex.  They defy simply solutions, and in many cases, they defy sound-byte description.  In our Twitter world, you cannot explain what is happening, much less why, in 140 characters.

There is much blame, and many to share it.  But pointing the finger of blame does NOT solve the problems.  The violence of recent days, while it may be understandable to those who truly have a sense of the real issues, also does little to solve those real issues.  Those who act for their own gain in a situation like this deserve all the opprobrium we can heap upon them.  But we also need to do more to understand the circumstances that lead them to take such self-defeating actions, and do what we can to support and encourage those who are working to improve that reality.

While it is clear that the still unexplained death of Freddie Gray after he was taken into custody, and his funeral yesterday, have served as the spark for both peaceful protests and thoughtful coming together in search of answers on the one hand, and now, sadly, also for violence on the other, it is also clear that his death has served as a lightening rod for frustrations over so many other realities in this nearby community, many of them avoidable, and the product of our own successes and failures as a society.

It is also clear that many are failing to distinguish between the actions of individuals or small groups, and the existence of larger sub-groups of their community and our society.  The too frequent phenomenon of an unexplained death while in the hands of law enforcement officials should, once again, give us pause, and demand of us that we not rest until Mr. Gray’s death is fully and honestly investigated and explained, and anyone found guilty of inappropriate behaviors that may have led to it is identified, tried, and punished if convicted.  It does not, however, mean that ALL law enforcement officers are bad – in fact, the great majority still deserve our complete respect and support for the risks they take daily to support our freedoms, our safety, and our lives.  Likewise, just because a remarkably small number of people – and at this point it is not clear who they are, and therefore whether the impetus came from local or external sources – chose to express their frustrations through acts of violence, theft, and destruction of others’ property, this does NOT mean that the entire community is to blame for the behaviors of some.  Indeed, for every painful image of burning cars or shops, or looters running with ill-gotten gain in there hand, there have been an equal number of pictures of community leaders and average citizens stepping up to maintain calm and peace, to discourage self-destructive and dangerous behaviors, even today to begin the clean-up in the worst areas, or to offer water to law enforcement officers standing guard in riot gear.

Similarly, while I cannot ever condone violence as the preferred path to needed civil changes, and therefore add my voice as a Rabbi to the many calling for swift and appropriate action by local leaders to end the violence, and bring those responsible for it to justice, I am also learning by listening to the stories of people who live closer to the impacted areas just how deep their frustrations at lack of response and their feelings of powerlessness and fear run.  In the process, I am coming to understand better how some people have been moved to take actions I could never otherwise have understood.  I still do not condone such behavior, but I am working to understand WHY it happens, in the hope that when the time comes, that awareness can lead to change that will prevent similar outbreaks in the future.

The needs of the immediate moment require the emphasis to shift to restoring and maintaining the peace and safety of the Baltimore community as a whole.  Until that happens, sadly, attention cannot and will not be allowed to shift back to investigating the facts of Freddie Gray’s death, and beginning the serious communal dialogues needed to change the prevailing circumstances that put too many Freddie Gray’s in harm’s way.  I pray that the peace and safety of everyone is restored soon, for all of these reasons.  But I am aware that unless the restoration of normal life in Baltimore is followed by a sincere effort to change what has become accepted as normal by too many, for the better, it will only be a matter of time before the next incident sets off a similar, or more strident, response, whether locally or somewhere else.

If the answers were easy, we would already be doing them as a society and community.  If there was a clear voice of leadership, people would be following.  In their absence, the status quo of frustration and pain is allowed to fester until it explodes.  Such a reality is harmful to Baltimore – it is harmful to us all.  We need a new approach and new answers, because what has been tried here and elsewhere has not achieved the needed results.  As Rabbi Hillel taught:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me; but if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?

For better or for worse, for Baltimore, and beyond, the time needs to be now.  Local leaders are stepping up, they need help from more of us.  Can we be counted on to help?