The Seeds of a Revolution: The Anatomy of the Baltimore Revolt



Baltimore Youths engaged in combat with Police forces, Monday, 27 April.

In October 1865, in Morant Bay, Jamaica, a man was arrested for “trespassing” on a long abandoned plantation. Some days later, a group of predial laborers drafted a petition to the Colonial Governor, John Eyre. They requested that the British colonial government protect their colleague from an unjust judicial system that would see him suffer corporal punishment for the most miniscule of infractions. Furthermore, they pressed the issue that they, as a class, were “ill-treated” by the plantocracy, and demanded protection from Eyre in the wake of widespread legal and police injustice. Eyre, responding through a proxy, promptly told them to go through “proper channels” to air their grievance and to get back to work in the cane fields.

At the trial of the man in question, the laborers (many the descendants of former slaves) demanded his release. When the judge and court officials refused, the indignant laborers threw stones and “rioted,” but were eventually beaten back by the police. The following day, Baron von Ketelhodt, Custos for the parish, signed an arrest warrant for some twenty-odd persons for “rioting and disturbing the peace.” When the police came to Stoney Gut, the village in which the majority of them resided, they were beaten back with stones, cutlasses, and pikes. Some days after, von Ketelhodt, attempting to placate the growing anger of the laboring classes, read the Riot Act in public at the Morant Bay courthouse. The people that had assembled to hear the Custos address them, including some of the original petitioners, refused to listen to him, and overpowered the militia presence in the town. They burned the courthouse and killed von Ketelhodt, cutting off his fingers as trophies.

Eyre had already sent a detachment of one hundred troops prior to von Ketelhodt’s death, and by the time they arrived, sixteen “gentlemen” had been killed and at least eighteen others injured. The planter’s provided detailed and horrific accounts of the violence perpetrated prior to the arrival of the first batch of Eyre’s forces (much of which can be accessed in popular as well as academic renderings of the episode), who would send hundreds more over the following weeks. The Morant Bay Rebellion had commenced. By the end, some two to three thousand laborers had risen up in arms against the planter and colonial bureaucratic elite. They were eventually defeated, but their political activism provided an impetus for a waning of planter power. Despite the language deployed by planters and other elite groups to categorize the violence as a riot and an unthinking orgy of violence, there were political goals central to those laborers involved. This much is evinced through the fragmentary archival records in both Jamaica and Britain. What’s more is that the colonial militias, in conjunction with other forces, not only suppressed the rebellion but crushed all resistance, including much more passive manifestations of subaltern resistance to ruling class dominance. So much so that Eyre was tried in Britain for abuse of power (he got off, of course). The language and tone of the former slavocracy in the mid-nineteenth century British Empire around the specter of violence is eerily similar to that employed by the ruling layers in the contemporary United States.

Let us fast forward a century and a half and travel approximately two thousand kilometers to the north. Enter Baltimore. On 19 April, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five year old man in Baltimore, Maryland, succumbed to his spinal injuries – apparently eighty percent of the vertebrae in his neck had been severed – seemingly sustained after his interaction with police officers in that city. Gray was apprehended by the Baltimore Police Department on 12 April for allegedly having a switchblade and running, after having made eye contact with a bike cop (none of which are illegal in Maryland). Gray is yet another person, another name, another soul, added to the seemingly perpetual list of young Afro-American men slain by the police in this country. Protests were called immediately in the wake of Gray’s death, and Baltimore was plunged into what the mainstream media has dubbed as a “crisis.” For sure, the “crisis” in Baltimore and indeed the “crisis” around the United States at this particular juncture in history is not the problem of protest. The “crisis” is the problem of police brutality and wanton state violence perpetrated upon the most oppressed layers in society. And when the protests turned violent, somewhat mildly on Sunday, 26 April, and much more pronounced the following day – Gray’s funeral incidentally – the media, the elite, and large swaths of people in this country (from varying political positions) screamed “Riot!”

Lets be clear. What happened and is happening in Baltimore, what happened and is happening in Ferguson, really, what is a relatively recent set of phenomena across the United States are not riots, they are in fact revolts. This semantic distinction is actually rather important. A riot is a disturbance of the peace whereas a revolt is the prelude to rebellion. Therefore, a riot is understood in terms of the dominant discourses (in this country) around class, race, and the role of the police in society. A riot is something akin to what happened in Philadelphia in 2008 after the baseball team there won the World Series, when Paris was in turmoil after PSG won Ligue 1, and that odd occurrence at the Pumpkin Festival in New Hampshire, or the amorphous “flash mobs” that crop up from time to time across US cities – though of course this last example can be seen as a sort of liminal position between riot and revolt.

A revolt on the other hand, is a challenge to these dominant discourses. We may even surmise, as is a common term of phrase amongst young, urban, Black people in the US, that “there [are] levels to this shit.” Beyond revolt is rebellion, a more direct and concentrated effort to push against dominant mores and ideologies. At the pinnacle, social revolution, resides the absolute destruction and obliteration of the status quo. So, Baltimore is currently on stage two if we want to be schematic.

Freddie Gray’s death – which in some circles can be construed as murder – is not the motivating factor for the Baltimore revolt. If that sentence upsets you, then you may need to reexamine the dynamics of the society we all inhabit. Gray’s death was merely catalyst for this heroic resistance against the capitalist state we now see in Baltimore, it was far from the cause. That said, his family’s appeals, likely at the behest of lawyers and lawmakers, for “calm” should fall on deaf ears. There is to be no calm when the working class of this country, and particularly Black workers, are routinely oppressed, brutalized, and killed by the police. The appeal for “non-violence” makes no sense when the overwhelming majority of violence is asymmetrical, flowing from representatives of the state to those that are marginalized or do not conform. There is a place for non-violent protest, but there is an equally justifiable place for violent resistance to the disgusting society we all live in, one that seemingly naturalizes its existence through consuming the bodies and souls of its most ostracized strata.

Before moving on, I want to acknowledge that I do see the Baltimore revolt as being a violent episode. Many on the Left claim that property destruction like what recently transpired in Ferguson, Missouri, and is occurring now in Baltimore, is not violent, that violence occurs interpersonally. I disagree with this distinction for a myriad of reasons, but namely because it hedges on the question of supporting violence in a sort of quasi-pacifistic leftism. If you are familiar with my thinking and writing, then you will be abundantly aware that I endorse and support violence and think that most folks on the Left, particularly those who identify with radical and revolutionary strands, should as well. The only question is what type of violence. Many of the people – talking heads on television and laypersons alike – who employ the rhetoric of “riot,” “thugs,” “chaos,” and so on, do in fact support violence. They endorse the violence of the state and its auxiliaries. So, as we progress, keep in mind that it is okay to support certain types of violence, and moreover, it is necessary if revolt is to move beyond an incipient stage.

The Baltimore revolt is seemingly being led by youth, which is encouraging as it is usually this demographic that is commonly thought of as politically apathetic. How wondrous it is to be proved wrong in instances such as this! The heaviest clashes between police and protestors began after the schools let out, and primitive combat ensued as members of the embattled Baltimore community hurled projectiles at riot police. “Where are the parents?” seems to be the question that the unthinking and uncritical dupes in mainstream media continually pose. Many who question the role of the parents of these “riotous thugs,” or in my conception, youths in the throes of revolt, aren’t seeing the bigger picture. Their parents are the ones who are caught up in the entangling snare of the courts and prisons. Their parents are the ones working the overnight shift to make ends meet, working two or three jobs so that maybe, just maybe, rent will be paid on time. The parents of these youths are the ones inflicted with debilitating drug addiction, wrought by capitalism’s ever overbearing social ramifications. These are the children of parents who understand what their progeny are doing and why it must be done.

Fox News as well as CNN – more so the former – continually asked residents in West Baltimore, where the revolt was at its most intense, if they were not concerned, saddened, or desirous of a return to calm. Most answered in the affirmative, but not within the context that these news outlets perceived. Yes, older people in the community were upset both at the so-called “riot” and at the suspicious death of Gray. But they understood why the revolt transpired, as they cited case after case, incident after incident, of wanton police brutality and the near daily miscarriage of justice in Baltimore. Some even branched out to larger polities in Maryland and the United States. The parents that are present are upset, but not at the youth, they are upset with the social system that has offered no other option for their kin but to engage in such violent resistance.

Initially, the blame for the situation “getting out of hand” was laid at the feet of Stephanie Rawlings, the Democratic mayor of Baltimore. The criticisms of her have largely been constructed with subtle racism and sexism. Like certain criticisms of Barack Obama, we on the Left must shed light on such racist-misogynistic thinking whilst simultaneously condemning the individuals who are the object of such criticism. Because at its core, the Baltimore revolt, while routed through the politics of race, is undeniably a question of class, and class oppression. Additionally, it is also important to recognize and exploit the fissures that exist between the varying camps of the bourgeoisie and their allies if we are to be successful in challenging the ruling order in any substantial manner.

It is clear that certain elements in the establishment harbor a massive amount of resentment towards Rawlings. Her statements were taken by some to be an endorsement to riot, to loot, and to burn. This critique was in the light of Baltimore police seemingly “standing down” to the protesters, allowing them to “blow off steam.” What a bunch of felonious lies. The Baltimore Police Chief, Anthony Batts, admitted as much when he acknowledged that the cops were outnumbered and outmaneuvered in the streets. This is an important point, as it imbues a sense of confidence in the oppressed, that they can effectively challenge the forces of the elite, albeit for a temporary period. For when revolt mutates into rebellion and then rebellion into revolutionary projects, expect the police, military (which was deployed in Baltimore in the aftermath of the revolt), and right-wing nationalists – or “patriots” as they often refer to themselves – to shoot and kill any person challenging the naturalized order, even if they are school children.

Thankfully, the aforementioned scenario has not come to fruition in this country for some time, but it likely will as the quotidian contradictions of this wretched social system play out over time. For now, the biggest concern, as it always tends to be under liberal capitalist democracy, is that of property. I have said in the past, regarding Ferguson, the destruction of property owned by petty-proprietors in such a revolt is lamentable, but not to the point of condemnation. Just as we must stand with the slave when she razes the master’s house to the ground, and stand alongside the peasant as he resists the landed aristocracy, and express solidarity with the workers as they go on strike in “essential industries,” we must align ourselves with those who have lost the most, with those who have been subject to the most egregious social and economic externalities that capitalism engenders.

With the primacy of property as the central feature of the Baltimore revolt, much media attention has been focused on a single CVS store that was looted and subsequently set aflame (of course the damage was much more substantial). It is worth noting that much of the mainstream commentary around the destruction of this CVS has been framed in such a way as to make it appear that the franchise owner would have the same class interests as those in revolt. This is yet another spurious formulation by those that purport to convey truth, balance, and acumen in the news. A quick search on the Internet will tell you that to purchase a CVS franchise you need at least $2 Million USD, if not into the tens of millions. There should be no solace felt or offered to a capitalist who looses out on what is likely one of many properties. Furthermore, the city, state, and federal government will likely assist in recouping the losses, whilst simultaneously aiming to further oppress those who have been heroic enough to rise in revolt.

Other property damage occurred as well, stolen cars were crashed and burned, stores looted, a few dwellings caught fire, and a construction sight was ablaze. These are unfortunate necessities, the (not so) unforeseen consequences of a socio-economic system for which the death knell was rung long ago. If we think of C.L.R. James’ defense of the slave violence in Saint Domingue, we will recall that any manifestation of violence on the part of the oppressed pales in comparison to the daily, systemic, and crushing violence enacted by, and on behalf of, the elite. These are the ramifications for centuries long terrorist activities which bigwigs in the United States love to admonish, yet practice regularly “at home” and across the globe.

The last point of contention I wish to touch upon is the issue of “outside agitators.” This term gained currency during the struggles in Ferguson, and it has been confounding to news outlets and politicians alike that “people in their own communities” would act in such a way. The only explanation has been, “well there are thugs, and then there are protesters.” Some of the establishment troglodytes have gone so far as to equate any protester with “thug.” It helps if said protester is a young Black man too. So there are two issues I wish to briefly parse here, first the issue of “outside agitators” and secondly, the issue of the “thug.”

In the context of Ferguson, there were people from “outside,” but thank-fucking-god we have freedom of movement in this country, an ability that allows us to go other places and help in organizing and solidarizing with comrades. In terms of the Baltimore revolt, the only “outside agitators” have been additional police forces brought in from as far a forty miles away, this in addition to a 2,000 troop National Guard contingent. As for the “thugs,” as has been a somewhat common call in New York, “thugs wear flag pins!” In all seriousness though, the word “thug” comes from the legacy of the Thuggee murder cult in India. Lasting from the mid-fourteenth century until the British systematically exterminated them in the 1800s, the cult was a Hindu-Muslim mystic group that practiced duping unsuspecting travelers and killing them with a garrote or other ligature devices. With this information, the closest evidence to any thuggery we have seen in recent months was Daniel Pantaleo’s stranglehold murder of Eric Garner.

So, what do we have in Baltimore? I contend it is a legitimate manifestation of grievances and claim-making upon the state by the downtrodden and those most commonly referenced as the dregs of our society – and remember, legality is not something that concerns us at the point in time when revolt is a reality. The legitimacy of the Baltimore revolt supersedes any legal fiction presented to quash it, mitigate it, or strip it of its relevance in either the struggle for Black liberation or the struggle against capitalism – and of course these struggles, alongside many others, are inextricably linked.

Baltimore is the embryonic formulation of Morant Bay, of Haiti, of Petrograd. It is the kernel from which social transformation may spring forth. We can say that the so-called American Revolution solved the political issue of sovereignty, the Civil War, or more aptly, the Second American Revolution, solved the issue of chattel slavery and its embeddedness to rising industrial capitalism. The struggles in Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, and the country moreover have the potential to set up the stage for a Third American Revolution – one in which the oppression of women, of homosexuals, of Blacks, of Latinos, of immigrants, and of transgendered peoples are tackled beyond the lukewarm, piecemeal reformism of liberal politics. Baltimore is Morant Bay, and Baltimore is the unforeseeable future. There only needs to be a mass political organization capable of leading and directing such frustrations evidenced in the revolt (and in other revolts to come) towards the project of challenging, defeating, and ultimately conquering state power.

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