Patrick Semansky / AP

Baltimore riots speak the language of the dispossessed

Upheaval will end when political classes listen to more than just the rich

April 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

Monday’s riots in Baltimore offered a powerful warning about what lies ahead for America if its epidemic of inequality continues. But will we understand the message in the chaos?

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” the Rev. Martin Luther King said. What gets lost in translation is the logic that motivates rioters, whose inability to articulate their frustration finds expression in rocks thrown at police, looting neighborhood stores and setting fires. To outside observers, these actions appear irrational and self-defeating.

But their rhetoric is as old as civilization. Riots are a way for the oppressed to make their frustration known in the vain hope that those in power will respond with better policies. 

The real Baltimore

The Baltimore high school kids who rioted know what their future holds: inescapable poverty, misery and the ever present risk of danger from the police, who are seen not as guardians of the people but as oppressors ever ready to attack.

They live in a city that a quarter-century ago lavished more than $400 million of public funds to attract a football team from Cleveland yet had no money for modern science textbooks for schoolchildren.  

They know that the police will arrest them on pretexts. Freddie Gray became a suspect because he simply looked directly at a police officer and ran. His punishment was death in police custody, his spinal cord nearly severed.

The police provoke anger because just one encounter can ensure that poverty and misery will follow you all of your days. A mere arrest condemns inner city youth to a life of poverty because most companies turn away those with a record, even one consisting of nothing more than a baseless arrest.

Residents of the West Baltimore area savaged by rioting are more likely to have a job than Americans overall, with 86 percent reporting wages in ZIP code 21217, compared with 83 percent for all American taxpayers.

But their average pay is meager: In 2012 those residents earned $31,534, compared with $52,577 for all Americans. Their fellow Americans made $1.67 for each dollar earned in the 21217 ZIP code.

Of the 25,440 people listed on tax returns, 56 percent lived in households that got by on less than $25,000 that year. Their average income was $7,000, each or about $19 per person per day.

The 21217 ZIP code includes the Sandtown neighborhood, where Freddie Gray lived. Those blocks are even poorer.

Poverty in Baltimore rivals even that of the developing world. A 2014 Johns Hopkins University study found that 15-to-19-year-olds in Baltimore are worse off than their counterparts in New Delhi and the Nigerian city of Ibadan. This awful news from a local university did not rate a mention in The Baltimore Sun.

The Baltimore teens who took to the streets when school let out Monday know that they are surrounded by affluence while they cope with grinding poverty from which, at best, only a few will escape. Many were in grade school when someone they knew was killed by gangs or beaten by police. 

The rioting in Baltimore was brought on by a severe shortage of jobs, police violence and a political leadership that thinks first of the rich.

The other America

Nationwide, almost 3.6 million children lived in households with less than $2 per person per day in cash in 2011, Stanford University scholars found by analyzing government data.

Even if the value of food stamps, tax credits and housing subsidies are added, about 373,000 American households with children got by on less than $8.50 a day, which is half the official threshold for escaping poverty.

Think about how you would fare in a household of three people with an annual income of no more than $9,265, which was half the official threshold to escape poverty that year.

Extreme poverty is everywhere in America, but we just don’t see it because our transportation infrastructure and the location of job centers shield most of us from it.

Knowing these facts about America’s hidden poverty — which is as much rural and suburban as it is urban — should make it easier to understand the inarticulate language of rioting by young people with no vision of a better tomorrow. And for those not privileged with white skin, there is the added fear of police.

Ancient history

The vulgarity of violence has a long history as a warning sign to societies that they are not addressing their problems, opening cracks that widen until they consume the established order. The message of rioters is change or be changed.

Riots were a frequent experience in the latter days of ancient Rome, a society rich with parallels to our time, as Cullen Murphy explains in his brilliant short book “Are We Rome?

Elites in imperial Rome and modern Washington are insulated from the realities of life in the rest of the society, especially the anxiety induced by economic insecurity. Murphy showed how Rome’s shifting from public solutions to privatization made a few politically connected Romans very rich while expanding commercial bribery and other corrupting payoffs, which in turn undermined social stability. These are themes I have explored for years in my writings.

Riots also erupted often during the late stages of pharaonic Egypt, despite the high born being taught to not oppress the poor more than they could withstand, lest they attack the ruling order. That lesson is neatly told in the 4,000-year-old novella “The Eloquent Peasant,” which my Syracuse University students study.

It is the story of an industrious peasant who loads up his donkey with goods and heads to market, only to be stopped by the overseer of a rich lord who will not let him pass. As the peasant pleads with the powerful man, his donkey takes a wisp of barley, giving his adversary a pretext to seize his donkey and goods.

The peasant appeals to a court, and the pharaoh hears of his eloquence. Over nine days the peasant becomes ever more sophisticated in articulating the injustice.

“I am pleading with you, but you do not hear it,” he says — the same message as the Baltimore rioters’.

Ultimately the pharaoh calls before him the overseer, who asserts that taking all the peasant owned was just compensation for that wisp of barley. The pharaoh rectifies the matter by giving all the overseer’s property to the peasant.

We can end the misery that erupted in rioting this week. It was brought on by a severe shortage of jobs, police violence and a political leadership at every level that thinks first of the rich because, after all, they need their contributions to stay in office. Maintaining order requires translating the language of the unheard so we understand what they are trying to tell us.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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