'This is why our people will never get ahead'

Protesters flash the peace sign in front of a line of California Highway Patrol officers during a demonstration over recent grand jury decisions in police-involved deaths on Dec 8 in Berkeley, Calif. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Today was a day of experiences in the communities in which we live—for me, for a Baltimore Sun columnist, and for a police officer in Colorado. Here are our mini-stories:

For the blogger

As I left my job at the Maryland State Department of Education, I boarded a light rail train headed to the northern suburbs. A few stops later, five high school kids got on, apparently having just completed some after-school activity.

Our train pulled in to the North Avenue station on the rightmost track. Four teenagers, from left of the leftmost track, picked up some rocks used in the track beds and started hurling them at the train I was on.

The teenagers were African-American, though I wish I didn’t have to point that out. Their race was immaterial to me, since I would be fearful of anyone throwing a good-sized rock in my direction. But to the high school kids, it seemed to matter.

“They’re throwing rocks at the train. They literally are throwing rocks at the train,” one said. The speaker was also African-American. “This is why people hate black people. This is why our people will never get ahead,” he said to his four friends, pointing his finger at the ground to punctuate his point.

The comment may strike some people as racist—and it would be if I had said it. But I didn’t say it; he did.

The irony here—and in a free world, the only natural state is irony—is that this rock-throwing behavior, intended irrefutably to harm someone on the train, could have hurt me. And I’m one of the people who does everything I can at my desk to make sure these black teenagers are getting the opportunity to receive a good education.

What they’re doing is throwing rocks at me.

It won’t affect my work, but the activity will undoubtedly play a role in their futures. I’m sure their guardians will attest to their hunch that their boys are all nice and have never been in trouble. But when it came to the rock-throwing incident, I don’t think I even had a notion to report their lawlessness to the police or anyone else. I didn’t ask the driver of the train if she had reported the attack.

So this incident will likely go unreported and leave these four teenagers’ records clear of any trouble with the law. I’m still going to go to my office tomorrow on the same train that passes through the same station so I can do the same work, but that’s just because I’m not in it for them.

I’m in it for the kids who were on the train with me, making their supposedly but questionably safe way home on public transportation. My prediction would be, with that kind of awareness and passion, they’re going to be just fine.

But how many times do you think this can happen before they stop going to that after-school activity, before they let the rock-throwing imbeciles take away their educational opportunities?

For the columnist

Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks tells the story in today’s print edition that he was riding on the No 3 bus in the 1100 block of St Paul Street, in Baltimore’s midtown Mount Vernon neighborhood, when he could smell greasy beef from someone eating two hamburgers on the bus.

“Of course, eating on the MTA is prohibited; there are signs that say so on the buses and at bus stops. In my experience, most people seem to follow that rule, including guys your age,” he said, speaking in writing to the offender.

Then, as the bus stopped to allow some people to exit, this 20-something threw his bag and cup of soda out the door, right in the middle of the neighborhood. The soda cup, Mr Rodricks writes, still had plenty of soda in it.

The burger-throwing behavior doesn’t appear to be atypical for Baltimore. The Sun gave some statistics about how many thousands of tons of trash are picked up from the city every month, and the number is big. I can’t say just how big, but the fact is, details like that aren’t really important.

The irony here is that this 22-year-old probably depends on people like Mr Rodricks working or living in the city for his own livelihood, and here he is making it less desirable for people to work or live in the city. He even lives or works in the city himself, I would imagine, which brings to mind an expression involving sleeping dogs.

Mr Rodricks begins his column, “I wish I knew what to say to you. I wish I knew how to say it.” I say, “Wish not for what you might do (just do it) but for the effect it will have on others.” Oh well, maybe somebody more like the burger- and soda cup-litterer, not different from him in so many fundamental ways, just needs to say it.

The mayor? The governor? Any ordinary 20-something? The president? All would be suitable. But would he even listen then? Who knows?

For the police officer

Now let’s switch states to Colorado. Many students there are protesting the police killing of black men in St Louis by shooting and in New York by choke hold.

(Students are protesting in other places too, but the Colorado story just stands out by giving the police officer’s perspective of the protests.)

December 9 marked the fifth consecutive day of student walk-outs in a few Denver schools, leaving one police officer to say he had never seen anything like it.

(Do you notice a common thread here? People who ordinarily have so much to say are having trouble finding words to express their malaise with situations.)

“I think as a responsible citizen, when you feel passionately about an issue, you should still look at both sides,” Chalkbeat Colorado quoted Denver police commander Matt Murray as saying. “The protesters don’t want to be measured by the worst actions of their crowd, and we don’t want to be measured by the worst actions of ours.”

Mr Murray said some students were cussing at police officers, who were, ironically, out there to keep them safe and allow them to exercise their right to free speech.

Now, I would not condone walking out of school to express such an idea, because, after all, what’s the school got to do with it, especially your school in Colorado? But some of the protesters would say I was wrong.

Schools and police are both, in fact, arms of the government, so some of the protesters, I’m sure, would see their actions against their schools as actions against the same government that runs the police departments whose officers killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

The irony in Colorado, however, isn’t the schools. I wonder if the kids realize that the police are following them and patrolling alongside their march to keep them safe and protect their right to free speech, which comes from the same Constitution they say police in other areas have violated.

I also wonder if these kids know that a federal judge in Missouri issued a temporary injunction that says police can’t use tear gas on a crowd unless they first declare an illegal assembly and give people enough time to leave. The fact is, our police agencies are some of the most tightly regulated organizations in any sector, private or public. Any fixes to problems will likely come through legislation and review by the courts.

Cussing at police officers is an act of violence, a demonstration of force. They’re not going to shoot you because you call them a dirty word, but they’re not going to listen to you either. And the point of a protest is to get people to listen. The very actions of these students are pushing the ears of any government official, who might once have been willing to listen, in the wrong direction. That’s irony.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.