The comparisons being made between the Baltimore riots this past week and the historical Boston Tea Party are wrongheaded. Baltimore residents have much more to fight for than the American colonists of old.
The Boston Tea Party
In 1767, British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which included a tax on the American colonies for tea imports from Britain. For the next six years, in order to avoid paying this tax, colonists established a significant smuggling ring with the Dutch, which amounted to approximately 900,000 pounds of tea being shipped into the American colonies per year. This was viewed as a crime by British authorities. So, in 1773, British Parliament passed the Tea Act. Contrary to a popular misconception, the Tea Act did not create a new royal tax on the American colonists. Rather, it was implemented for three reasons: (1) to help boost the East India Company, which had fallen on hard times, by granting them the right to ship tea directly to the colonies as a duty-free export, (2) to undercut the price of smuggled tea the colonies were receiving from the Dutch, and (3) to bolster and reinforce the tea import tax placed on the colonies due to the Townshend Acts.
Since the Tea Act indirectly served as a way to enforce the tax established by the Townshend Acts, colonists were up in arms. Not because they were being denied basic necessities like food, water, clothing and shelter. Not because they were terrorized by British authorities patrolling their neighborhoods. Not because they were forced to live in constricted areas with no jobs, no resources, and no ownership over their communities. They were up in arms, ready to rebel, prepared to destroy the property of another, because their sipping tea was suddenly going to cost a little more.
New England merchants who had constructed profitable businesses with the help of a complex and illegal smuggling scheme were suddenly worried about their bottom lines. Artisans worried about their rising costs of tea. Silversmiths began fretting about the prospect of falling demands for teapots. These material concerns grew fast. Town hall meetings were called to address this issue. Merchant meetings ensued. Talk continued throughout the New England colony until this disdain developed a political context falling under the banner of “no taxation without representation.”
On the fateful night of December 16, 1773, over one hundred colonists, some of whom were disguised as Native Americans, jumped aboard the three ships docked at Boston Harbor and proceeded to smash open 340 chests of East India Company tea with axes. The colonists dumped every single tea leaf, 90,000 pounds (45 tons) in all, into the ocean. None of the tea belonged to them. Yet, over the course of three hours, they destroyed all of it. Its value, in today’s dollars, was roughly one million dollars.
The men who took this rebellious, “criminal” and incredibly destructive stand that night must have been distressed, even hopeless. After all, what kinds of conditions would have to exist to drive people to destroy $1 million worth of someone else’s property? And tea nonetheless. So, who were these desperate men? They were Paul Revere, a “prominent and prosperous” Boston Silversmith. They were Thomas Young, a Physician. Elisha Story, a Physician and the son of the Register of the Court of Admiralty, William Story. Edward Proctor, a “prominent citizen,” military officer, and importer. They were Thomas Mellville, a Theologian and Princeton graduate. Abraham Hunt, a business owner involved in importing and exporting. They were David Kinnison, a farm owner. Nathaniel Barber, a wealthy merchant and insurer. Charles Conner, a coastal trader, Innkeeper and horse trader.
The list goes on and on. All men of privilege. All men of wealth. All products of a multi-generational, state-protected, feudal system of ‘nobility.’ All benefactors of the very empire they now opposed. Willing to riot, commit severe “criminal” acts, and destroy a million dollars worth of property in order to prevent a rise in the cost of tea.
The Baltimore Resistance
In the modern US, the state of Maryland is the standard-bearer of rising inequality. As the wealthiest state in the country, with a median income of $71,707, over 13 percent of Maryland’s children live in poverty. And in this sea of extreme inequality and poverty, Baltimore has been drowning for decades, so much so that the city’s socioeconomic landscape resembles that of a Third-World country, and in many cases, is much worse.
36.5% of Baltimore’s children have grown up in poverty. In a city where one needs to make $24 an hour in order to sustain themselves adequately, a large majority simply cannot. The lack of living-wage jobs has forced 35% of the population to rely on food stamps to supplement their diet, and 84% of children must rely on the government supplemented reduced lunch program in order to eat in school. Since the arrival of the Great Recession in 2008, things have gotten progressively worse. Between 2008 and 2013, the participation rate in Baltimore’s Food Supplement Program increased by 59 percent.
A recent study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health examined the living conditions of 15-19 year olds in poor areas of five cities across the world. Baltimore happened to be one of those cities. The others were Shanghai, China; Johannesburg, South Africa; New Delhi, India; and Ibadan,Nigeria.
In comparison to the other cities, Baltimore teens showed “poor perceptions about their physical environments, their sense of social cohesion, and their sense of safety within their neighborhoods.” Teens from Baltimore and Johannesburg, the cities that received the lowest ratings, are generally “fearful” and “don’t feel safe from violence.”
This fearful existence is the result of impoverished economic conditions that have been shaped by historical occurrences of institutional racism, racial segregation, and “White Flight.” During the housing boom of the 2000s, real estate agents pulled out the “White Flight” operating manual and capitalized on “racial fears,” convincing large amounts of white residents near expanding black neighborhoods to sell their houses only to turn around and “sell them to black families at a much higher price,” regularly approaching 69 percent markups and fueled by the widespread illegal activities by banks leading up to theSubprime mortgage crisis. In all, the Department of Justice exposed 4,500 cases of mortgage fraud directed at residents in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. This predatory and highly-racialized housing scam was built on decades of similar practices, creating intensely segregated neighborhoods. Like most large cities in the US, a majority of Baltimore’s African American residents have effectively been corralled into ghettos with deteriorating infrastructure, substandard schools, and nonexistent jobs, opportunities and resources. “The city’s black population had nearly doubled between 1950 and 1970 as whites reactively began moving away: Almost a third of the city’s population left the city between 1950 and 2000.” When teenagers from East Baltimore were asked to describe their neighborhood, they spoke of “big rats going around in people’s trash, vacant houses full of squatters and needles on the ground.”
Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who was brutally murdered by police, grew up in similar surroundings. “In Sandtown-Winchester, more than half of the people between the ages of 16 and 64 are out of work and the unemployment rate is double that for the city at one in five. Median income is just $24,000, below the poverty line for a family of four, and nearly a third of families live in poverty. Meanwhile, somewhere between a quarter to a third of the buildings are vacant, compared to 5 percent in the city as a whole.” These material conditions create a desperate reality when compounded with draconian drug laws and increased policing aimed at predominantly poor, black, and working-class communities.
To be fair, for the American colonists who staged the riot at the Boston Harbor, relations with King George III had been deteriorating over time. The Boston Massacre had occurred three years earlier when five colonists were killed by British soldiers who were confronted by a mob. Tension surely existed, even animosity; however, most of the American colonists’ still maintained privileged lives, owned prosperous businesses, enjoyed positions of prominence and power, and owned property. They were elitists in every sense of the word.
In contrast, Black residents of Baltimore have been forced to endure a bleak landscape – one shaped by centuries of white supremacy, institutional racism, and uneven development. The creation of the black ghetto in the US is the culmination of this development – a desolate and barren landscape that often resembles more of an open air prison than a community. Despite valiant efforts on the parts of many in this community, these historical developments have been difficult to shake. Joblessness continues. A lack of resources persists. A general indifference on the part of state and federal government is now chronic.
The change that was willed by great Civil Rights leaders of the past never arrived. It’s been suspended in mid-air, surrounded by empty celebrations of de-radicalized revolutionaries, de-contextualized ideas, and empty promises made by a Black “leadership” class that has continuously sold its constituents out. This once-promising change is now held forever out of reach, serving as nothing more than a mockery of our present reality. The hopes accompanying the election of the first black President proved to be a mirage. We not only failed to land in a “post-racial America,” we drifted further away. Domestic military and police forces have taken on the role of a foreign occupier, patrolling the streets in armored cars, recklessly smashing in doors of homes, harassing and intimidating community members, and even referring to them as ” enemy forces.” Constitutional rights are regularly overrided by “stop and frisk” policies that scoff at any minimum standard for being stopped and questioned, let alone reasonable suspicion. The fact that Freddie Gray ran for his life after officers “made eye contact with him” is understandable. Unlawful stops that turn into deadly encounters have become the norm in Black neighborhoods across the US. Thus far in 2015, on average, three people are killed per day by the police.
Police officers have been become more militarized than ever, more aggressive than ever, and bolder than ever. Not only do they murder young (and unarmed) black Americans daily, they do it on national television, while laughing and gloating, for all to see. Surreal debates ensue about whether this murder was justified or that murder was acceptable. White racists flood social media with a robotic vileness that seems worthy of Stanley Kubrick’s direction. And the desperate people of Baltimore – who are treated as strangers and outsiders in their own neighborhoods, allowed no vested interest in their communities, and given no say over how their lives unfold – are labeled “animals,” “criminals,” “savages,” and “thugs,” even by the kowtowing Mayor they elected, as they fight, by any means necessary, to gain an ounce of dignity or respect. The American colonists had it easy. The people of Baltimore are fighting for their lives.