The Current Spike in Baltimore Violence

by Akim Reinhardt

MurderAs has been widely reported, May was an exceptionally violent month here in Baltimore. The city has witnessed dozens shootings and 38 murders. That is the most murders in any one month since 1996.

Such a spate of violence is certainly worth reporting, and the national media has been quick to pick up on it. However, many media outlets are also drawing lazy connections to the riot and protests that took place several weeks back.

The typical analysis, whether implied or explicit, goes something like this.

There was a riot in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody. The riot amplified already troubled relations between Baltimore's African American community and its police force. The police, unhappy about the indictment of six officers in the Gray case, are staging a work slowdown. The result is tremendous violence across the city.

Examples are: here, here, here, here, and here.

This brand of analysis is not factually wrong. Some of those statements may be a bit vague, but they're wrong in and of themselves. However, when those those facts are strung together in this manner, the narrative they produce is just a bit too facile to offer a penetrating explanation for recent upswing in violence.

The problem with such an analysis is that it's:

  • Too focused on the present to account and fails to account for historical forces, and;
  • Too narrow in the way it corrals all the immediate factors but fails to make room for larger structural forces

All of this leads to questions bout causality. For example, to what extent could Baltimore's bloody May be part of a seasonal burst of violence that has taken place across the country?

And how, exactly, does a bad relationship between black Baltimoreans and Baltimore police directly lead to more black-on-black murders (which is mostly what has happened)? Black people don't trust cops, so now they're murdering each other more? That seems like a very peculiar correlation to make.

Finally, what constitutes a police slowdown? Baltimore police lodged about 55 arrests per day in May. That's certainly way down from the 126 per day they averaged in May, 2014, but what kind of arrests are we talking about? We need to differentiate between the quantity of arrests and quality of arrests, an issue not discussed in any of the coverage I've seen.

That's not to dismiss the effects of a police slowdown. There's clearly one in play, and as the month has wound down and the statistics have become more gruesome, police spokespeople are beginning to publicly acknowledge the slowdown, and blame it on city officials. Their justification was recently summed up by Lt. Gene Ryan, President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, who claimed police officers “are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty.”

Make of that statement what you will. But regardless, the question lingers: How exactly does the police slowdown actually relate to the rising murder rate?

The big mistake many analysts are making is to imply that it's causally related. As if police not doing their job makes people want to kill each other more. But the actual connection, as one local journalist told me, might boil down to this: As the police back off, an increased level of lawlessness gives people the opportunity to deal with old grudges.

In other words, the prior heightened police presence may have been problematic in many ways, but it also served to clamp down on violence, at least to some degree. And so the diminished police presence does not activity doesn't spur more violence, but temporarily releases the pressure valve; outstanding scores are getting settled.

Ah, but then why are there so many old scores to settle?
Listing the recent events in Baltimore, and then stirring them into a causal swirl that supposedly explains May's increased murder tally, it far too simplistic.

It's just not enough to say there were bad policing policies and bad community-police relations, which led to Freddie Gray's death, which led to protests, which led to a riot, which led to more protests and public outcries, which led to the indictment of six officers, which led to a police slowdown, which has now caused a historic rise in the Baltimore murder rate.

After all, in April Baltimore endured 22 murders. There were another 23 amid the bitter cold of January. In other words, this here city is a pretty murderous place.

So what might be a more logical explanation for the May murders than to simply say everything since Freddie Gray's death is causally connected? What larger forces help us understand the base violence that afflicts this city, regardless of the protests or Gray's death or cops doing bad things or cops not doing enough things?

My instinct is to look at what usually causes murderous violence in Baltimore and many other American cities: the drug war. And indeed, my local journalist contact corroborated my instinct, alluding to this as probably being a vital factor in the May murder spree.

In other words, the police slowdown, which stems from all those other factors, has merely made possible the rise in murders. But what's actually driving the vast majority of these killings is the same thing that's driven them for decades: the drug trade.

I mean, come one now. All those old scores getting settled aren't about neighbors at a Memorial Day barbeque getting pissed off over borrowed lawn equipment that never got returned. It's violence stemming from the dug trade and drug war.

As I discussed in my previous 3QD articles about Baltimore (here and here), the poverty and violence that afflicts this city has two major components:

  • The poverty of a decimated blue collar economy gutted by de-industrialization and mechanization.
  • The violence resulting from the criminalization of drugs and the federally funded drug war, which has unleashed a nearly unfathomable wave of incarceration and bloodletting.

So when we note that Baltimore has seen a 19 year-high in its monthly murder rate, we also need to acknowledge that Baltimore has consistently produced one of the highest murder rates in the country for over two decades now, thanks in large part to widespread poverty, the illegal drug economy, and the drug war, which foment an endless cycle of turf battles, revenge killings, and sundry other motives for violence.

Baltimore has logged at least 200 murders per year, or very close to it, every year for nearly four decades, even as its population as sunk from nearly a million to barely 620,000. Some years the total number of murders is near or over 300, which is how 2015 is now shaping up. As a result, Baltimore usually hovers around the nation's top 5 in per capita murder rate among cities with more than 100,000 people.

And like every other year for the past several decades, most of those murders are a result of the drug trade and the drug war.

Which is why, as this map makes abundantly clear, nearly all of the shootings that take place in Baltimore are in neighborhoods saturated with drug traffic. Note on the map how shootings are almost entirely absent from the monied (middle class and up), mostly white corridor of neighborhoods that runs down the center of the city east of the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83) and west of Greenmount/York Avenue (highway 45), all the way down to the harbor and then eastward along either side of the water. There, one sees no shootings listed at all.

Instead, the shootings are clustered in well known hot spots for the drug trade in east and west Baltimore. That is also where the recent surge in shootings and murders has been.

In other words, what the May murders probably represent is a slight up tick in business as usual in the town we sometimes call Bodymore, Murderland a.k.a. Harm City a.k.a. the City that Bleeds a.k.a. Mob Town. The politicians feign righteous indignation whenever someone mentions these sobriquets, but the bloody truth is, no one from the outside gave them to us; Baltimore gave itself these nicknames, and we use them knowingly.
The drug war is likely the most important historical and structural factor explaining Baltimore's juiced murder rate for May. Yet it has gone completely unmentioned in all of the national press reporting I've encountered.

This omission is both frustrating and depressing, and I can’t help but think the media silence about drug violence reflects a society scared of facing up to the truth about itself. That we are a society riven by fear, and those fears lead us to turn away from obviously truths. And that it’s easier to be afraid than it is to think about what the real causes are and what we can do to reverse them.

It's easier for well-to-do people to be scared of poor people. For white people, and those minorities aspiring to be white, to be scared of black people. For suburbanites and country people to be scared of city people. For the educated to be scared of the dropouts. For those with cars to be scared of those who ride the bus. For people who speak and dress and listen to music like this to be scared of people who speak and dress and listen to music like that.

All of that is easier than owning up to the mess that we, as a society, have partially created, and which we, as a society, can at least partially fix. It's easier than admitting that political decisions our democratically elected leaders have made and implemented during the past several decades have contributed mightily to oppression that leads to incidents like Freddie Gray's death, to the segregation of crime and violence in cities like Baltimore, and even to the startling rate of murders that consistently mars them.

In other words, it's easy for us to lump all of these various tragedies and disruptions together, from Gray's death to the riot to the protests to the indictments to the police slowdown to the spike in murders, and claim the share a causal relationship. What's hard is for us to acknowledge are the common threads that we as a society have sewn to unify them, like so much stale popcorn on a browning Christmas tree.

But all of it, the specifics of the Gray tragedy, the consistently high murder rate, and the generally bad cop-civilian relations in affected areas, are not part of some inevitable horror. Nor are they merely feeding each other in a vacuum. Rather, they're all directly related to the drug war. It's really pretty simple.

If there weren't an absolutist prohibition on drugs like cocaine and heroin, there wouldn't be a lucrative black market for them, with life-threatening risks and outsized rewards for dealers. Forget the job creation and tax revenues that would come with legalization, or the dwindling drug profits (marijuana prices have dropped by roughly a third in the three states where its recreational use is now legal). Simply decriminalizing and responsibly regulating such drugs would greatly reduce the flood of mostly young black and brown men being sent to prison, and would also eliminate much of the violence.

If drug addicts who lose control of their lives, like alcoholics who do the same, were sent to rehab instead of prison, and if government regulation allowed for a functional drug market instead of the medieval style thug market that currently exists for the exclusive benefit of violent criminals, then all sorts of human misery up to and including the endless parade of murder, might be seriously mitigated.

If I really wanted to get moralistic, then this is the part of the essay where I would point out the hypocrisy of our comparatively lenient laws on alcohol, a drug that causes a horrifying amount of damage to our society. Or I could even talk about the laws for dangerous prescription medications, which allow companies to pimp them like sexy tic tacs.

Cocaine toothache drops (1885)But it's the second decade of the 21st century, and I think those hypocrisies should be readily obvious to all but the most obstinate among us. As should be the effects of the drug war.

So instead of moralizing, I'd like to train our gaze on what we so often turn away from: The firm fact that so much of America's misery is the result of American policies. That, to a large degree, we have created our own horror, and we have both the power and responsibility to ameliorate it.

In order to do that, we need to stop pretending that something like the current round of murders in Baltimore is really that unusual, or that it's even a direct result of the Freddie Gray tragedy and its aftermath. While there is likely an indirect connection to current police practices, the larger truth is a consistent one.

Baltimore has suffered under one of the nation's highest large-city murder rates for several decades. And that is the direct consequence of a toxic combination of widespread poverty and the drug war. To pretend otherwise is either to be profoundly ignorant, very scared, or worse, intellectually dishonest.

I have no idea how to fix the economy. I don't really think anyone does. But neutering much of the violence is a relatively a simple matter: End the drug war.

Akim Reinhardt's website is