Demonstrators hold up a placard near the CVS Pharmacy on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore that was looted and burned April 28, 2015.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

When Baltimore police officers left 25-year-old Freddie Gray with an almost severed spine and a crushed throat, they became the straws that broke black America’s back.

Many of us feel righteous anger as we reach out to one another across time and space, reaffirming not just our collective humanity but also our individual right to freely exist in this world. Again. We gravitate toward an urban community now filled with protests, militarized police, tear gas, rubber bullets and the absence of justice. Again.

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We are supposed to believe that there is no legitimacy to the rage of Baltimore youths taking to the streets, and that it can be acknowledged only through the lens of criminality and shamed into nonexistence. President Barack Obama called them “thugs” when he addressed the issue for the first time from the Rose Garden. And to explain this “thug" behavior to white America, he once again parroted debunked racialized myths—claiming that there are more black men in jail than in college and that having “no fathers” is placing our children at risk—while pathologizing low-income black communities at large and soft-pedaling the racism embedded deeply within U.S. policing tactics. 

We’ve been told that the Department of Justice is opening an investigation into Gray’s death. This is little consolation when recently confirmed Attorney General Loretta Lynch, noted friend to police, has made it clear that she feels officers in general are being “unfairly tarnished” and urged protesters to “adhere to the principles of nonviolence.”

Former Attorney General Eric Holder talked a good game, opening civil rights investigations into the cases of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, and Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson. Under his leadership, however, not one police officer faced civil rights charges. In fact, he routinely supported excessive use of force by police before the Supreme Court—every single time a case made its way to the court.

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Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose tenure includes the controversial closing of neighborhood recreational centers and the pending closure of beloved schools, also called some of the protesters thugs and tweeted, “We will not let these deplorable and cowardly acts of violence ruin #OurCity.” She has had very little to say about the deplorable and cowardly acts that left Freddie Gray dead or about the viciousness of the Baltimore Police Department at large.

This is systemic racism at work. It doesn’t matter that there’s a black president, a black attorney general, a black police commissioner or a black mayor. Black youths expressing pain and rage, fear and disbelief, are characterized as criminals, and the cops who left Freddie Gray nearly decapitated are on taxpayer-paid vacations.

We’re expected to be angels when we’re faced with demons. We’re expected to hold hands, sing, “We Shall Overcome,” and wait patiently for the wheels of justice to turn and for freedom to ring. This country is comfortable with black tears and black fears but uncomfortable with black rage. But when the tears are dry and injustice remains, sometimes rage is all that’s left.

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In a 1967 speech, “The Other America” (pdf), the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience at Stanford University why black Americans riot, and it still holds true today:

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquillity and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.

And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

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In short: No justice, no peace.

That is what youths in Baltimore are demanding: justice. That is what was demanded on the streets of Ferguson, Mo.: justice. That is what will be demanded in the next city and the next city and the next city because there is no pause button on revolution, no such thing as a polite uprising and no more tolerance for second-class citizenship.

If peace for all is the true goal and not oppression for some, then this country must first grapple with the fact that a smashed window at CVS is merely a window into its own shattered soul.