Freddie Gray and the Legacy of Ronald Reagan

It’s tempting to look at Baltimore and think that this is an urban event, impacting the lives and futures of relatively few who are relatively insignificant. It’s convenient to think of a ‘riot’ as breakdown of civil society, but civil society broke down long ago. The streets of Baltimore are the parallel to Reagan’s fantasy view of America. They reflect a reality that in spite of the effort to hide and marginalize it won’t go away. It proves that no matter how much we try to argue otherwise, our collective fate must honor all those who are part of it, not just the few. Freddie Gray wasn’t just murdered by the ‘depraved heart’ of the cop driving a police van; he was murdered by our collective ‘depraved heart.’ Reagan had a small view of America, one no more expansive than the wealth of his comfortable and intellectually limited circle of friends would allow. His America is an America of fear: fear of each other, fear of change, and fear of our possibilities. Freddie Gray is merely its newest and most well known victim. There is no way out of Baltimore that doesn’t begin with rewriting the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Let’s start at the top. The racism and police violence that killed Freddie Gray didn’t start with Ronald Reagan, but the governmental indifference to the poor and minorities that have militarized police departments and estranged members of the underclass in America did. Freddie Gray (and Michael Brown etc.) are the legacy of the conservatism of Reagan that stopped the civil rights movements of the 60s in their tracks and put us on the path that leads to the events in Baltimore. Freddie Gray was killed not for violating a statute or breaking a law but for not knowing his place. He was executed not by a public police force but by what amounts to a private security force dishing out ‘justice’ for imagined crimes and immunity to the rich and powerful. The callous indifference, murder by ‘depraved heart’, that leads to Gray’s death is a direct outcome of a conservative movement that has redefined government as the protection of the few at the expense of the many. A libertarianism that trumpets freedom of government intervention for the rich (and mostly white) and yet invests in the massive use of governmental force to suppress the rest of society. This starts with Reagan.

It was under Reagan in the 80s that the attack on public education and the demonization of teachers begins. It is under Reagan that the war on drugs takes on a strategy of mass incarceration of poor and minority males so the people driving SUVs in the suburbs, and consuming most of the drugs, can feel safe from this ‘menace.’ It is Reagan that drags us back into the gross expenditures on the military that drain social programs of the money to keep them going and create an America not only ready to go to war but itching to do so. It was Reagan who took aim at unions and the rights they had achieved for workers as being too expensive. It was Reagan who began the political movement to reduce taxes on the wealthy, ‘job-creators’ he called them, that left us with schools and roads more befitting a third-world country than the ‘shining city on the hill’ he romanticized. In short, it was Reagan who crafted an America where some people matter a lot and most of us don’t matter at all, a nation where ‘murder by depraved heart’ is inevitable.

This is precisely the time in America when ‘crime’ was reconstructed to mean something poor people did against the system. It marked the beginning of aggressive police strategies such as ‘stop and frisk’ that brushed aside the constitutional rights of the poor and minorities in order to protect the privilege of the white and wealthy. At first, these policies looked populist, but 35 years down the road the gap between those that have and those that do not is greater than ever, and fewer and fewer people fit under the shrinking umbrella of government protection.  Crime was no longer against the commonwealth; stealing seventeen trillion wouldn’t even get you indicted. In fact, the government would reimburse you for your trouble. The idea of community policing was replaced by more and more aggressive policing, culminating in bringing the equipment of war into poor neighborhoods. One of the signature pieces of this kind of policing was the ‘war on drugs,’ which still rages across the country. Calling it a ‘war’ legitimized tactics usually reserved for foreign combatants. Drug squads, many of them drug users themselves, used intelligence and surveillance techniques from the military to kick down the doors of the poor and minority populations in our cities, mushrooming the prison population. That population, however, did not reflect America or even the people in America who used drugs. Instead it reflected what the new conservatism in America sought protection from. The internment of the Japanese in WWII involved far fewer people than the incarceration of black males in America.

Ronald Reagan constructed an America that replicated his infamous ‘kitchen cabinet.’ A white America, a privileged America. It was a fantasy land, and like all fantasy worlds it blocked out any news or disturbance that challenged it. It has been humming along for over 35 years spinning off a ‘conservatism’ that is less and less about conserving democracy or its public institutions and more and more about pampering the few. A ‘conservatism’ that has turned its back on the environment and government alike to promote an untrue and unsustainable view of the world. A world where trees are responsible for pollution and no one can remember whether or not they authorized arms for hostages. A world where not only do the ends justify the means, they justify fabricating the ends. A lie told by a Twenty Mule Team Borax/General Electric huckster that spawned a generation of politicians who no longer even remember the original lies. A view of America as it never was that helped propel it toward something it was never meant to be.

What is wrong in Baltimore doesn’t start or end in Baltimore. What is wrong in Baltimore is what is wrong in all of us. The ‘depraved heart’ that killed Freddie Gray is the denial at the core of our current politics that ALL of us are Americans. ALL of us deserve justice, respect and opportunity. Reagan never believed that. His America was a nation divided between those who thought the 60s had gone too far in enfranchising the marginalized and those who fought to open the nation to the promise it represents to all its citizens. To do that, he began the process of turning away from reality and constructing an ideology impervious to fact, reason and compassion. Thirty five years down that road, Freddie Gray went for a ‘rough ride’ in Baltimore, and reality must now be served.

Dr. Barry Alford is Professor of English and the Humanities at MidMichigan Community College. He has published extensively on teaching in the community college, postmodernist theory, assessment, and literature by the working class. Read other articles by Barry, or visit Barry's website.