The death of a black man in police custody triggered protests and unrest in Baltimore, as well as raising discussion about First Amendment freedoms.
Days of peaceful protests were upstaged April 27 by looting, arson and clashes with police. The traditional routes of protest guaranteed to all in the First Amendment – free speech, peaceful assembly and petition – were hijacked by a few unruly crowds that grabbed national headlines.
“This is not protesting, this is not your First Amendment rights, this is just criminal acts doing damage to a community,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said of the riots on a local broadcast news prpgram.
Many of those involved in the violence were teenagers – angry teenagers. And despite the illegal nature of their actions – condemned by most, including President Obama – one question that begs to be asked is: Can violence ever advance the cause of social justice?
At the very least, it forced the news media to focus on the roots of the anger – such as gaping income inequality, the hopelessness of those living in blighted and neglected neighborhoods, and the disproportionate arrests and incarceration of African Americans, especially young and male.
Baltimore is just the latest scene of public outcry over police treatment of African Americans. Before that, it was killings by police of unarmed blacks in Ferguson, Mo., North Charleston, S.C, New York City and elsewhere that prompted protests locally and around the nation.
That kind of civic engagement — when done peacefully — is not only guaranteed by the First Amendment but a crucial part of democracy. At the Newseum, a goal is to help people understand, interpret and exercise their rights. Media literacy and civics are the first steps in developing a voice and inspiring positive action.
With the right tools and techniques, those seeking social change can find answers and engage audiences; the First Amendment makes this possible. Sharing the issues and ideas that matter can lead to new support and solutions; the First Amendment makes this possible. People have the ability to change your community for the better and share those changes in a way that maximizes their impact; the First Amendment makes this possible.
Perhaps recognizing and understanding the anger on display in Baltimore will make our fellow citizens take a stand and demand change – or at least keep the discussion of social injustice going.
For more information about the Newseum Education Department’s classes and resources about First Amendment freedoms, go to newseum.org/education.