Why the CVS Burned

tags: Baltimore

Louis Hyman is assistant professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of "Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red InkBorrow: The American Way of Debt," and "American Capitalism: A Reader."

Most people can sympathize with the anger on display this week in the streets of Baltimore. It’s relatively easy to feel compassion for people who’ve suffered police brutality and abject poverty, even if you’ve never experienced either. Looting and burning is harder to understand, since torching a CVS store would hardly seem to have anything to do with protesting the actions of the Baltimore Police Department. President Obama decried the Baltimore riots as “senseless violence and destruction.” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also despaired at the destruction. “We worked so hard to get a company like CVS to invest in this neighborhood,” she said, “this is the only place that so many people have to pick up their prescriptions.” Why would anyone burn down the only CVS in their neighborhood?

The reason, I think, is likely the same reason that poor black Americans in cities across the country burned “their own” neighborhoods in the late 1960s: They did not experience those places as their own. Then, like now, police brutality was a precipitating cause of the violence, but it was the long-term experience of the indignities of the ghetto that gave shape to the riots. Then, like now, commentators compared the rioters to animals who had run wild and needed discipline. Rioting, to these bystanders, was not proper political protest but the criminal actions of poor people who merely wanted to grab what they could for free. This narrative, which I heard throughout my childhood growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s, put the blame not on the depredations of the ghetto, but on the character of its residents. It completely misapprehends the political economy of our poorest neighborhoods.

Back in 1968, as the Washington Post reported at the time, it was stores that sold on credit that were the “most popular victims of the riots.” In one widely republished account, a mother told her son, “Don’t grab the groceries, grab the book.” The “book” held the records of debts that she and her son, as well as many other people in their neighborhood, owed to the store. Burning credit records, it was hoped, would erase those debts. Also targeted were so-called “easy credit” appliance stores, which sold shoddy goods, like used televisions, at usurious interest rates. By the late-’60s, televisions were as common in ghetto households as suburban ones. The difference was that ghetto televisions weren’t new, often didn’t work, and almost always cost more. Prices, a Federal Trade Commission report found in 1968, were 2.5 times higher for identical goods in the city as they were in the suburbs. If a family couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make their payments, repo men would come to their house, take their television, and then sell it to someone else. Repossessions were public affairs that everyone in the neighborhood could see, publicly shaming the family. When rioters broke into appliance stores in the 1960s and took TVs it looked, to outsiders, like brazen theft of a sought-after big-ticket item. To rioters whose TVs had be repossessed, however, it must have felt like they were taking back property for which they had already paid for many times over. And, perhaps, it was a chance to exorcise some of the shame of repossession as well. 

Informed by this history, when I look at the Baltimore riots of the past week, I see something more complicated than mere hooliganism. To me, the riots reflect fury not just at the police, but at the constraints of the ghetto’s retail economy, where the poor pay more. As I see it, the indignity of being roughed up by the cops is of a piece with not being able to afford to shop in your own neighborhood. ...

Read entire article at Slate

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