Why the CVS Burned

The rioting in Baltimore wasn’t hooliganism. It was a protest against the depredations of the ghetto economy.

Members of the community work to clean up a recently looted and burned CVS in Baltimore on April 28, 2015.

Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

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.

Much of the violence that erupted this week took place at and around West Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall, a retail stretch that is part of the same system of exploitation and humiliation rioters in ’68 stood up to fight. The neighborhood around the mall, also called Mondawmin, has a median household income of just $38,014; one-third of the neighborhood earns less than $25,000. Only one-third of households own a car, meaning many of the residents who shop in the neighborhood do so out of necessity. Shopping local, a feel-good practice for yuppies, is a burden on the poor: Ghetto residents can’t easily leave their neighborhoods to enjoy the competitive market pricing of the better-off sections of the city or the suburbs. Economists have found that prices for consumer goods can be as much as 15 percent higher for the poor. And while Mondawmin Mall may offer employment opportunities for some local residents, it’s not nearly enough to put a dent in a neighborhood unemployment rate of 23 percent.

Police officers arrive at a store that was vandalized and looted by rioters in Baltimore on April 27, 2015.

Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

The mall itself is home to some services for poor residents, including a WIC office. Much of the retail, however, is likely out of reach for its immediate neighbors. The “trade area” for the mall, according to its owner General Growth Properties, encompasses “4-5 miles in all directions,” an area where the average household income is $54,642—significantly higher than that of Mondawmin residents. The stores around the mall cater more to the neighborhood’s poor residents, but often in ways that take advantage of the constraints of the ghetto economy. Services that might be free for the middle class cost real money for the poor, whittling away at their already low incomes. Many poor Americans don’t cash their paychecks at banks (which typically require a minimum deposit), and are forced to use the services of cash-checking shops, which tend to take 2 percent off the top. On the 1600 block of North Avenue, where a police van held Freddie Gray on the night he was arrested, the storefront of payday lender Ace Cash Express advertises “PAY BILLS. CHECKS CASHED.” Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau denounced Ace Express’ payday lending, which “used false threats, intimidation, and harassing calls to bully payday borrowers into a cycle of debt … drain[ing] millions of dollars from cash-strapped consumers who had few options to fight back.” The looters who broke into Ace this week might well have been there before, as customers. They might also have been customers at Cash USA, a pawn shop at 2105 West Pratt Street that went up in flames this week, and which, like Ace, advertises its check cashing services. When Baltimoreans looted and burned payday lenders, check-cashing operations, and pawn shops this week, it was not just a chance to get money, it was chance to get back some of their money.

We are still in the middle of this crisis. It’s hard to know the specific motives of any one looter, and certainly not all of this week’s destruction can be ascribed to resentment of the ghetto economy. Across from Cash USA a wig store was looted; it’s difficult to imagine the latter had engaged in predatory financial practices. You might look upon the looting of a CVS, similarly, as a clear-cut act of larceny and vandalism; then again, you might not ever have had to choose between paying your rent and paying for a badly needed prescription.

If history is our guide, we can see that this paroxysm of rage cannot be as simple as poor people using a tragic death as cover for some smash and grab. It’s an expression of anger at another aspect of a system that has exploited the black community in subtler, more insidious, but similarly tragic ways. As Baltimoreans, in the ’60s and now, protested against the excesses of the police, it is no surprise that those protests expanded to include other aspects of ghetto life, where economic repression and humiliation, like harassment by police, are part of the everyday experience. In the months ahead, we must remember that it will be not enough to stop police brutality—we need to provide better economic opportunities as well if we want to improve the lives of Baltimore’s poor.