A rioter stands on a burning car as another pours fuel on the fire
A rioter stands on a burning car as another pours fuel on the fire © Reuters

This time was different. The rioting that erupted in the city of Baltimore on Monday marked an escalation of the racial turmoil that has flared across the US in recent months following the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers.

The earlier upheaval came in response to deaths in relatively out-of-the-way locales — suburbs and smaller cities where many African-Americans have moved in recent years as white professionals have flocked to urban areas.

Mobs rampaged through Ferguson, Missouri, a community of scarcely more than 21,000 people, in response to the killing of Michael Brown, 18. Activists organised elaborate demonstrations in other places after Eric Garner, 43, died in a police chokehold in Staten Island — the least populated of New York City’s five boroughs, boasting a terrain sufficiently leafy to accommodate a burgeoning population of white-tailed deer.

But the fire this time was in the inner city, the traditional cauldron of US racial riots, and that upped the ante. Poor urban areas are notoriously difficult to control and the Baltimore police were overwhelmed. Ultimately, Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, ordered the National Guard into the city of 622,000 people, describing his action as a “last resort . . . to restore order”.

The violence started in impoverished west Baltimore after a funeral was held for Freddie Gray, 25, a black man who died on April 19 of a spinal injury while in police custody. Looters ransacked liquor stores and a drugstore was set ablaze. More than a dozen police officers were injured as young people pelted them with bottles, bricks and other debris. More than 200 arrests were made. Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles cancelled their home game against the Chicago White Sox amid the tumult.

On the east side of the city, a fire broke out after nightfall in a senior citizen centre being built next to a church. Although authorities said they were unsure of the cause of the blaze, its flames provided the backdrop as television commentators tried to make sense of the rage on the streets.

Gone were the chants of earlier protests — “Hands up, don’t shoot”, in the case of Brown, and “I can’t breathe,” to remember Garner. Actions spoke louder than words on the streets of Baltimore. Even pleas from Gray’s family for calm on the day of his funeral went unheeded.

““This is an embarrassment to the nation, and I’m hoping that tomorrow will be a better day for all of us,” Jamal Bryant, the minister who delivered the eulogy for Gray, told CNN.

But the return of urban rioting reminded Americans of how little had changed since the Kerner Commision — appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after racial violence in 1967 left scores dead in cities such as Detroit and Newark, New Jersey — warned of troubles to come.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black and one white — separate and unequal," it said. “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.”

During that era, Martin Luther King said: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The violence in Baltimore was the latest reminder of how many African-Americans are still looking for someone to listen to them.

The result is that for the first time in a long time, Americans have reason to worry about what used to be called a “long, hot summer” — with violence of the kind seen in Baltimore begetting more violence.

It will make for an anxious spring in our hemisphere. The northern US is only now emerging from a brutally cold winter that made it hard to venture outside, much less protest or riot. But summer is almost here and that means the time will soon be right for dancing, or demonstrating, or even fighting in the streets.

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