You’ve probably heard by now that former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency this past Saturday. What you may not have heard or read was his launch speech and one particular assertion in it that warrants scrutiny.
The speech itself was pro forma, recalling high-flown passages from the Constitution and sharing details of his family history that presumably somehow demonstrate his own strength of character (his parents were born during the Great Depression, his father flew 33 missions over Japan, his mother flew in the Civil Air Patrol, etc.).
It wasn’t until O’Malley shifted the focus to recent events in Baltimore that he uttered his most quotable line to date, and one that conjures up his vision of what it means to be an American, no less. Addressing the flames that enveloped “some of the humblest and hardest hit neighborhoods of” Charm City and noting that there is “something to be learned … from those flames,” he said this:
[W]hat took place here was not only about race, not only about policing in America.
It’s about everything it is supposed to mean to be an American. [Emphasis added]
The highlighted sentiment, which O’Malley utters at roughly 5:50 in the video below, may require several readings to grasp the meaning because of its problematic syntax (the sentence contains it twice — once as a neuter pronoun whose antecedent is “what took place here,” once as the existential “it”).
Paraphrasing — an option hizzoner’s speech writers should have availed themselves of — enhances the clarity slightly:
What took place here is about everything being an American is supposed to mean.
But then a whole new set of problems emerge. Is O’Malley claiming that what took place in Baltimore is an exercise of the rioters’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom to dissent? If he is, he needs to explain which parts of setting a local business on fire, then sabotaging the fire hose being used to extinguish the blaze constitute dissent — and not the indulgence of unbridled passion. He also needs to account for how looting, which doubtless contributed to the $9 million in damages the city incurred, is part of “being an American.”