Baltimore's winter ''shotgun robberies,'' a series of hold-upsdirected at white-owned restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets, already are fading into history. The arrest of two suspects accused of masterminding the robberies seems to have dismantled the shotgun gang, but as the shock wears off, we are overlooking a critical opportunity to examine the workings of a society whose policies and assumptions are all too often out of sync with its realities.
Our collective reaction to the robberies was fear, shock and outrage. There was nothing for us to try to understand, simply to control. Can we take a larger step and recognize that in fact it is no surprise that the gang acted as it did? Can we understand that if we really want to prevent such crime sprees, we must change the factors that make them make sense?
The two alleged ''generals'' of the robberies, Sadiyq Abdullah Muhammed and Eric C. Wheeler, described them as a strategy for blacks to reclaim from whites what centuries of oppression have withheld. Wheeler was quoted as saying that the example of the robbers encouraged blacks to ''take from [whites] because they taking from you every day. Every day you take from us. Every day you take from a black man.''
He has a point. The mainstream society of whites has little to do with the needs of many blacks. Those actions which serve to maintain the economic, political and social status quo often serve also to keep non-mainstream blacks down.
Regardless of whether robbery is the most appropriate response, Wheeler's implication that it is time to interrupt this pattern is right. The mainstream has produced a context in which actions such as this series of crimes can be expected as non-mainstream individuals seek to right wrongs and to create missing opportunities.
The mistake in addressing this issue is the assumption that our society is a unified one whose members all have an equal stake in its advantages and therefore also in the laws which keep it operating. In fact, there is no unified society.
Recognition of this reality is beginning to be reflected as we discuss the possibilities of a ''multicultural'' society. These discussions generally take the form of asking whether such a society is a good thing to strive for. In fact, it is too late to ask this question. The unified society which might become multicultural is gone, having splintered into a plurality of discontinuous societies whose interests do not automatically impel them to want to work in concert. In reality, these societies do not need to interact significantly in order to function.
Seen in this light, the shotgun robbers did not act as transgressors in a society to whose laws they should be expected to adhere. Members of a society that offers them little, they sought to turn around a situation they saw as stacked
Mainstream society believes in its own exclusive legitimacy, and that anyone operating outside its standards and rules is deviant and must be repressed. But as long as the mainstream agenda remains irrelevant to those whose needs it does not meet, these individuals will continue to act independently from it. Punishing these acts as transgressions from a universal norm may silence the storm momentarily, but cannot influence the reasons it is brewing.
''I'm incarcerated whether I'm in jail or whether I'm out on the street,'' said Wheeler, ''because there is no opportunity for me to be anything.'' The prospect of a jail sentence is meaningless to someone who has nothing to lose by it.
Yet we continue to believe that we can force individuals to respect laws which are inextricably bound up with the origins of their position at the bottom. We look to the deterrent of tougher sentencing laws or to more extensive ''values education'' in the schools. But these measures are based on the assumption that we are all trying to work as one cohesive society. We ignore the reasons that cause some individuals to take action outside the boundaries of the mainstream.
I am not suggesting those outside the mainstream should attack the status quo through violence, or that they are justified in doing so. But as we all look for ways to render violence unnecessary, we should recognize the inequalities in a mainstream society which does not meet the needs of everyone and the resulting existence of multiple societies with incompatible agendas.
Rachel Wallach writes from Baltimore.