By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Baltimore has become a symbol of rebellion against the rampant police brutality, racism, and poverty that pervades America’s cities. In late April, Maryland’s governor called in the National Guard, and Baltimore’s mayor imposed a “state of emergency” over the city as protesters clashed with police.
Outraged citizens, mainly youth, filled the streets for days, demanding justice for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Black man who died on April 19 from injuries sustained while in the custody of Baltimore police. Gray’s spine was 80% severed near the neck and his larynx crushed.
The protests have spread around the country, as thousands have raised the call: “Black lives matter!” Gray’s death was the latest in an epidemic of police killings in the United States. Only days before, Walter Scott was shot down as he ran from a police officer in North Charleston, S.C.; the videotaped murder horrified people around the world.
Anger steadily escalated in Baltimore as police and city authorities delayed on conducting an investigation that could lead to prosecution of the cops who were involved in Gray’s death. Many challenged the police version of the events. The demand rang out: “Freddie Gray didn’t have to die. Tell the truth! Stop the lies!”
Protests reached a peak on Saturday, April 25, when close to 2000 people marched from the Gilmor Homes—where Freddie Gray lived—through downtown Baltimore to a rally at City Hall. Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts praised his cops as being “scary good” in policing the demonstration. But some of the rally speakers stated that police were overreacting and acting provocatively toward the demonstrators, buzzing the rally with a helicopter and deploying at least 1200 cops on the ground—including state troopers.
Later that evening, a small grouping split off and marched to Camden Yards, where the Orioles were about to play the Boston Red Sox. Reports said that the protesters surrounded a police van, similar to the one in which Gray had been transported when he was injured, broke shop windows, and threw objects at the police.
The big-business media downplayed coverage of the main, peaceful demonstration, preferring to fill the airwaves and newsprint with coverage of what they termed “a riot.” Meanwhile, Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, compared Freddie Gray protesters to “lynch mobs” who were denying officers their Constitutional right to due process.
On April 27, some 2500, including politicians and other dignitaries, filled New Shiloh Baptist Church for Gray’s funeral. In the afternoon, however, the seething anger erupted as protesters and police stood off against each other. Several officers were injured by thrown bricks. According to the media, the city was in “chaos.”
Why did the cops stop Freddie Gray?
Although Police Commissioner Batts is now playing “hard cop,” he sat down with some of Gray’s family members not long ago to hear their concerns. At that session, he reportedly was “listening to their pain and expressing sympathy.” Nevertheless, the police department has been less than forthright in revealing what actions police officers took that led to Gray’s death.
Gray was arrested on April 13 near the Gilmor Homes. The housing project has been the scene of a number of drug busts in recent years, and the cops who arrested Gray were apparently on a similar mission.
However, the exact reasons that Gray was stopped have been left murky. A police spokesman stated that an officer began pursuing Gray and another unnamed man, after “making eye contact” with them. The written police report states merely that the cops pursued Gray in “a brief foot chase” after he had “fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence.”
David Gray, a University of Maryland professor who teaches criminal law, pointed out in the Baltimore Sun that the Supreme Court has ruled that running away from police, by itself, is not justification for an arrest.
The police maintain that after searching Gray, they put him under arrest when they found a switch-blade knife inside his pants pocket. Yet even Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has issued a statement questioning police tactics in the case, observing that possession of a knife is “not necessarily probable cause to chase or arrest someone.”
The police report states that Gray “was arrested without force or incident.” However, cell-phone video taken toward the end of the confrontation shows Gray crying out in pain as police grapple with him. It is obvious that he is hardly able to stand. Police prop him up, drag him to a van, and shovel him in. Witnesses reported that they saw Gray being beaten, and that he repeatedly asked for medical aid.
The police have admitted that Gray had asked for an inhaler and medical aid, and that his requests were ignored. It took over half an hour to carry Gray to the Western District Police Station and over 45 minutes from his arrest to when paramedics were called. The cops said that at one point they stopped the van to put Gray into leg irons. And it was revealed on April 30 that the van detoured to pick up another prisoner and made another unauthorized stop as well.
“I know when Mr. Gray was placed inside that van, he was able to talk,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez. “When Mr. Gray was taken out of that van, he could not talk and he could not breathe.” Later, Gray lapsed into a coma, from which he never emerged.
Police also admit that Gray was not given a seat belt in the van, as required by the police department’s protocols. There has been widespread speculation that he received what Baltimore cops call a “rough ride”—a wild and bumpy ride that cops use on occasion to punish their prisoners.
A lawyer for the family of Dondi Johnson says that Johnson died from such a ride after his arrest for public urination in Baltimore in 2005. Attorney Kerry D. Staton maintains that Johnson was cuffed with no seat belt to restrain him, and that he broke his neck after being thrown into the opposite wall. Johnson’s family won a $7.4 million judgment that was reduced to $200,000, the legal cap for such cases.
A long list of police victims
Freddie Gray is only the latest in a long list of victims of the Baltimore police. Documents obtained by the Baltimore Sun show that 249 lawsuits alleging police brutality were filed against the city of Baltimore from 2011 through late 2014 and that over $6.2 million was paid out in damages.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 31 people died in the city of Baltimore after encounters with police between 2010 and 2014. At the same time, however, just one Baltimore police officer has been prosecuted for killing a civilian since 2010. The officer was convicted of shooting a Marine Corps veteran outside a bar when he was off duty.
“This is part of a decades-long, growing frustration over the extent to which police in Baltimore have adopted a highly militarized approach to policing residents of our city,” Sonia Kumar, an ACLU staff attorney told The New York Times.
Baltimore, a city of over 620,000 people, is 63 percent Black. More than 23 percent of the population is below the poverty line, according to official statistics. Close to 17 percent of Baltimore’s housing stock is abandoned; in some neighborhoods entire blocks of row houses are burnt or falling down.
The official unemployment rate among Blacks is over 11 percent, not counting people who have “stopped looking,” young people who have never had a job, ex-prisoners who cannot find a job, etc. Recently, the city began shutting off water service to 25,000 residents who were behind on paying their water bills after a hike in rates.
Clearly, the murder of Freddie Gray, and the refusal of police and city authorities to quickly bring the killer cops to justice, has lit a match under a powder keg. And people around the world are responding.
Photo: Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images