By JOE AUCIELLO
Following the death of Freddie Gray, who died from a spinal injury sustained while in Baltimore police custody, almost three weeks of daily protests and marches—plus some incidents of arson and looting—finally culminated in a real and unanticipated break from “business as usual.”
This does not refer to the first major league baseball game played in a stadium closed to fans. Nor does it refer to the imposition of late-night curfews in Baltimore or the deployment of 3000 National Guard troops with armored vehicles to patrol the streets. Nor was it the presence of state troopers and city police, reinforced by police from other cities, fitted out in riot gear while continuing to make arrests, even while numerous previous arrests were being dismissed. Most of these events were entirely predictable.
No. The break from “business as usual” in Baltimore came as police were beginning to be held accountable for their actions, required to obey the laws they had sworn to uphold. Unexpectedly, the Baltimore prosecutor, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, charged six police officers with felonies for their role in Freddie Gray’s death.
The charges leveled against the cops ranged from false arrest and imprisonment, violation of police procedures, assault, and manslaughter to second-degree murder. These charges could conceivably result in sentences ranging from 10 to 30 years in prison.
Although State’s Attorney Mosby stated that Freddie Gray’s arrest was illegal and unjustified, and that his death resulted from his treatment while in police custody, she did not accuse any of the officers personally of causing Gray’s fatal injuries.
Death at the hands of police is not a new or unexpected event in Baltimore, and these killings rarely draw a serious consequence. Usually, the internal investigation and the victims of police violence are buried at about the same time. Those cases that are taken to court have typically resulted in the acquittal of police, even when suspects were shot in the back. The police need only claim that they felt threatened while they were “just doing their job.” It is a tradition upheld throughout America; the uniform of a police officer is a license to kill, especially if the victim is Black, young, and poor.
The police killing of Freddie Gray stunned the Black community of Baltimore, sparking anger and outrage. Spontaneous protests were followed by rallies, marches, and other street actions. Night after night, protests against police violence captured the attention of a nation that has already witnessed a series of police shootings and killings. Demonstrations of solidarity erupted in cities and towns throughout the country. Chants of “We are Baltimore” spread from Boston and New York to Seattle and Los Angeles.
These protests join a series of public actions that have arisen month after month following police violence in Ferguson, Mo., in New York, in North Charleston, S.C., in Cleveland, Ohio, and so on. The cumulative effect of these protests has begun to shake the consciousness of the entire country.
So, for once, something different and unusual happened. Less than a day after receiving the internal police investigation and the autopsy results, the prosecutor vigorously acted against the police. State’s Attorney Mosby made no effort to hide the fact that public protest was a compelling factor in her decision to file charges against the six police officers. “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for, ‘No justice, no peace,’” the prosecutor said. “Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”
Compared to the recent past, the prosecutor’s stance in Baltimore is a step long overdue. No criminal charges were filed against police in death of Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York. In North Charleston, S.C., the police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott was initially supported on his claim of self-defense. Only after a private cell-phone tape showed Scott being shot repeatedly in the back was the officer finally charged with murder.
Of course, in the death of Freddie Gray, who died in a hospital, there is no tape to give evidence contrary to the self-serving stories of the six police officers. The only eyewitnesses are the accused. Still, it seems clear that Gray was not securely restrained and suffered spinal injuries while in the police van, injuries that were intentionally inflicted. The prosecutor should find it relatively easy to win an indictment against these officers, but winning a conviction in court is an entirely different and much more difficult matter. Precedent from previous court decisions in Baltimore and throughout the country strongly favors the cops.
Nonetheless, Democratic officials in Baltimore have already claimed victories. Maryland Congressman Eli Cummings speaks of “a new day” in the Black community’s relations with police, one where “the wheels of justice roll.” A Voice of America article reports, “Cummings said that many of the people in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods have never had any kind of victory, and this announcement was one, because it made them feel as if they were being seen and heard.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake went further, suggesting that the familiar practice of police brutality and violence would be left in the past. While asserting her confidence in the majority of Baltimore’s police, she said, “To those of you who wish to engage in brutality, misconduct, racism, and corruption, let me be clear. There is no place in the Baltimore City Police Department for you.”
How such sweeping reforms would take place, the mayor did not explain. Certainly, there will be no cooperation from the police themselves. Their lawyer claimed that the state attorney’s charges against the six officers was “an egregious rush to judgment” that raised “grave concerns about the fairness and integrity of the prosecution of our officers.” Other lawyers, professors, and police officials throughout the country have spoken out on behalf of the Baltimore police, forming a “united front” of respectable opinion against real justice for Freddie Gray. Better to let the police function as they always do and must do, this reasoning goes, even if it results in more Freddie Grays.
Local residents, who are less given to rhetoric, are not yet certain of these optimistic words. One young man, a resident of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, stated, “I think they charged the officers just to calm the city down. … But I don’t think they’re going to get convicted” (The New York Times, May 3, 2015). That may well depend on what happens next.
A just outcome will be more certain if protesters continue their rallies outside of City Hall instead of staying home and trusting the officials inside City Hall. The public pressure that won a round in the battle for justice needs to be maintained and deepened until a lasting victory is finally achieved. Those wheels of justice roll more smoothly when thousands are pushing.
The safety of the community requires control of the community and an end to dependence on the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democratic mayor of Baltimore can criticize the police for their corruption and racism, but she relies on their clubs and tear gas to enforce the curfew she imposed. The state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, is even more embedded into the local establishment and of necessity depends on the police in making prosecutions. Because of these ties, she had to reassure the entire police department while filing charges against six of their own, saying that “the actions of these officers will not and should not in any way damage important working relations between police and prosecutors.”
These working relations have allowed the Baltimore Police Department a free hand in its long history of abuse and brutality against Black people, a history that includes shooting and killing unarmed, fleeing suspects.
The Black community can further the struggle for justice by relying on its own strength and its own resources and developing its own agenda. The protest movement that takes to the streets can advance its cause by creating a political movement to take City Hall. In Baltimore, where the majority of the city’s population is Black, an important step forward would be the creation of a local Black political party, independent of the Democratic establishment.
More than anywhere else in America, the Black community of Baltimore is best situated to provide a positive example for everyone throughout the country struggling for freedom and equality by moving from organized, independent protest to organized, independent politics.
Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action