Blackness is criminalized in these United States, wherein countless of the melanin-enriched are collected by armed bouncers for the state. Black bodies are routinely brutalized, placed under federal and state security, and forced to work for slave wages. Those that realize their agency, determining themselves to flee or fight against the tyranny of oppression from government forces are habitually murdered by the state, see: Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald.
Freddie Gray was walking through his Baltimore City neighborhood in April 2015 when two police officers ran towards him, prompting him to flee. Video shows, upon his capture, that he was unable to stand while two cops lifted him handcuffed into a police van. The driver of the vehicle would make no effort to secure Freddie Gray in the back of the wagon with a safety belt, neglecting police procedure.
Instead, he opted to leave him on the floor of the wagon, while continuing to drive around for over 45 minutes, making several stops along the way. During one stop, the driver noticed that Mr. Gray was unresponsive, yet still made no attempts to notify ambulatory services nor contact a supervisor. Gray would be hospitalized for a week with critical injuries to his spinal cord, dying as a result of a series of events for which it seems no one will be held accountable.
The autopsy report states, “Mr. Gray's neck injury occurred while in custody, in and during transport in the police van. Safety equipment was available but not used. Therefore, it was not an unforeseen event (a medical-legal definition of an accident) that a vulnerable individual was injured during operation of the vehicle and that without prompt medical attention, the injury would prove fatal. Due to the failure of following established safety procedures through acts of omission, the manner of death is best certified as Homicide.”
Upon hearing the news of Mr. Gray’s death, hundreds of Baltimore City residents began protests in earnest, shouting, “Justice for Freddie Gray!” Marilyn Mosby, the State Attorney for Baltimore City (read: Legal Bae), would bring criminal charges against the six officers involved in mishandling Freddie Gray’s arrest during a televised press conference. Passionately articulating each of the charges in a manner demonstrating her legal acumen, she immediately became the social justice darling of the moment, another Black woman fighting for the human and civil rights of a people in communities long forsaken.
What makes Freddie Gray’s case so infuriating is that the facts are impossible to ignore: a man is dead; and, six trained professionals failed to do their job properly. The burden of proof is simple. When Gray was placed in the van he was responsive – having requested both an inhaler and medical attention. When he was removed from the van he was unresponsive. He died a week later in a hospital bed and his death was ruled a homicide. Somebody is responsible for his death!
Quick question: Why was Freddie Gray arrested in the first place? Was he arrested for resisting arrest? The officers’ charging documents state that Gray fled after making eye-contact with them. Is that a crime?
“Courts have allowed officers in high-crime areas to pursue individuals who see them and flee unprovoked, according to legal experts. But it can be more difficult to justify chasing someone who is simply running.”
— Catherine Rentz, “New details emerge about the morning Freddie Gray was arrested” for Baltimore Sun
OK, so now that we’re clear, what did the officers do once they caught up to Mr. Gray? Surely they informed him that looking at a cop and running is not permissible. They claimed that Gray surrendered voluntarily, which is absurd, who willingly throws themselves on the pavement and requests that a knee be placed on the back of their neck while their legs are bent towards their lower back?
The police van was requested at 8:42 a.m. — who wants to start their day that way?
He’s still alive at this point, screaming even about the pain in his wrists, but alive nevertheless and requesting an inhaler. At 9:33 a.m. a medical unit unsuccessfully attempts to resuscitate an unresponsive Gray for 21 minutes.
Imagine the shame and indignation of being thrown into a van by uniformed strangers, driven around aimlessly lying prostrate on your stomach behind steel shuttered doors. The last people who showed any concern for your well-being you saw almost an hour ago, assuring you everything would be alright because they’d filmed your arrest. It was needless for them to ask what crime you’d committed — there was none. Detaining you was done at the discretion of the arresting officers.
“Police have been beating the hell out of Black people for a very, very, very long time, before the advent of the video camera.” — Jesse Williams
Gray would die in a hospital bed at 7 a.m. on April 19, 2015, a week after his arrest, following two surgeries to repair his severed spinal cord, never waking from the trauma induced coma. There would be plenty of time to resolve loose ends in the stories from the six officers responsible for the well-being of Gray. Plenty. Of. Time. The hearing for the first of the six officers charged and placed on paid administrative leave, would not be held for six months. The first trial wouldn’t begin until December.
Collecting a paycheck for work not performed is a privilege reserved for Congressmen and Senators — elected officials. In this scenario, the police officers, charged with the death of a man whose “crime” was looking at a cop and running, got a vacation sponsored by taxpayers. Fret not, that’s how the criminal justice system works in this country.
Three of the six officers accused have seen their days in court. The first, Officer Porter, would end in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked on deciding whether he was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. Though, at least, Porter was tried in front of a jury.
The second, Officer Nero, would elect for a bench trial in May 2016, over a year since Freddie Gray’s death. Nero would not stand in front of a jury. He’d solely see a judge and be ruled not guilty on all charges. The charges Nero beat? Second degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office…
The third, Officer Goodson, smelling the water, would also elect for a bench trial. Goodson, the driver of the police van faced the most severe charges: second-degree depraved heart murder and manslaughter. The charge of depraved heart murder sought by the prosecution, led by State’s Attorney Mosby, accused Goodson of willingly jerking the vehicle around during the nearly hour long rough ride wherein Gray’s spine was 80 percent severed. Not guilty on all charges.
Goodson would later appeal to have his salary reinstated. The trials for the remaining three officers have yet to occur. Gray’s family will receive a death settlement of $6.4M, as announced by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
How hard is it to find someone guilty of homicide when there’s a lifeless body in your custody?
If I handcuffed one of my kids and drove around recklessly with them in the back of my minivan without a seatbelt, I’d be in jail. God forbid my child’s spine was severed in the process, I’d never see my other children again. While in jail, awaiting my hearing, I’d likely lose my job.
Say the stars aligned and I was found not guilty on any of the charges brought against me — think I’d be able to appeal for backpay from the job I lost? No, right? Because that would be ri-damn-diculous. So, why does it work any other way for six trained officers transporting a person they detained without cause?
What job exists where someone can die on your watch and you are sent home with pay for months? What career is there where you can be charged with misconduct, manslaughter and murder and be awarded a vacation to carefully consider the story to tell during your trial? In what line of work is it permissible to chase after someone for making eye-contact, fold their body in knots on a street corner, throw them into the back of a van and deny them medical attention for over 45 minutes?
The same police work resulting in predominantly Black people dying at the hands of agents of the white power structure in cities across the nation: New York City, Chicago and Ferguson.
“The Ferguson comparison is important, I think people reduce racism to individual...white folks in leadership, and black people who are succumbed to white folks…Baltimore shows the sophistication of white supremacy and how it operates, in how it takes Black figures, puts them in institutional positions to give the veneer of justice, when really the same institutional arrangement exists.” — Dayvon Love
Baltimore City is a special circle of hell for its inhabitants, victimized by failed railroad and steel industries, critically limited by lacking infrastructure, abandoned homes rife with lead paint, underfunded public school systems, riddled with epidemic rates of syphilis, heroin addiction and a dramatic spike in its homicide rate in 2015.
— Jess Bidgood, “The Numbers Behind Baltimore’s Record Year in Homicides” for New York Times
A man is critically injured (severed spine and crushed throat) while in police custody (read: police brutality), dies a week later, riots break out across the city, the Governor declares a state of emergency, calls the National Guard, requests an additional 5,000 officers from across the region, the Mayor cancels schools for days, leaving impoverished kids without regular meals, institutes a mandatory curfew, all while the frenzied media provides live newscasts and updated on-the-scene interviews with protesters. Yet, after all these catastrophic events unfold, the police commissioner is fired, the mayor elects not to seek reelection and shootings increase 72 percent, with 93 percent of the victims being Black. What in the entire f**k?
How does this happen? In a majority Black city with a Black Mayor (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake), Black Police Commissioner (Anthony Batts), Black State’s Attorney (Marilyn Mosby) and Black Congressman (Elijah Cummings)? #BlackLivesMatter, right?
Who’s not doing their job? Much suspicion is abound in homes throughout Baltimore City that the failures to quell the killings stem from a refusal by the police to perform their duties in the wake of the Baltimore Uprising. Of course, the police categorically deny this assertion. However, the same sentiment rings true in Chicago, where shooting deaths are also rampant. A police officer spoke on condition of anonymity for Vice News, saying:
“Respect for the police is very limited in certain areas of the city of Chicago. It’s become more and more difficult to police. I know a lot of really talent officers on the Chicago Police Department that aren’t doing anything. They’re afraid of getting jammed up, meaning sued or fired, for doing their job.
It used to be a job where it was fun to go out there and take guns and dope off the street. I feel as if our hands are tied now. And there’s a lot of bulls**t paperwork involved now that makes officers want to kind of really not be aggressive and fight crime. I think it makes them want to just pick up a pay check and say, “F**k this.”
Wow. So…because concerned citizens demand accountability from paid public servants when their friends, family and loved ones die, the job’s no fun anymore? Nothing ruins a workday like filling out paperwork when someone in your custody has their spine snapped. I can’t breathe.
Freddie Gray’s arrest, and subsequent death, demonstrates the status quo the police state foists on impoverished communities, persecuting its members for being publicly Black. The failure of the criminal justice system in this case harkens back to the period of antebellum slavery in America where patrolmen kidnapped and enslaved African people for failing to show their freedom papers, destroying Black bodies for not staying in the places determined for them by a society controlled by whites.
“What I’d like to see us do is return to a space where it’s OK for folks to be proud and outwardly Black in public and not have to feel like we have to be safe to live in white spaces, or to make everyone else comfortable when we’ve spent centuries being uncomfortable.” — Jesse Williams
How do we get there? In a climate of rampant police brutality, a surge of shooting deaths and a criminally deficient criminal justice system, it’s hard to see which way is up. There has been a lot of mobilizing in the year since Freddie Gray’s death. Thankfully, organizations like The Dream Defenders and efforts from #BlackLivesMatter are underway to keep our eyes on the prize.
“The data visualization project, released by the Black Lives Matter initiative Campaign Zero, looks at jurisdictions that dismiss police complaints, restrict or delay the interrogation of an officer, give officers compromising access to information, limit oversight or discipline, and either pay for, or erase records of, police misconduct.”
— Darren Sands, "New Report Details Barriers to Prosecuting Police Officers for Wrongdoing" for Buzzfeed News
Jesse Williams, in his epic acceptance speech at the BET Awards, mentioned “looking at the data.” Here’s some data to analyze: “In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve, according to an analysis of a government survey of police departments.” Seems odd to have a majority white police force in majority Black towns. There’s certainly plenty of unemployed Black folk. (sniffs air) Smells like institutional racism.
Absent of joining the rank and file of the police force, it may seem trite, but community policing is critical. No longer should we stand idly by, shaking our heads and simply raising our fists, when our brothers and sisters are being beaten and shot to death in the street. Let’s get in formation and police the police.
Keep the cameras trained on those officers. Vote out the district attorneys and police chiefs whom fail to seek justice. Write your congressmen and senators, demanding criminal justice reform, and petition for police accountability measures. Register for jury duty, so when an officer involved shooting is taken to trial, the victim has an advocate and peer in the juror’s box.
— David A. Graham, “What Can the U.S. Do to Improve Police Accountability?” for The Atlantic
(Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)