Why Is Freddie Gray Dead?

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Photo: Shawn Hubbard

Demonstrations over the death of Freddie Gray have been continuing in Baltimore for more than a week now, and yesterday’s was the largest yet. But despite the alarming details of Gray’s death (he came out of a police paddywagon with his spine snapped), the protests have not escalated as they did in Ferguson. One reason is that virtually everyone in Baltimore — even virtually everyone in power in Baltimore — seems to be on the same side. The Gray family’s friends and the minister leading the neighborhood protests have had kind words for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, both of whom are African-American, and were photographed with their arms draped around Batts in solidarity.  The police department yesterday tweeted its thanks to the protestors for remaining calm. When a protestor accidentally dropped a sign saying Police: Public Enemy #1 over a barricade, a cop on the other side (“Mr Friend, who we grew up with”) calmly picked it up and handed it back to her. In the midst of the demonstration yesterday, the Baltimore Sun’s Colin Campbell overheard a protestor asking a black sergeant why he was a cop, anyway. “Shooting on Harlem Avenue? Someone’s gotta be there for that family too,” the sergeant said. Good points all around.

I’ve lived in Baltimore for the past five years, which has done a little to hone my ear for the etymology of street demonstrations. There is a real difference, I’ve learned, between a protest and a march. A protest is a rarer, angrier, larger event. The demonstrations in Baltimore after Ferguson, were protests, for instance, and they shut the whole city down. But in Baltimore, there are marches all the time. There are marches for responsible black fatherhood. There are marches — many marches — against the plagues of violence and crime. You protest against some particular act of villainy, usually committed by someone in power, and you protest seeking punishment for the villains, and a policy correction. You march against intractable social situations. Civic leaders march often, but never protest. The Freddie Gray demonstrations have been both at once, a march and a protest. The city’s leadership has not joined these demonstrations but has praised them. There is an ambiguity in Baltimore that there never was in Ferguson.

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Photo: Shawn Hubbard

But the difficult, unambiguous fact is that, as they say, Freddie’s dead. Eyed by a cop on a corner outside a West Baltimore housing project, Gray ran. The police chased him, subdued him, and (according to court documents) found a switchblade knife. Gray was arrested and put into a police van, where he asked for medical help and at first did not receive it; within 30 minutes, he had to be taken to a hospital where he lapsed into a coma and died. The police commissioner and mayor have both said that the officers, most but not all of whom were white, should have asked for medical help sooner, that they were slow to recognize that Gray’s life was in danger. Details beyond that likely won’t come for another few weeks, until the police finish their investigation.

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Photo: Shawn Hubbard

It’s possible that then we’ll learn that one of the officers involved did something horrific, and directly caused Gray’s death by action or willful negligence, and that this case will wind up looking a little more like Michael Brown’s murder than it does right now. Certainly given the history of police brutality in Baltimore, you can’t rule it out. But the Freddie Gray case feels to me less outrageous than simply tragic. There is nothing like the overt racism of Ferguson here, no predatory relationship between the city’s leadership and its people. And yet the man is still dead, for no reason at all.

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Photo: Shawn Hubbard

I’m biased, being a daily reader, but I think the Baltimore Sun, despite a decade spent on the brink of extinction, still operates one of the premier “Metro” sections on the planet. In its pages, the city comes to life as a specific place, its people vivid, not the generic, almost-algorithmic clash of social groups and political constituencies and power you find in many depleted newspaper B-sections. Today’s story on Freddie Gray’s early life is particularly vivid, and depressing. Gray’s mother said in court testimony that she had never learned to read, and that she had sniffed heroin daily from the age of 23. He and his two siblings grew up in a house saturated with lead paint, and they had problems typically associated with lead exposure: ADHD, medical and behavioral issues. (Later, they would win a lead paint suit against the landlord.) In this mess, you can find people to blame: the landlord, certainly, maybe even the mother. But really their failures pale against the more intractable background conditions of extreme inner-city poverty, and exist within it.

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Photo: Shawn Hubbard

It may be that Freddie Gray’s death too (unlike, say, Tamir Rice’s or Michael Brown’s) has less to do with villainy than tragedy, less to do with racism than race. Why did Freddie Gray run from the cops? One reason is likely that he feared that if he stood still he’d be killed in exactly the way he was. Why did the cops handle him so violently? One reason is likely that their experience in this neighborhood taught them that a man who runs when a police officer eyes him is likely a violent threat to someone else in the neighborhood, or them, or himself. And why are there so many cops hanging around the Gillmor Homes in the first place? 

These are all bad imbalances — injustices, the demonstrators would call them, rightly — tied up in racial mistreatment. But they are also more ingrained and complicated to unwind than the vivid violations in Ferguson or Cleveland. They are the kind of imbalances that necessitate not a protest, but its much less satisfying kin: a march.