FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Deadly Eye Contact: Freddie Gray and the Baltimore Police

by

Like many other folks, I’ve been following the protests in Baltimore around the manslaughter of the young Black Baltimore man who “died in police custody” on April 19, 2015. Every day the protests demanding the arrest of the officers involved grow larger. Major League Baseball fans are concerned about missing their games as organizers talk about shutting Baltimore down. The suburbs in between Baltimore and its southern neighbor Washington, DC adjust their attention span to the news about this incident primarily according to the darkness of their skin. In other words, the broken spine of Freddie Gray has much more meaning to the dark-skinned suburbanites than it does to most other suburban dwellers.

Baltimore is not a pretty town. Sure, they’ve prettied up the Inner Harbor in a very modern capitalist manner; in other words, restaurants, shopping malls and museums. These areas are primarily populated with tourists, office workers and sports fans. Outside of this zone is where the desperation of neoliberal capitalism’s castoffs is palpable. It is nothing the authorities and their supporters want to get riled up. Just like in other communities left behind by neoliberal capitalism, the means to repress and suppress the anger and desperation felt by the residents of West Baltimore (where Freddie Gray was killed) include the illegal drug business, minimum wage jobs and plain old police brutality. This vicious brew of oppression is present in other parts of Baltimore, too, but the Western District is where the repression is currently the starkest.

I used to go into Baltimore in the mid-1970s. For the most part, I would spend time in Lexington Market and down along the harbor (which was still a mostly working harbor then.) Two or three times I went into West Baltimore with a couple African-American friends. We hit a couple after-hours clubs for some drinking and gambling. I was one of perhaps two or three white males present. I was reminded by various individuals that my presence was not challenged only because my friends were well-liked. Therefore, I should stay near them at all times and leave the women alone, no matter what color their skin was. No one ever hurt me or threatened to hurt me. In fact, the clubs (which were usually located in someone’s apartment or in the back of a tavern) were pretty peaceful. Anybody who was too intoxicated was not allowed in or made to leave. No guns were visible on anyone, although it was assumed they were present in the room. Outside the walls of these clubs was where the violence was occurring. Much of it was what you might call typical Saturday night violence–brawling over women and maybe some turf battles. The rest of it was caused by the police. They stopped whomever they felt like stopping and they beat whomever they felt like beating. Most of the cops were white then, although there were a few African-American men in blue, too.

I also had some friends in the Navy who liked to take their shore leave on Baltimore’s Block. This three or four block section of Baltimore was right next to the city jail. It was where the sleazy strip joints and the hookers were. Cops walked the district in pairs, checking in on the bars, getting their favors and harassing drunken sailors and white suburbanites in town for a drunken good time. The vibe was different on the Block than it was in West Baltimore. The men in the Block were tourists compared to those who lived and ran the western district. Plus, the Block’s visitors were primarily white, like the police.

When I lived in California’s East Bay a bit later in the 1970s, the Berkeley cops had my number. They would stop me whenever they felt like it and search me. If I refused to go along with their game, they brought me to one of the police stations and put me in a holding cell. Sometimes they roughed me up a little, but not that often. Back then Berkeley citizens watched the police like hawks and the cops knew it. I wasn’t alone in dealing with this harassment. Every single longhaired white guy and every Black guy dealt with it, too (the Blacks were still more likely to end up dead.) Of course, when we saw the police coming, we tried our best to walk away unnoticed. Some guys rode bikes all the time so they could flee more quickly. The only reason I mention this is to point out that I know what it means to be harassed by the police for no particular reason other than the suspicions they entertain based on their prejudices.

That is why Freddie Gray is dead. According to various police statements Gray “made eye contact” with a couple cops and tried to leave the area. The police took him down, put their knees in his back, arrested him and threw him in the police van. Somewhere in this process, his neck was broken and he died. Like so many others before him, the cops thought they could get away with it. Not anymore. The most put upon members of US society–the working class Black community–are fighting back. Again. The brutal suppression of their rights by the police forces in their communities that all too often ends up in the death of an unarmed citizen at the hands of those police is being challenged. The demands of those protesting these deaths usually ask for arrests of the cops involved and charges. They are not radical demands, just demands for fair treatment. Yet, in a nation created on the backs of African slaves and dependent on the repression of those considered unnecessary to the economic well-being of the mostly white ruling class, demands for fairness from the most oppressed sectors of society are radical.

The grotesque death of ‎Freddie Gray is the latest in a series of in-custody deaths at the hands of Baltimore Police. Baltimore Police Department officers have been involved in 109 homicides since 2014, and the city has paid out $6 million to settle cases by victims of police violence–just since 2011. Indeed, a recent Atlantic piece on the magazine’s website catalogues anecdotes of police abuse cases involving elderly women, teens, and pretty much every other kind of person who lives in Baltimore. Many of the cases reported there resulted in cash payouts to the victims or their families when illegal wrongdoing by the police was found.

Then, of course, there is the footage from cellphones, TV cameras and other devices of the police handling of protesters during the week following Gray’s death. Like their cohorts in supposedly more racist parts of the country, the Baltimore cops attacked protesters at will. They also attacked the press. It’s not only as if they have been given the go-ahead to beat whomever they want as a matter of policy, it’s like those cops with violent tendencies are encouraged to act out those tendencies without fear of repercussion. Furthermore, despite the photographic evidence to the contrary, the assaults by police are almost universally explained away by the mainstream media and most authorities.

In 1970, some communities in the United States, spurred on by the Black Panther Party and other Left political groupings, began a campaign for community control of the police. Unlike one current approach known as community policing, which involves the use of neighborhood watches, informants and police sidling up to various groups and individuals in targeted communities, community control of the police meant that officers would be elected by those people living in the district the officers would be patrolling. Furthermore, the cops would have to live in the district they patrolled and would be subject to recall and review by councils composed of local residents. One idea behind the concept was to rid the communities (especially non-white ones) from the occupation forces most police agencies are. Another aspect was that the police would be answerable to the neighborhood they patrolled, not the police department administration or other officials more beholden to the monied interests in a city than to the residents of working class districts. It might prove interesting to re-examine this approach today. Then again, it might be well past the time such a reform would make any difference.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

 

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Convention Con
Lewis Evans
Executing Children Won’t Save the Tiger or the Rhino
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
Chris Odinet
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
David Rovics
The Republicans and Democrats Have Now Switched Places
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Rev. William Alberts
“Law and Order:” Code words for White Lives Matter Most
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
The Artistic Representation of War and Peace, Politics and the Global Crisis
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Elliot Sperber
Pseudo-Democracy, Reparations, and Actual Democracy
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Kathleen Wallace
Feel the About Turn
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Phillip Kim et al.
Open Letter to Bernie Sanders from Former Campaign Staffers
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
Charles R. Larson
Review: B. George’s “The Death of Rex Ndongo”
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail