Philadelphians don’t have any problem figuring out what happened to Freddie Gray, the 25-year old black man who died as a result of a severed spine at the neck while being transported in a police van by Baltimore Police.
Here in Philadelphia, Police have long enjoyed giving arrested men who mouth off to them during arrests what is known fondly in the department as a “nickel ride.” That’s where they put the prisoner in the back of the van, hands bound behind their backs so they cannot hold on to anything or protect themselves, and otherwise unrestrained. Then the driver of the vehicle accelerates repeatedly, whips around corners and periodically slams on the breaks, causing the helpless captive in the back to slam against various parts of the vehicle, often with his head.
Back in 2001, an investigative journalism series run by the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed the practice, which had led to numerous injuries of arrested people, and to secret payouts by the department to some of those most grievously hurt, including one man who was paralyzed from the neck down by a spinal injury similar to that suffered by Gray. He received a payment of $1.2 million, the newspaper reported.
The Inquirer exposé led calls for a halt to the criminal practice, but a 2013 article in the same publication reported that police were back at it again, with at least three serious incidents that led to a lawsuit against the department. One of those victims, 31-year-old Ryan Roberts, a burglary suspect, was delivered to the hospital with injuries all over his body, including to the back of his head. He died later. Though the cause of death was listed by the hospital as “cocaine intoxication,” the lawsuit alleges that he died of his injuries, sustained in the van ride, when he was left unrestrained in the back of the vehicle.
In the Baltimore case, a lawyer hired by Gray’s family says that though he was dragged, unresisting, into the van at the time police picked him up, and was yelling at the cops holding him, when he arrived at the hospital, he was immobile and his spine was “80-percent severed” at the neck. That’s the kind of injury that is hard to cause without a brutal amount of force — the kind of thing that could only be delivered by a deliberate twisting of the neck, or by the body being rammed against an immovable object — exactly the kind of thing that can happen in a Philadelphia Police van “nickel ride.”
Baltimore, a city with a large African American population, and a police department that has a history of abusive arrests, is reportedly on edge. The mayor and the police chief have both expressed concern about Gray’s death and an investigation is underway into what happened, with six officers involved in his detention and in the van ride currently suspended, but so far, city officials have been circumspect, saying they don’t know what happened between the time of his arrest, when he was seen shouting and later reportedly asking for help, and his delivery to the hospital, when he was no longer talking or breathing.
But they aren’t talking about the obvious reality a spine isn’t something that gets broken during a van ride, unless the victim has been left unrestrained in the back, and unless the driver is deliberately driving recklessly in an attempt to seriously hurt you.
This is just the latest example of a nationwide problem: murderous police brutality directed against the poor, and especially against blacks and latinos and other people of color.
Viewed from Philadelphia, what happened to Freddie Gray appears to be no less a murder than the gunning down of Walter Scott with five shots to the back by a North Charleston, SC police officer.
Until police start doing serious time for these crimes, and until the politicians who hire them and keep them on the street start losing their jobs, they will keep occurring.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).