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: firstname.lastname@example.org.