I was seething inside as I watched the live television coverage of the recent rebellion/riot in Baltimore as we witnessed yet another explosion caused by America’s historic failures to rein in abusive police. Then I received a text message that led to a conversation that absolutely broke my heart.
The conversation was with my 11-year-old grandson, who himself was seething from what he saw going on in Baltimore.
My grandson told me he was mad…mad because police “keep killing black men.”
When I probed further into his anger he said he feared for his own life -– not because of what might happen when he gets older but because of what could happen even now if he encountered a police officer.
“I’m scared Pop Pop,” he confided. “I’m scared that police might hurt me. I’m scared because police don’t know how to control themselves!”
The heartbreak of hearing my own grandson’s fear was compounded by the ugly reality that the thing he now fears is a daily fact-of-life for children living in East Baltimore and too many similar places across America.
Children should be focused on fun, like enjoying those computer games they like to play, instead of fearing police violence arising from the reality that too many cops really cannot “control” themselves.
In Maryland, where my grandson lives, at least 109 people died in encounters with police between 2010 and 2014, according to a report released by Maryland’s ACLU just weeks before Baltimore burned. Blacks accounted for 79 percent of those fatal police encounters in a state where Blacks comprise only 29 percent of the population. “The number of unarmed Blacks who died (36 people) exceeded the total number of all Whites who died (30 people), armed or not,” that ACLU report stated, noting police were charged with criminal misconduct in only two of those 109 fatal encounters.
Baltimore police have been out of control for decades.
In May 1946 -– four years before I was born -– Baltimore police shot and killed two black men within a 24-hour span: one for resisting arrest, the other shot in the back while fleeing. Authorities filed no charges against the police.
In June 1964 – when I was a little older than my grandson –- Baltimore police severely beat a black man and ransacked his home after he verbally objected to police abusing a woman on the sidewalk in front of his house. That vicious beating occurred days after Baltimore police fatally beat another black man who had just celebrated his 19th wedding anniversary. Authorities filed no charges against police in either encounter.
Last October prosecutors declined to file charges against Baltimore police who repeatedly struck a black teen they were trying to subdue inside a hospital emergency room. Those police also shot the teen six times with a Taser.
Prosecutors claimed that the teen’s “natural causes” death probably resulted from his meningitis and not from the police blows, choking or repeated use of the Taser. Given the fact that meningitis attacks the brain and spine, making those organs particularly vulnerable, the claims of prosecutors dismissing the impact of police force in that teen’s death seems quite a stretch. Baltimore activists held protests over that teen’s death weeks before the April 2015 police death of Freddie Gray –- the fatal encounter that triggered the recent rebellion/riot.
If past practice is any predictor of the future, that rebellion/riot in Baltimore will produce impassioned rhetoric from officials but few substantive reforms.
Maryland police unions, this year, successfully lobbied the state legislature to strip two key provisions from police reform legislation: a civilian review process and state prosecutors investigating all killings by police. Those provisions mirror reform recommendations released weeks ago by the police practices commission President Obama appointed last year in the wake of riots in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
Maryland police union officials and their confederates in the legislature claimed the current system of police policing themselves is working well –- an assertion that many across Baltimore and beyond see as laughable.
The day after authorities announced indictments against the six Baltimore police officers involved in the fatal arrest of Freddie Gray, I took my grandson for a walk along the Chesapeake Bay. Our conversation returned to computer games, with him telling me about the You Tube site he and four buddies are building.
I did provide some tips to my grandson about how to handle himself if he has an encounter with police – reinforcing what his mother has told him repeatedly. He agreed with me that using his head and not his mouth was a better approach. Yet I kept coming back to this scary reality: the arbitrary nature of lawlessness by police could put a cop’s bullet in the back of him or me at anytime.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia..