Without minimalising the fact that another man has died in the custody of a group existing in theory to serve and protect, there are, as there always are, plenty of issues found at the centre of what happened on 12 April in Baltimore.
Last Friday, 1 May, nearly three weeks after Freddie Gray was arrested and nearly two weeks after he died, Marilyn Mosby, Maryland state’s attorney for Baltimore City, made public a timeline of events determined from investigation into Gray’s arrest and the violent treatment that ultimately resulted in his death in police custody. ‘On April 12, 2015,’ Mosby chronicled, ‘…Lt. Rice of the Balitmore Police Department while on bike patrol with Officer Garrett Miller and Edward Nero made eye contact with Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr. Having made eye contact with Mr. Gray, Mr. Gray subsequently ran from Lt. Rice.’
In Democracy Now!‘s ongoing coverage of this story, Amy Goodman asked some of her guests about this specific detail, including Lawrence Bell, the former President of the Baltimore City Council. ‘Would you call stopping a man while he’s running racial profiling?’ Goodman asked Bell. ‘Again, the police union attorney said [on 22 April] in the news conference that if they’re running in a high-crime area, that’s cause enough.’
Bell answered: ‘I think these people need to study the law, because there is a concept of probable cause that exists. And I think it’s absurd to say that somebody simply running, after they make eye contact with a police officer, is probable cause.’ Bell then dug into what he perceived was the real issue: ‘There is a question of how [police officers] perceive black men. The perception of black men and the value of black men is on display right now, when we see these kinds of incidents go on.’
During Gray’s apprehension, the three officers initially on the scene found a knife clipped to the inside of Gray’s pants pocket. Mosby explained Friday that ‘the knife was not a switchblade and is lawful under Maryland law,’ therefore the officers committing the arrest ‘failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray’s arrest as no crime had been committed by Mr. Gray.’
Ultimately, Mosby and her team of independent investigators concluded that there was significantly more probable cause for bringing charges on the six police officers involved than there ever was for Gray’s arrest to begin with.
For many people who have never lived in ‘high-crime areas’, this idea of ‘running while black’ is perhaps lesser known than its equally problematic cousin, ‘driving while black’. What makes the former even more complex is that, in many of these heavily-policed neighbourhoods, running from law enforcement is a learned facet of everyday life.
Zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime crackdowns have, over the course of decades, infringed increasingly on basic level human rights in these neighbourhoods. Law enforcement in these areas, and increasingly moreso before the eyes of the nation, have adopted a reputation of an organisation abusing its power, backed by a seemingly impenetrable no-snitch brotherhood, hiding behind a figurehead of principled, righteous, and lawful authority—an organisation that, in many ways, needs policing itself. The communities being policed—’served’ sounds inaccurate—simply do not see cooperation with law enforcement resulting in any positive outcome whatsoever on their behalf, their trust in police unquestioningly giving way to fear, powerlessness, and hatred. In these neighbourhoods, where police presence is not only ubiquitous but oppressive and harassing, there usually involves a code of the streets, one built around a daily existence somewhat akin to living like a fugitive on the run, except these people find themselves in these situations while free in their own communities.
Whether or not certain individuals in these neighbourhoods have outstanding warrants is not the point. America is the biggest jailer in the world. In the preface of her book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, sociologist Alice Goffman writes
The fivefold increase in the number of people sitting in US jails and prisons over the last forty years has prompted little public outcry. In fact, many people scarcely notice this shift, because the growing number of prisoners are drawn disproportionately from poor and segregated Black communities. Black people make up 13 percent of the US population, but account for 37 percent of the prison population. Among Black young men, one in nine are in prison, compared with less than 2 percent of white young men. These racial differences are reinforced by class differences. It is poor Black young men who are being sent to prison at truly astounding rates: approximately 60 percent of those who did not finish high school will go to prison by their midthirties.
The point then, or one of them, is what Lawrence Bell spoke of above: the perception of black men and the value of their lives.
Through field notes and the eventual writing of On the Run, all of which amounted to ten years of work, Goffman chronicled situations, everyday non-issues for many people who live at least one class level up from her subjects, that become difficult or nearly impossible for black men to deal with because of the community in which they live. Oftentimes these situations that involve more swift, at times illegal manoeuvring in efforts to achieve what one would assume to be a basic right of freedom, without exacerbating their legally entangled standing in society.
For instance, many of the black men that Goffman chronicled had warrants out for offenses like failing to pay court fees or violating probation for breaking curfew or driving. As a result, these men would not feel safe enough to visit someone in the hospital, either someone close to them who had been hurt or even the birth of his child, since law enforcement in such communities are known to run names from hospital visitors lists for outstanding warrants. The same goes for attending funerals. If the deceased was the victim of a violent crime, or if he had any ties whatsoever to gangs or the illegal economy, men with warrants will know better than to show up and pay their respects, since the police will park nearby and try to capture images and video of the attending mourners.
No matter how many times an incident involving a black man brutalised by police occurs, whether it is caught on camera or not, a chain reaction swiftly follows. Though in most cases, a crucial link, that of accountability, fails to connect to the rest of the chain. It is a major reason, perhaps the biggest reason following the issue of racism itself, that these unjust acts continue to occur. As we wait to find out whether the charges against the six police officers involved in the Freddie Gray case become convictions, we must hope that whatever happens between now and then will be steps in the right direction, not only for peace and safety for black men and the families who fear for them, but for the police as well. One Baltimore protester said it perfectly: a bad cop will make a good cop look bad.