Sunday, May 10, 2015

The events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, from the perspective of someone living in Baltimore

by Clara Summers

"Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me
Open my heart, illumine me
Spirit Divine"

Over the past few weeks, I've had "Open My Eyes," a hymn by Clara H. Scott, stuck in my head. It has formed the backdrop of my experiences since the killing of Freddie Gray in police custody. Over the course of my lifetime, but particularly in this last year and past few weeks, I feel that my eyes have slowly been opened to the realities of racism in the United States--realities that I did not always see. What I've witnessed this year in Baltimore has blatantly highlighted the structural racism and disparities between white and black Americans. If you want to see some of the materials that have influenced/reflect my thoughts on race in the U.S., I recommend this and this and this and this.

So let's talk about what's been happening here in Baltimore. 

On April 12th, Freddie Gray, a black man in his mid-twenties, was arrested in the Sandtown neighborhood after making eye contact with police and then running. Police chased him down, searched him, said that the knife he had on his person was illegal, and arrested him. He requested medical attention. He was not buckled down in the van. The van made several stops, he was taken out once to be shackled, and by the time the van arrived at the Western Precinct station, Freddie Gray was unresponsive. His spine was reportedly 80% of the way severed at his neck.[1]  He was taken to a hospital, where he spent a week in a coma, and died.

Freddie Gray's death in police custody is only the most recent in decades of similar deaths, and only one of many horrifying miscarriages of force by the Baltimore City police department. It's been going on for a very long time. Only recently, however, have these deaths been highlighted in the media (notably, the death of Eric Garner in NYC and Michael Brown in Ferguson). Freddie Gray's death has to be viewed as part of a wider context of racism and police brutality, and here in Baltimore, people are justifiably fed up. In response, people took to the streets in peaceful protest, to demand the indictment of the police involved. A civilian was killed in police custody, and there needs to be accountability.

April 21st, at the beginning of the march to the Western Precinct
I joined one of the early protests in Sandtown on April 21st. The crowd, which was predominantly black and from the neighborhood, gathered at the intersection where Freddie Gray was arrested. From there we marched to the Western Precinct police station. The police presence was very visible, and there were three helicopters circling above (keep in mind that this was a completely peaceful protest and no violence whatsoever had yet broken out). In the crowd, we chanted things like "No justice, no peace" and "Hands up, don't shoot." The most heartbreaking thing for me that day was seeing all the little children who had already learned "hands up, don't shoot." A black father standing in front of me had his toddler son on his shoulders, and it was painful to watch them both raise their hands for the "hands up, don't shoot" chant. A little kid should not have to know something like that. By the time I left the protest, the crowd had swelled to several hundred. My friend and I passed six police on horseback on our way out.

Peaceful protests continued over the next few days, growing larger and larger each time. Despite the fact that they were peaceful, Gov. Hogan brought the State Troopers into Baltimore on Friday. The Fraternal Order of the Police issued a statement saying that they were concerned by the "rhetoric" of the protesters. Seriously? Us saying that the police involved should be tried for the death of a civilian in their custody is threatening? 

By Saturday, thousands of people were peacefully marching to demand justice for Freddie Gray. The protest was large and peaceful until just before the end, when a small group broke off and started vandalizing downtown (the police presence was also very large). From my friends who were present at the march, it also sounds as if Orioles fans leaving the stadium began heckling protesters and started some altercations. The family of Freddie Gray asked for a two-day moratorium on protests, as they held his wake and funeral on Sunday and Monday.

Monday has already become infamous, and I'm not going to dwell on it, except to say that what you're hearing about how it started is probably not accurate. The looting did hit our neighborhood and there were fires around the city. 

What I want to talk about is what happened next. Here is my account of what happened the day afterwards, on Tuesday, April 28th (originally written on Facebook): 

April 28th, in front of the National Guard in Sandtown
"This is how Baltimore does things: this morning, people across the city gathered to clean up the mess caused by looting and fires. Others made sandwiches for those cleaning the streets, or kids who didn't have school lunch to feed them (since all the public schools were closed). Churches opened up to be community centers for the day, feed people, and provide support. Prayer services, vigils, and conversations were held. And this afternoon and evening, at the same intersection where a CVS was looted and burned yesterday, people prayed together, sang songs, roller skated, danced, played the drums, and connected with members of their community. Given that this was right in front of the National Guard and police in full riot gear, this was an amazing show of restraint. My housemates and I came to join what we thought would be another demonstration, and it was a demonstration: a demonstration of resilience and deep love for the community. ‪#‎BaltimoreStrong‬ ‪#‎BaltimoreCoverageYouMayNotSee‬"

Since that day, I've been to two more demonstrations and another prayer service. Throughout this time, the word that I have heard repeated over and over again is "community." Baltimoreans care deeply for their city, and this whole year I've been struck by all of the amazing, thoughtful work that everyone I meet here is doing to make things better. So if I'm completely honest, I've spent the past two weeks full of frustration and rage at how most media around this issue has focused on the violence and characterized people as thugs. While I don't believe that violence is ever a solution, for once in my life, I'm having difficulty outright condemning it. People protested peacefully for a full week before any violence broke out, and yet no one could be bothered to pay attention to the death of a civilian until the rioting. 

We need to be a society that has a more nuanced definition of violence. To quote Rev. Heber Brown III, who has been one of the leading clergy on this issue, "Violence is not broken windows, violence is lead in the water pipes." In Baltimore and throughout this country, people of color have suffered from the violence of police brutality, from the violence of poverty, from the violence of disinvestment in communities, from the violence of housing segregation, from the violence of environmental racism...the list goes on. Why are we so quick to condemn broken windows, and so slow to condemn systems that have allowed so many people of color to be killed in police custody, with no accountability for their killers? It's infuriating, and I understand why people were angry enough to riot. 
May 1st, marching Downtown

There's so much more I want to say. The city looks like a war zone because of the National Guard presence. Curfew is being enforced unequally. Police presence at protests is different depending on whether the march is members of the community in Sandtown versus students in Downtown. But I'm not going to get to all of that.

While I am frustrated and angry, I do have hope. Baltimore is resilient and the people here live the meaning of "community" in a way I haven't encountered anywhere else. Protests have continued (again, peacefully), and conversations about the underlying issues that led up to Freddie Gray's death are being had in thoughtful and critical ways. State Attorney Marilyn Mosby is bringing charges against the six police involved. For myself, I will continue to peacefully protest, and call for a fair trial. I will continue to work for a more nuanced understanding of what violence is, and I will pray that we as a country have come to a tipping point where we will have the difficult discussions that need to be had and do the difficult things that need to be done to truly bring about liberty and justice for all. 

Open my eyes, that I may see. 

You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Leviticus 19:16