The announcement by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby that the six officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray will be prosecuted was welcomed with cheers at City Hall and in Freddie Gray’s community, car horns were honked in celebration. The welcome announcement is a first step toward justice for the family of Freddie Gray and a hopeful beginning for the kind of accountability that has been missing in Baltimore when it comes to police violence.
This would probably not have occurred without an urban revolt in Baltimore. We won’t know if it was the mass protest marches of thousands of people or the anger boiling over into rage that led to property damage or both that pressured leadership to press charges. We do know that the week after Freddie Gray’s death, Baltimore police were harassing students at the Mondawmin Mall, making unnecessary arrests of students waiting for their buses. On Monday, the day of Freddie’s funeral, police diverted buses from the mall because of Internet rumors, making it impossible for students to go home. Dressed in full riot gear, police created an escalated situation that began the so-called riots. The previous night, conflicts between baseball fans and protesters had erupted into violence.
National Guard patrols Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. RT
The state and city governments declared a state of emergency, with the governor calling in police from all over the state along with the National Guard. This was an over-reaction as the community calmed itself. By the next morning, teams of volunteers came out to clean up the mess made the day before and community leaders and protest organizers planned nonviolent protests where the atmosphere was peaceful. The following protests turned away from violence and grew into a massive force, led by young African Americans and joined by people of all races and ages. Participating in those protests was a joyful and powerful experience which we hope is the beginning of people demanding long overdue change in policing and economic justice.
On Friday, announcing the charges, State’s Attorney Mosby said to the protesters: “I commend your courage to stand for justice” and “I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.” And, to the youth who led the protests she said:
“To the youth of this city, I will seek justice on your behalf; this is a moment, this is your moment. Let’s ensure that we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause, and as young people, our time is now.”
There is concern that Mosby did not mention the beating of Freddie Gray that took place before he was put in the police van. Videos and testimony indicate this was an important contributing factor in Gray’s death. For Mosby not to mention this, and not charge those who did the beating with murder may be a fatal error in the prosecution. In our view all six officers should have been charged as accomplices to murder, not just the driver (who happens to be African American).
Demonstrators march in Baltimore. Reuters. Eric Thayer.
The protests in Baltimore, being led by African American youth, have been unifying the city to force Baltimore to face up to a long-standing problem of widespread police abuse. The killing of Freddie Gray has become the tipping point of opposition to police violence that has been out-of-control since Martin O’Malley served as mayor and instituted a policy of mass arrests without probable cause. O’Malley’s police arrested one sixth of the Baltimore population and most were not charged but were held overnight in jail. O’Malley’s abuse of power, which resulted in an $850,000 court settlement, should make us concerned about the possibility of O’Malley becoming president. How would he abuse his power as commander-in-chief?
The Baltimore police have been leaking information to paint the absurd picture that Freddie Gray broke his own neck and crushed his voice box in the van as well as other false statements. This physical impossibility was being taken seriously by the corporate media, but it is a story made up of falsehoods and outright lies.
Killing of Freddie Gray Is One of Many Police Abuses That Escalated During Mayor Martin O’Malley’s Term In Office
The killing of Freddie Gray comes in the context of a police force that has been out of control for years. The Baltimore Sun published a detailed examination of police abuse that paints a horrifying picture of widespread, brutal violence against African Americans. There is probably not an African American family that has not been touched by police violence. From 2011 to 2014 Baltimore paid $5.7 million in settlements to people abused by the police. Conor Fiedersdorf described the types of people violently assaulted by Baltimore police:
“Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.”
The property damage has been the focus of the media and public officials, even though the cause of the urban revolt was police violence. The exaggerated claims of race war by right wing extremists should not be used to escalate divisions and allow more police violence. To those moderate liberals who decry the actions of protesters, remember the words written by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was in a Birmingham jail:
“…the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
Max Rameau applies these lessons to Baltimore arguing that “urban rebellions work,” explaining:
“The costs associated with urban rebellions- in profits, government budgets and even global prestige- and the fear of even greater costs through continued or spreading rebellions, is of such great consequence, that those in power are suddenly confronted with an actual dilemma: do we continue unequivocal support for the armed wing of the system (the police) and incur the wrath of oppressed Black people OR do we indict them for actual crimes (not the same as throwing them under the bus) and take some steam out of the rebellion?
“If you believe nothing else, believe this: when it costs more to maintain systems of injustice than to end them, those systems will end. Spontaneous urban rebellions cost the system millions. Just imagine the unjust systems we will destroy with organized rebellion.”
Orioles play to empty stadium, April 29, 2015. AP Gail Burton.
You could see the cost of the urban rebellion when the Baltimore Orioles played a baseball game to an empty stadium. Perhaps this began to show the government that the potential of future rebellions would cost more than protecting the system of injustice.
The African American community in Baltimore has been oppressed for a very long time. Their oppression is often ignored by white residents and supported by the power structure, whether it was white or black. Our role as Caucasian activists is not to dictate how that community responds to intense, ongoing abuse but to play a supportive role, following their lead and demanding justice.
Connecting Police Abuse to Economic Unfairness
As many have reported there are two Baltimore’s, one is impoverished and living in some of the worst conditions in the United States; the other is wealthy or at least solidly middle class. When the economic divisions are examined they are stark. At an economic democracy conference we organized in Baltimore in 2014, Building Our New Economy Together, John Morris, the dean of the Sojourner Douglass Urban Planning Department gave a presentation on the wealth and income divide and Baltimore and what needs to be done about it.
There are lots of shocking statistics on Baltimore’s racial disparity. Here are some:
- White babies born in Baltimore have six more years of life expectancy than African American babies in the city.
- African Americans in Baltimore are eight times more likely to die from complications of HIV/AIDS than whites and twice as likely to die from diabetes related causes as whites.
- Unemployment is 8.4 percent city wide. Most estimates place the unemployment in the African American community at double that of the white community. The national rate of unemployment for whites is 4.7 percent, for blacks it is 10.1.
- African American babies in Baltimore are nine times more likely to die before age one than white infants in the city.
- There is a twenty year difference in life expectancy between those who live in the most affluent neighborhood in Baltimore versus those who live six miles away in the most impoverished.
- 148,000 people, or 23.8 percent of the people in Baltimore, live below the official poverty level.
Photo from The Blue Planet Project
In Baltimore the latest horror being put onto the already poor and struggling is the shutting off of water to 25,000 homes. If carried out this could impact 100,000 or more residents. The cost of water has been rapidly increasing in Baltimore, now one-third of Baltimore residents cannot afford the cost of water. This is an example of a failed system as the city is pursuing these small debtors while large water debtors, the big business interests in Baltimore, do not have their water shut-off despite large unpaid bills. This is, once again an example of a corrupt system of government that represents money more than it represents people.
Urban Revolts Are the Price Of Decades Of Abuse, Inequality and Neglect
Neither the police violence in Baltimore’s black communities nor the economic disparities are unique to Baltimore. Perhaps this is why there have been solidarity actions in cities from coast to coast. In Oakland, workers shut down the port to protest police violence. In New York, Black Lives Matters protesters held a creative action to remember those who will not reach adulthood at a Forever 21 store in Union Square. A few days later, the new NYPD ‘protest squad’ violently arrested more than 150 peaceful protesters in the same area. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come because the government is viewing Black Lives Matter organizers as a terrorist group.
Peaceful protester taken from Union Square on April 29, 2015. Reuters. Andrew Kelly.
It is important to remember these disparities are signs of a failed system, a system that has never provided equal access to education, healthcare, employment or opportunity. This is an indictment of a failed economic and governance policies that gives privilege to white communities at the expense of black communities. These are symptoms decades of systemic oppression.
In 1968 the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after a series of urban riots concluded:
“…the nation was ‘moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.’ Unless conditions were remedied, the Commission warned, the country faced a ‘system of ’apartheid’’ in its major cities. The Kerner report delivered an indictment of ‘white society’ for isolating and neglecting African Americans and urged legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing.”
Johnson did not act on the recommendations as he continued pouring money into the Vietnam War instead. Dr. King was assassinated one month later as he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, a massive march and occupation of Washington, DC. After his death 100 cities rioted. In 1998, 30 years later, “former Senator and Commission member Fred R. Harris co-authored a study that found the racial divide had grown in the ensuing years with inner-city unemployment at crisis levels.” Today, the crisis in urban America continues and is once again boiling over.
Black Lives Matter does not only mean an end to police killings of unarmed African Americans but facing up to decades of neglect on a whole host of issues. We must make the connections between “broke cities and broken lives” caused by the crisis of urban America. There is anew generation of urban black radicalswho are making the connections between the unfair economy, racism and brutal policing. They recognize there is a human right to resistance. So, if the United States fails to face up to these issues the power structure should expect more urban revolts.
Another opportunity to come together and use our power to demand changes is the Million Moms March organized by the mother of Dontre Hamilton and other mothers whose children have been killed by police and vigilantes. The Million Moms March is Saturday, May 9, in Washington, DC. We hope you will support it in any way that you can by being there, making a donation and spreading the word through your social media. We must come together to say that there can be no more killing of our black and brown children!
~ Kevin Zeese serves as Attorney General at the Green Shadow Cabinet