Freddie Gray’s unexplained death may have been the catalyst for the current unrest in Baltimore, but with a fuller understanding of the lived experiences of Black people in the city, it’s easy to see that this current boiling point was inevitable. Longtime resident and reporter Michael Fletcher wrote recently in the Washington Post, “Baltimore has been a combustible mix of poverty, crime, and hopelessness, uncomfortably juxtaposed against rich history, friendly people, venerable institutions and pockets of old-money affluence.”
President Obama echoed this sentiment on Tuesday afternoon, saying of the unrest, “This has been a slow rolling crisis. [I]f we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It's just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant, and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids and we think they're important and they shouldn't be living in poverty and violence."
Here’s a brief recap of how we got here:
According to reports, at 8:39 a.m. on April 12th, 25-year-old Freddie Gray made eye contact with a police officer near the corner of W. North Avenue and N. Mount Street. For reasons unknown, Gray ran. Four police officers on bicycles pursued and arrested Gray, then put him in the back of a police van for transport to the police station. The officers would later file a report saying that he was taken into custody without incident.
But video footage of the incident tells a different story. In the video, captured by a nearby civilian, Gray’s body is limp as officers drag him into the van. Gray can also be heard yelling in pain. What transpired en route to central booking is unknown, but what we do know is that Gray suffered an 80 percent severed spine, and died a week after being detained by police.
Baltimore law enforcement officials have yet to release a statement or a detailed report of how Gray sustained his fatal injuries (An update is expected this Friday, May 1st). Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said Gray’s death in police custody is unacceptable and she “wants answers.” She has since called for an independent investigation into Gray’s death. The Department of Justice swiftly announced they would open a criminal investigation into how Gray died, but public dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency and accountability is at a tipping point.
Baltimore’s stop-and-frisk policies increase citizen run-ins with the police that often turn deadly. According to the Baltimore Sun, “The per capita arrest rate for African-Americans in Baltimore is more than three times that for other races, and it's not just a matter of Blacks committing more crimes. Things people get away with in nice neighborhoods are the subject of heavy enforcement in places like Sandtown-Winchester [where Gray lived]. For example, though Whites and Blacks smoke marijuana at about the same rate, the per capita marijuana possession arrest rate for Blacks in Baltimore was 5.6 times higher than that for Whites in 2010, according to an analysis by the ACLU.” A friend of Gray, Michael Robertson, told the Baltimore Sun that Gray may have run because he had a history of getting beat up by the same officer with whom he initially made eye contact.
Years of Police Brutality
The persistent brutalizing of community members at the hands of the Baltimore police department has also contributed to the uprising. The Baltimore Sun also reports that the city has recently paid out over $5.8 million in lawsuits stemming from civil rights violations. “Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. 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.” According to the ACLU, Baltimore had the highest number of in-custody deaths (31) between 2010 and 2014.
Lack of Economic Opportunity
The unemployment rate in Gray’s Sandtown neighborhood is a staggering 50%. High school graduation rates in Baltimore, while improving slightly year after year, still fall well below the statewide average. And according to the Baltimore Sun, Gray and his sister suffered from lead paint poisoning via the scores of dilapidated buildings within the city.
As Baltimore officials continue to call for calm, the questions around Gray’s death are still unanswered, and the economic conditions that contributed to this tragic outcome remain. Until there are real financial and educational investments into this city, Baltimore will continue to rise up for the equal access its citizens deserve.