Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bawlmer Rising

Baltimore officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray

I've tried to follow events in Baltimore as best I can through the internet, relying on WBAL's livestreaming and news reports, the Baltimore Sun's reports, and to some extent on Twitter (Deray is there) and the deplorable coverage by the Washington Post.

I've been to Baltimore and Maryland a number of times and have had friends there (dead now, but that's how it goes). I thought for much of my life that my ancestors on my father's side were from Maryland but have recently learned that they weren't. They passed through, some of them, on their way to Ohio and Iowa, but were never residents.

Nevertheless, I feel a certain kinship with the people and the place. There's much about Baltimore and Maryland that I like; there's much about it that I don't like at all. Over the course of the recent events, I've seen some remarkable transformations growing out of the unrest over the death of Freddie Gray. Those transformations give me more hope than I've felt in quite a while.

There are terrible legacies in the history of Baltimore and Maryland, one of them of course being black chattel slavery. A lot of white folks want to make believe that Slavery Time was a long time ago, and it shouldn't matter now. Some black folks go along with that point of view, and I think that it's partly that unity of perspective between well-off whites and (largely) well-off Negroes -- who form the political and administrative class in Baltimore -- that led to the events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray.

Freddie didn't share the unified perspective of the well-off Baltimoreans (or "Baltimorons" as they can sometimes call themselves when they've had enough to drink) because he couldn't. He was born in and of the Projects, and had been subjected to a very different kind of life all his (short) life. He was only 25 when he died.

The Projects out in West Baltimore provide somewhat better than the worst living conditions to be found in Baltimore City, but they're not ideal by any stretch of the imagination. Gilmore Homes was the Project Freddie was from, and I'm sure that some people, looking at it from the outside would think it was pretty nice all things considered. Well, that may be. The problems of poverty, drugs and violence, however, were the living truth that Freddie and all his neighbors and friends knew from the cradle. Freddie and his twin sister had also been victims of lead paint poisoning (how many Americans have suffered that) which may have affected his cognition.

Due to the nature of policing in the Projects -- the "zero-tolerance," or "broken-windows" practices instituted by Martin O'Malley but derived from the so-called best practices as pioneered in New York by Bill Bratton -- Freddie had been arrested on false charges of drug use, drug sales, and various infractions of The Rules. Many, many young men in the Projects were the victims of this kind of policing which essentially presumes that all black men, particularly young black men, are criminals to be run to earth, hounded, harassed, arrested and incarcerated en masse.

This is a legacy of Slavery Time and Jim Crow, both of which were partly predicated on the notion of inherent black criminality -- for which the discipline (arbitrary though it may be) of slavery and segregation and the chain gang were considered specific cures, or if not cures at least controls.

Let's not deny it. It is a fundamental and systemic belief among the powerful and mostly white  ruling class that Those (Savage) Negroes are inherently criminal and would, if not intensely policed, run wild and rape all the white women. Or even worse, they would burn down not just their own communities but they would destroy all the wonderful things that white folks have done and built over the centuries.

Of course it's ridiculous, but that's the thinking that you find right out in the open on numerous online comment and message boards, and that's the belief system that's not quite so open but is deeply ingrained in the principles and practices of "broken-windows" policing -- which led directly to the death of Freddie Gray and which plays a part in the thousands of brutalized and dead at the hands of police all over the country that I've been railing about for years now.

But something has happened in Baltimore that may lead sooner rather than later to some systemic and unprecedented changes in the way policing is handled in communities like the one Freddie Gray came from.

As we've seen elsewhere, at least since the egregious execution of James Boyd last year in Albuquerque, violent policing has become intolerable to those who have been subjected to it for lo these many years. It must end. Ending it means holding violent police to account, and in Baltimore it has meant holding those police who contributed to or caused the death of Freddie Gray to account.

And yesterday, astonishingly, six Baltimore officers were charged with a whole raft of crimes including murder, manslaughter, dereliction of duty and false imprisonment. This follows a series of indictments of police officers for all kinds of misconduct all over the country. Convicting officers for anything besides sexual misconduct is still nearly impossible, but the fact that so many police officers are facing charges is nearly unheard of, certainly in recent history, when practically anything police did under color of authority was ruled "justified" simply because it was done by police.

A mantra became standardized: "Fearing for my life and the safety of others". By saying those words, practically any death or brutalization at the hands of police was deemed acceptable by supervisors, district attorneys, courts and juries.

Those words became a magical incantation thanks in part to a number of Supreme Court rulings over the past few decades which protected violent police from accountability and effectively encouraged them to be as violent as they wanted to be -- within rules, of course.

So long as they followed the rules of engagement of their departments -- most based on "best practices" which were adopted almost everywhere -- police could and did routinely get away with murder. They almost never face charges, but if by some happenstance, they do, they almost always get off, either acquitted or given very light sentences if convicted.

The case of Freddie Gray in Baltimore may be a game-changer, much as the killing of James Boyd was declared to be by the mayor of Albuquerque.

Freddie Gray was not shot by police, the way so many are in this country, around a thousand every year. No, he was falsely arrested for having committed no crime, he was injured in his apprehension, he was dumped, unsecured in a van and driven around the rough streets of West Baltimore for the next 45 minutes until he was so severely injured that he died a week later from a broken neck and apparently a head injury. Freddie never awoke from a coma.

The issue here is not that he was shot and killed, the way so many are. It is that he was injured badly enough to require medical attention, and none was called for or offered. This is a commonplace practice by police and correctional officers everywhere. Injuries and illnesses of suspects, detainees, and inmates are routinely ignored. Often enough they are caused or compounded by the actions of officers, despite policies which require medical attention those in their custody who ask for it or who are clearly injured. Freddie Gray was both clearly injured and repeatedly asked for medical attention. He was ignored.

Deliberate and callous indifference to the suffering of those in their custody is so routine it barely shocks the conscience any more. Such indifference leads to hundreds of deaths in custody -- perhaps far more than we're aware of -- and exacerbates injuries and illnesses which don't necessarily lead to death right away. Deliberate and callous indifference of this sort devalues the lives of those in custody just as surely as outright murder does.

And for once in Baltimore yesterday, the killers of Freddie Gray -- who acted with malice and indifference combined -- were charged with crimes.

Whether they will be convicted remains to be seen, but merely charging them is unusual.

The fact that they join dozens of other officers also facing charges ranging up to first degree murder is also unusual, and I suspect it represents the potential for an end of violent policing and the wildly disproportionate over policing of selected neighborhoods -- such as the one Freddie Gray came from.

While many observers have been quick to condemn the violence of the "rioters" in Baltimore -- who burned buildings and took merchandise but not lives -- too many have had nothing to say about the violence of police which triggered the recent uprising in Baltimore and elsewhere. "Riots" must be suppressed, but police violence apparently is all good. Or it was...

 Maybe not so much anymore.

We'll see.

We need an end to violent policing. We need an end to racially and class disparate policing policies. We need an end to police impunity. We need an end to police brutality and killing.

There are signs -- in Baltimore and elsewhere -- that the message is being heard. Action to correct the manifest problems of policing in slow, but it is happening. The bravery of those who are protesting and the surprising responsiveness of some public officials is encouraging.

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