On April 12, 2015, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested in West Baltimore. A week later he died from a neck injury while in police custody, sparking protests that captured national attention.
The anger over Gray’s death is rooted in a long history of police violence in Baltimore, where many residents see law enforcement as an occupying force – and some former officers speak about a culture of silence in the department that insulates officers from accountability.
Fault Lines travels to Baltimore to investigate the city’s fractured relationship with law enforcement and a string of alleged police brutality cases that preceded Freddie Gray’s death.
PRODUCER’S NOTE: A week in the US ‘capital of police brutality’
By Paul Abowd
Our team arrived the day after Freddie Gray’s funeral – after watching Baltimore on fire the night before. High school kids had clashed with police, and a CVS at the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues was looted and burned – an image that would quickly be seared into the national consciousness.
By the time we got to that intersection the next day, people were cleaning up the CVS. The mood was one of healing. People were playing music, dancing in the streets, and trying to get back on their feet and grapple with what had happened the night before – and to process an anger that you could still feel.
What struck us quickly was the depth of Baltimore’s grassroots community – a variety of organisations that have been focused on addressing the rift between police and residents for decades. When we arrived, that spectrum of social movements was on display. It was a really powerful contrast to the images of destruction that captured everyone’s attention the night before.
At the same time, the police were still out and the militarised presence of the National Guard was everywhere – in the air, on the ground, tanks, tactical units, riot teams, men in military fatigues walking the streets. So there was this general feeling of unease that lasted the whole week following Gray’s funeral, ending with the announcement by the prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, of charges against the officers involved in his arrest.
We spent a lot of time in the neighbourhood where Gray grew up, outside the Penn North Community Center, a residential drug treatment clinic that is also a sort of community hub. People are always out on the sidewalk in front or in the park across the street – and that is where we would go and meet people. One of them was Blaize Connelly-Duggan, who runs the centre. He described this almost magical coming together that had occurred on the block since Gray’s death.
But he lamented that it took burning stores to get the rest of the city, and the nation, to pay attention.
“It’s sad that people seem to care more about broken buildings than broken lives,” he said.
Heber Brown III, the pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, said he saw the property destruction of the uprisings as a reaction to a daily violence, something his two boys, and many young people in the city feel not just physically, but mentally.
“It frustrates me watching that beautiful wonderment and gleam of innocence leave my son’s eyes as he realises what’s going on,” Brown told us. “They count the gun tanks, and I wonder what that’s doing to them. Why do we think that it’s OK for our children to see this and to live in this?”
The struggle for accountability
On May 1, when the prosecutor announced charges against the officers, we went back to the intersection of Pennsylvania and North. People were dancing in the streets. We met several of Freddie Gray’s friends, who seemed to be in disbelief that there had been some small step towards justice for their friend – and that they had been heard.
Baltimore is the capital of police brutality in the US.
But even at the celebration, there were families who came with pictures of their loved ones that they say were killed in police encounters. People were looking for some semblance of justice in their own cases.
That is when we met Tawanda Jones.
Jones says her brother Tyrone West was killed by police in 2013. Every week, she leads a vigil – “West Wednesdays,” she calls it – outside of the Northeast District Police Department or City Hall where she calls for charges to be brought against the officers involved in West’s death.
Jones is tireless. She is totally devoted to finding justice for her brother. And in the process, she has connected her family’s experience to a pervasive one across Baltimore.
“Baltimore is the capital of police brutality in the US,” A. Dwight Pettit, a civil rights attorney who represents Jones’ family, told us.
The city has one of the largest police forces per capita in the US. And the department has presided over a period of aggressive drug-war policing that helped create the deep rift between it and parts of the community. We talked to many people who no longer believe that calling the cops will resolve the problem at hand. To many of them, police are nothing more than an occupying force.
Pettit says his firm simply cannot handle the sheer volume of families who seek counsel for police brutality complaints. He now only take cases where someone has died or been severely beaten.
Beyond the icon
While many in the media were drawn to Baltimore because of the Freddie Gray incident, and the community’s response to his death, we wanted to know more about the man – like where he came from and what he experienced.
We went to the Gilmor Homes where he grew up and where he was arrested on the sidewalk. There were memorials that had sprouted up, murals, shrines almost. And we met his life long friend Brandon Ross, who still seemed to be in a state of shock over the loss of Gray.
Ross kept saying there was no reason why Gray had to be chased. Running is not a crime. But he told us that in this neighbourhood, if you are a young black man, any number of simple actions, like making eye contact with a police officer and running away, is viewed by police as suspicious behaviour. And that is the baseline mentality of that underlies these episodes of police violence. Ross is forming an organisation that will fight for justice for his friend and also address issues like food security in his neighbourhood.
Everyone was talking about Gray in the the streets. He had become a rallying cry and an icon. But here was his friend who was on that street corner every day with him. And whose life would never be the same.
Ross said Gray was a part of his daily routine. They had a little bird call, a sound, a little signal, between the two of them. Ross would make the bird call down the street in the morning. Gray would hear it. And then he would return it.
They would know without seeing each other that their friend was OK.
Paul Abowd is the producer of the Fault Lines film “Baltimore Rising.” Nikhil Swaminathan contributed to this report.