In Baltimore, the Fight for Justice Continues
The last few weeks, Baltimore protesters have returned to the streets to call for justice as the criminal prosecution of the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death begins. New developments in the trials and an out-of-court settlement raise questions about the path to justice through the legal system.
September 11, 2015
Photo: Left Voice
In the downtown Baltimore courthouse on Thursday, Judge Barry Williams heard the second round of motions in the Freddie Gray criminal trials. Outside, dozens of city police and sheriff’s deputies lined the building to the curb, pacing the sidewalks and questioning anyone standing within a stone’s throw from the building. There, at the corner of Lexington and Calvert, protesters gathered and demanded justice for Freddie Gray’s murder. Robust shouts of “keep the case here!” and “an injury to one is an injury to all!” rang out.
By midday, word spread that Judge Williams had ruled against the motion to move the criminal trials to a venue outside of Baltimore. For the last few weeks, the issue of location change has been particularly contentious. Protesters and anti-police brutality activists called for the case to remain in the city that Gray was from. Many questioned the possibility of getting justice in courts elsewhere, due to characteristics that set Baltimore apart from surrounding areas. For example, the county is 64.1% white and 27.5% black, compared to Baltimore City, which is 31.6% white and 63.3% black, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
On the other hand, defense attorneys argued that the exceptional amount of media coverage precluded a fair trial, with a high likelihood that potential jurors from the city would be selected from the vast number of people personally affected by the curfew and demonstrations last April. Despite the defense’s efforts, the judge ruled against the change in venue, but kept open the possibility to revisit the issue in the future.
So far, Williams has also dismissed the motion to recuse State Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby from the case. Beginning in early May, the defense attorneys filed claims to remove her from the case, pointing out “conflicts of interest,” arguing that Mosby indicted the six cops for political gain, made statements to the press that potentially increased “public condemnation of the accused,” and had problematic personal ties such as her marriage to City Councilman Nick Mosby and her close friendship with Billie Murphy, civil attorney for Gray’s family. Many applauded the judge’s decision to keep her on the case, but the truth remains; Mosby is firmly embedded in Baltimore’s elite political caste and cannot be separated from the system that appointed her to pack the jails with mostly poor, disproportionately black, working-class people. Nor can she be separated from the State that sanctions brutality, racism, and murder by police.
In addition, the judge ruled that the six officers be tried individually to ensure that the defendants get a fair trial. Already the standard of “fairness” for the six officers has proven to be drastically different than for that of most Baltimoreans. To take one example, 18-year-old Allen Bullock was locked up for weeks with a $500,000 bail for misdemeanor charges and “destruction of property” (of a parked police vehicle), when the six officers facing felony charges for Gray’s murder posted bails from $250,000 to $350,000.
Protesters Call Attention to Deeply-Rooted System
Since last Wednesday, the protests have gathered crowds of up to 200 black activists and clergy, students, independents, and members of various organizations like the People’s Power Assembly, FIST, Popular Resistance, Baltimore Bloc, Baltimore Trans Alliance, and Baltimore FightBack.
Authorities have spared no effort in preparing for crackdowns. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan met with the National Guard and Maryland Emergency Management Agency. City officials met with business representatives and transportation officials issued warnings of heavy traffic. Heavy-hitting institutions like Johns Hopkins sent out warning notices to staff and students. The police department cancelled officers’ leave in order to ensure adequate manpower in case of a crackdown; one cop spokesperson was quoted saying that they were simply “learning from the past.”
Tawanda Jones at the Northeast District police precinct last May. Photo: Left Voice
Tawanda Jones has been a notable presence throughout the demonstrations, condemning the city’s long and deep pattern of racist violence. Last Wednesday, Jones took up the megaphone and recounted the story of her brother, Tyrone West, who was beaten to death by cops in Northeast Baltimore on July 18, 2013. With the support of other family members and local activists, Jones has organized a protest every single week for the last two years to demand that charges be filed; the officers involved were cleared of criminal wrongdoing last year. Facing the court building that day, Jones denounced the state-sanctioned police killings and cried out, “The whole system is guilty! We want justice for all victims of police brutality!”
Police Slowdown After Uprising
The world took notice when Baltimore exploded in late April with social upheaval and protests calling for “Justice for Freddie Gray,” who suffered spinal trauma and died at the hands of cops on April 19. Several days of mass demonstrations, riots, an evening curfew, the massive deployment of state forces, and 500 hundred arrests followed. Then, on May 1, prosecutors announced the decision to indict six police officers. The city quieted immediately. Protests continued here and there, but on a much smaller scale.
When reports of a spike in murder and shootings surfaced in May, the media and officials went into a frenzy. There was endless talk of “black-on-black crime” and blame turned inward to the communities of color that were supposedly responsible for their derelict conditions. Other explanations for the crime increase emerged. Some said it was an extension of the social unrest caused by the protests. Others speculated that drugs stolen during pharmacy raids disrupted the city’s heroin market and sparked gang wars.
However, many pointed to a “cop slowdown” and reduction in cop activity, most notably in poor, black communities that were historically policed to the teeth. Statistics showed a dramatic decrease in arrests, from an average of 2,630 arrests per month from January to April, to only 1,557 in May. In Sandtown, the neighborhood where Freddie grew up and was arrested, residents described weeks of “lawlessness” immediately after the Baltimore uprising.
K. Mack said that a friend called police after her property was badly damaged and waited almost an hour. When cops finally arrived, they said they were “flipping coins at the precinct, arguing over who would answer the call.” Mack continued, “We know cops are no good. They don’t care about us, they beat us up, and lock us up for nothing, even kill us. But what do you do when you need help and no one comes?” People in neighborhoods who have faced generations of systemic marginalization and poverty were the first in the streets protesting Freddie’s murder and denouncing racist policing. But what choice does the system offer? As Atlantic journalist David Graham put it, “Baltimore residents seem to be facing an impossible dilemma: They can have abusive policing, or hardly any at all.”
To Obama, Blue Lives Matter
In the meantime, the newest “police reform” has done nothing to stymie further police killings. In mid-May, after scorning protesters and labeling Baltimore youth as “thugs,” President Obama signed the “National Blue Alert Act” to implement an alert system that tracks threats to cops. Invoking the memory of two New York City cops killed last December, Obama said, “It’s important for us to make sure that we do everything we can to help ensure the safety of our police officers when they’re in the line of duty." Here, clearly writ into law, the double standard that upholds “blue lives,” but tramples upon the lives and rights of black lives.
The legal system is no neutral medium; it is unlikely that the courts will fully answer people’s call for justice. And victories endowed from above are often superseded by continued, reified oppression and injustice. Thus, while protesters cheered on Thursday when it was announced that the trials would remain in Baltimore, police still found reasons to repress the crowd: they arrested 25-year old Ryan Arrendell for refusing to stay in an area “designated” for protesters, Reverend Westley West for “attempting to incite a riot,” and Kwame Rose for essentially being injured, falling to the floor, and “blocking traffic.”
Furthermore, the September 8 announcement of a $6.4 million settlement for Freddie Gray’s family raises questions of justice through the system. The settlement agreement – unprecedented in Baltimore in its amount and timing – rightly acknowledges the loss suffered by Freddie Gray’s family.
But no amount of money will bring back Freddie, Tyrone West, or Anthony Anderson from the graves dug by Baltimore police. No lump sum will redress the suffering and trauma inflicted by cops, nor will it eliminate the daily harassment and racist surveillance of communities of color across the United States. In fact, the highly publicized deal is surely an effort by city officials to quell the chance of further protests or mass calls for fundamental change.
In the next months, the case will become more and more entangled in the state’s legal and bureaucratic processes. As is often the case, legal argumentation, establishment politics, and appointed officialdom will conspire to take the wheel. These forces, State Prosecutor M. Mosby in particular, will bask in the limelight, bicker passionately, and take a crooked, obscuring path to arrive at a “balanced justice,” or a return to what police union president Gene Ryan calls “pre-riot normalcy,” but what working-class, poor, and black people in Baltimore call an open-air prison of segregation, abject poverty, and police brutality.
The element most dynamic and necessary, but perhaps least predictable and least formed, is the rebellion from below. Today, authorities stay crouched, keeping their hired guns close, warily awaiting another uprising. Today, the sound of 15 thousand pairs of feet stomping the streets still echo. The people’s chants still linger: “Rise up, rise up. If we don’t get it, shut it down.”