How Baltimore Is Reacting to the Start of the Freddie Gray Trials

Originally published in VICE on December 1, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel M. Cohen

It was cloudy and chilly outside the Mitchell Courthouse in Baltimore on Monday morning at the opening of the trial for William G. Porter, one of the six police officers charged for the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. The other five implicated officers will have their own trials over the next several months; the prosecution reportedly sees Porter as a “material witness” who could be useful against the others. Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged the six officers in May after weeks of protests and riots that upended the city.

The trials begin at a fraught time for the city, as Baltimore has seen a dramatic spike in homicides this year, with 311 murders so far in 2015—100 more than the city saw in all of 2014. Meanwhile, police killings of people of color continue to generate outrage across the country, leaving Baltimore activists to wonder exactly how much they’ve accomplished since Gray’s death and the tumult that followed.

The “Baltimore Uprising”—as local activists call it—began just over a year ago, on November 25, 2014. That’s when protesters gathered downtown to protest Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, not getting indicted. Local activists recognize that the death of Freddie Gray carries as much significance for the national Black Lives Matter movement as other high-profile killings, and on Saturday, they held their own rally in solidarity with activists in Minneapolis and Chicago.

It’s been challenging for Baltimore activists to keep up their energy and momentum over the past seven months, but residents and public officials are bracing for a new wave of energy as the trials for the officers accused of ending Gray’s life heat up.

“The people from West Baltimore’s poorest communities are still reeling from how the Freddie Gray incident was handled by the powers that be,” says Perry Hopkins, an organizer with Communities United, a local grassroots organization. “The majority want justice, but openly say [that] if officers only get a slap on the wrist, this city had better be prepared to experience another thwack on the hand. They mean it.”

When I asked Hopkins if he thinks that means the community will begin protesting again if the officers are not convicted, he said, “Yes they’ll protest…and in many different fashions.”

A few handfuls of activists convened with signs and banners at the courthouse Monday, where metal barricades blocked off the areas protesters typically use to congregate. Some grew angry at what they felt were attempts by city officials to thwart their First Amendment rights. Still, those within the courtroom could hear protesters’ chants from the street.

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Photo Credit: Rachel M. Cohen

Sharon Black, a leader with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly, told me that it feels like there’s a great deal of confusion right now, even among some of the most committed activists in town. “We’ve been phone-banking, and our sense is that people are a little bit confused about what’s actually going on,” she said. This makes sense given the complicated legal process, and the fact that the presiding judge imposed a strict gag order last month on the lawyers involved in the case.

“People are sort of saturated with news, and there’s a bit of wearing down in terms of energy,” Black said. “The bigger response from the public may only come after the trials have concluded.”

Legal experts have expressed doubt that the officers will be convicted, and city officials are preparing for the likelihood that residents could revolt if they feel justice isn’t served. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says his department has spent nearly $2 million on new police riot equipment—including vans, protective gear, shields, and helmets—since the unrest over Gray’s death this spring. Davis replaced the former Baltimore police commissioner, Anthony Batts, and the police department underwent a significant reorganization over the summer.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told the Baltimore Sun that city officials are having “constant conversations and planning sessions” to prepare for, and prevent, potential riots. “Community members certainly don’t want the city to erupt in violence again,” she said. More than 250 businesses were damaged after the April protests, almost 150 vehicles were burned, and roughly 60 buildings were set on fire.

“People in Baltimore still want to see justice for Freddie Gray, that has not changed one bit since April,” said Andre Powell, a protestor who stood outside the courthouse Mondaymorning. “Yes the mood was much more heightened directly after the incidents but people are closely watching what’s going on.”

Porter, the first officer on trial, has been charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. Officer Porter reportedly asked Gray if he needed a medic while traveling in the police van, but thought he might be lying to avoid going to jail when Gray said yes. The officer is a 26-year-old Baltimore native who’s been on unpaid leave from the Baltimore Police Department since posting his $350,000 bail earlier this year.

A spokesperson for the Baltimore police union on Monday told VICE they were unavailable to comment on the trial. In general, however, the union has expressed outrage at the indictment of the six officers, and has called on State Attorney Marilyn Mosby to recuse herself from the case. The president of the union, Gene Ryan, called the city’s $6.4 million settlement deal for the family of Gray, approved in September, “obscene.”

On Monday, the court proceedings were focused on selecting a panel of impartial jurors for the case. Porter’s attorneys have argued that finding a truly fair jury will be impossible in Baltimore, and that the trial must be held elsewhere.

There is new evidence to suggest that Marylanders outside of Baltimore hold rather different views on the Gray protests than those who live within the city. A recent pollfound that Baltimore voters are more likely to say that racism and the lack of jobs are the biggest reasons for the unrest after Gray died. Voters across the state, on the other hand, are more prone to saying it was due to residents’ “lack of personal responsibility.” The same poll found that 63 percent of Baltimore voters supported Mosby’s handling of the case, compared to 38 percent of voters statewide.

The presiding judge, Judge Barry G. Williams, a black man who previously prosecuted police misconduct for the federal Justice Department, said he would reconsider moving the trial out of town only after the court makes a serious effort to find a fair crop of jurors within the city. Williams made clear that he thinks it’s important for people to be tried by “their peers.” And trying the officers within the city, many have noted, should help lend the court proceedings greater legitimacy. “One way to ensure that a community accepts a jury’s verdict is for the jury to reflect the entire community’s diversity,” University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert told the Sun.

Residents and civil rights leaders will closely monitor the proceedings, and the local NAACP chapter plans to have a court watcher in attendance for the full duration of the trial. A great deal is riding on the outcome of these trials, and for better or for worse, everybody in Baltimore knows it.

 

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