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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Baltimore Is Bracing for the Freddie Gray Trials After a Deadly Summer

Originally published in VICE on September 3rd, 2015.
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On Wednesday, a local circuit court judge denied motions to drop the charges against the six officers indicted in the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, and declined to recuse State Attorney Marilyn Mosby from trying the case.

Defense attorneys argue Mosby acted inappropriately when she dramatically announced criminal charges on May 1, but Judge Barry Williams dismissed that argument. He also ruled that each officer should be tried separately.

Next week, another hearing is scheduled to determine whether the trials—set for mid-October—will take place in Baltimore or in another jurisdiction.

The court proceedings come at a fraught time for Charm City. Nationally, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to flex its muscles. Activists held their first national conference in July, have been successfully pressuring presidential candidates to speak more directly about criminal justice reform, and just last week, the Democratic National Convention passed a unanimous resolution in support of the movement.

Locally, Baltimore activists have also continued to organize themselves since the Freddie Gray protests ended in the spring.

Amidst all this, the city has seen sharp increases in homicides over the past several months; 215 had been killed by the end of August, up from 138 at the same time in 2014. Forty-five people were murdered in July alone, the bloodiest month the city has seen since August 1972. Concerns about violence and unrest threaten to derail political momentum around criminal justice reform.

In the days leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) cancelled officer leave in order to ensure that as many police officers as possible would be present throughout the day. Some police showed up in uniform, and others dressed in plainclothes to work undercover. Activist Kwame Rose was arrested in the morning,and one officer suffered minor injuries while assisting with the arrest, but by and large the demonstrations were relatively calm. Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, both prominent figures within the national Black Lives Matter movement, attended the demonstration as well.

Speaking at an afternoon press conference, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said demonstrators were “peaceful and respectful and an example of democracy in action.”

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says he expects the community protests to remain fairly calm in September, but that “the real shit is going to hit the fan” when the court issues its final verdicts for the officers. Charges range from second-degree assault—a misdemeanor—to the rather unusual charge of second-degree depraved heart murder. Moskos does not expect that the cops will be found guilty.

Though the community response is likely to escalate following the October trials, activists say they plan to ramp up protests relatively soon. Duane “Shorty” Davis, an activist with Baltimore BLOC, a local grassroots organization, told the Baltimore Sunthat they’re encouraging people to engage in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience over the next two weeks, particularly in the wealthier and whiter parts of town. “We’re not just going to go in the black community and wave our hands. We’re going to the white communities,” he told the paper.

City politics also remain chaotic. Mosby, who has been cleared to continue working on the Freddie Gray case, will be campaigning and fundraising for her own re-election at the same time. Her husband, Councilman Nick J. Mosby, has also announced that he is “seriously considering” a run for mayor. And in July, Rawlings-Blake fired the city’s police commissioner, Anthony Batts—citing the rising city violence. “We need a change. This was not an easy decision, but it is one that is in the best interest of the people of Baltimore,” she said at the time. The interim police commissioner, Kevin Davis, has been significantly reorganizing the police department over the past two months.

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, tells VICE that he anticipates “a plethora of politicians and organizations” will try and use the Freddie Gray trials as a way to advance their own personal careers. “So that sucks,” he says. In the meantime, his group will continue to push for reforms to the police union contract, which they were doing well before Gray’s death. Specifically they have been focusing on changing the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, (LEOBR), which they see as a significant barrier to transparency and accountability. Other groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU of Maryland, have rallied for similar changes.

The police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, strongly opposes changes to LEOBR and worked hard to fight proposed reforms this past legislative season.

In the face of all the political maneuvering, the city’s activists will be waiting on the verdicts to determine whether justice has been served in a case being watched closely by reformers around the country.

What’s Behind the Recent Plague of Shootings in Baltimore?

Originally published in VICE on May 20th, 2015.
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While the national film crews have packed up and left Baltimore, losing interest in the place now that there are no more burning pharmacies and vandalized cop cars, Charm City residents are left to reckon with one of the most violent months they’ve seen in years. As the Baltimore Sun reports, homicides are up nearly 40 percent compared with this time last year, and nonfatal shootings are up 60 percent. From mid April to mid May, 31 people were killed, the Washington Post reports, with 39 more wounded by gunfire. The Sun adds that, as of late Tuesday, there had been 170 nonfatal shootings so far this year.

To put all this in perspective, the last time Baltimore saw 30 homicides in one month was in June 2007.

The spike in violence has received less attention outside of Baltimore than Freddie Gray’s death, but within the city, leaders, police, and community members are struggling to figure out what exactly is going on.

One theory floating around is that the weeks of unrest after Gray’s demise in police custody have daunted cops, leaving them unable or unwilling to control violent crime. The police union and some legal experts are upset at the criminal charges that the city’s top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, has leveled at six members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD)—among them murder and manslaughter. This, coupled with a formal Justice Department investigation launched in cooperation with local officials to examine police practices, has left the BPD in a state of agitation.

Lieutenant Kenneth Butler, a longtime BPD veteran and president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black officers, told the Washington Post that rank-and-file cops feel alienated, vilified, and afraid to do their job. “In 29 years, I’ve gone through some bad times, but I’ve never seen it this bad,” Butler added in comments to the Baltimore Sun, referring, in part, to officers who feel as though Mosby “will hang them out to dry.”

While beat cop reticence could be a factor, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points out that homicides and shootings in West Baltimore were on the rise before the Freddie Gray unrest, though the pace has since accelerated. Webster thinks that among other things, the protests just strained the cops’ capacity.

“The police have been less active in proactive policing, less likely to engage individuals on the street,” Webster says, adding that resources were diverted to addressing the riots and in turn disrupted patrol and detective work. Leads from residents that detectives use to make arrests—though already quite difficult to come by—were further reduced during this time, he said, citing conversations with officers. Moreover, Operation Ceasefire, an anti-violence initiative begun by the city early last year, has been running without a program manager for the past several weeks. (The mayor’s office has indicated a new program manager will be hired soon.)

Webster believes another factor at play here may be that the Freddie Gray protests emboldened criminals. “We just had a huge display of lawlessness and disrespect for law and law enforcement,” he explains. “That mindset can spread easily and affect behavior.”

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, doesn’t buy the connection between the protests and violence—one he calls an “easy deflection” of systemic issues.

“This [surge in violent crime] is a natural outgrowth of the conditions in which shooting and violence occurs,” Love says. Scapegoating the protests and the Mosby charges, Dove thinks, is particularly convenient for those unenthused with critiques of law enforcement and institutional racism. And it’s true that high rates of poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction all consistently correlate with high homicide rates. Love also argued that Baltimore’s had all kinds of violence for a long time—including sexual abuse and discriminatory housing policies—though it’s only when guns are fired that leaders start to panic.

Perhaps a simpler explanation for the increase in shootings is just that it’s getting hotter outside. Baltimore Bloc, another local grassroots organization, say that they don’t think the protests had anything to do with the recent violence, and that in their experience, violence always surges in the city as summer approaches. Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, agrees that homicides usually rise and fall significantly with the seasons, with the fewest occurring during the winter. “It’s no coincidence that homicides are spiking right now when the weather is getting warmer,” Spence says.

The violence that occurs when competing gangs fight over turf to operate their drug operations also generally escalates in the warmer weather. “People are suggesting that the spike we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks represents something new, but summer is just starting,” Spence adds. “It might be a blip or it might continue. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Baltimore PD Spokeswoman Sarah Connolly told VICE in an email, “We are investigating each incident as a singular incident while examining any trends and patterns to ensure that we are deploying our officers and resources effectively while being proactive and engaging the community. While we have developed investigative leads in a number of cases, we continue to ask the community’s assistance in calling with any information they may have.”

Meanwhile, some Baltimore community groups are taking the opportunity to organize anti-violence demonstrations. Coinciding with the 90th birthday of Malcolm X, the NAACP held a “Stop the Violence ‘By Any Means Necessary'” rally Tuesday night at their office in the Sandtown neighborhood. Another group committed to decreasing gun violence in Baltimore, the 300 Men March, is holding an “Occupy Our Corners” anti-violence rally on Thursday evening to honor the recent homicide victims.

“We the PEOPLE, are not blaming anyone but ourselves for failing to create a safe environment within our city,” their rally flyer reads. “Recognizing this, WE STAND, as a community of all people, regardless of RACE, RELIGION, SEX, CULTURE OR BACKGROUND.” According to the Sun, Munir Bahar, one of the group’s founders, is calling for 30 men in ten Baltimore neighborhoods to become block leaders in the fight against crime.

Love doesn’t expect the organizing work that LBS, Baltimore Bloc, and other grassroots groups are doing will change much in light of the increased violence. “Because doing that,” Love explains, “would take away from the larger objective, which is ultimately about systemic change.”