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.

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The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 7th 2015.
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Rachel M. cohen

SEIU 1199 

Rachel M. Cohen

       

On August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protestors made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents—a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street.

The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of Thurgood Marshall, not far from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “We picked that spot because he’s one of the greatest symbols of justice and fairness,” explained Perry Hopkins, an ex-felon who now works as an organizer with Communities United, the social justice group that planned Thursday’s rally. Fifty-four-year-old Hopkins has never voted.

While Baltimore has made national headlines this year for its police brutality scandals and its spiking murder count, the gathered crowd recognized that these issues cannot be separated from the societal exclusion African-Americans experience every day.

One woman who came to the rally was Robinette Barmer, who has had two children and one grandchild locked up in jail. Barmer has been fighting for ex-felon voting rights all year, and traveled to Annapolis last spring to push for the bill’s passage. “I try to tell ex-cons that their voices do still matter,” she said.

Greg Carpenter, a 62-year-old black man who served 20 years in prison for an armed robbery, also has a 20-year parole sentence. Although Carpenter has been out of jail for 12 years now, he worries he won’t ever get to vote again in his lifetime.

Governor Hogan said that requiring ex-felons to finish their parole and probation sentences before voting “achieves the proper balance” between repaying one’s obligations to society and restoring citizens’ rights. Ex-felons point out that they are both working and paying taxes within their communities, and thus should also have the right to vote.

Social science research suggests that removing voting restrictions would provide positive benefits to both ex-offenders and society at large. The American Probation and Parole Association also says there is no credible evidence to suggest that disenfranchising people who have returned home from prison serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, there are roughly 5.85 million disenfranchised American citizens with felony convictions, and 2.2 million of them are black. That’s one out of every 13 African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to end discriminatory voting barriers but the courts have disagreed on whether the VRA should apply to felon disenfranchisement laws. Maryland activists aren’t waiting around for the courts, though. At Thursday’s rally, organizers prepped the crowd for next year’s legislative season where they hope to push for an override. “We need you to show up and come out with us to Annapolis,” said Nicole Hanson, an ex-offender who works with Out4Justice, a group that politically mobilizes ex-offenders. “There’s only 90 days of [the legislative] session, so we’ll need you to make some sacrifices.”

Eighteen states considered loosening ex-felon voting restrictions this year, up from 13 states in 2014. But passing legislation, as Maryland activists witnessed first hand, is difficult. Only one state—Wyoming—ended up successfully loosening its restrictions.

Still, there has been demonstrable progress. The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 800,000 citizens have regained the right to vote through voting reforms enacted between 1997 and 2010. Last month, President Obama even said that, “If folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”

“This is a very peaceful rally, but this issue is personal,” Hopkins said in an interview. “We’re going to flip power, and we’re going to empower. We’re going to show the governor who’s the boss. We’re the boss! We’re the people.”

Rachel M. Cohen

Perry Hopkins at the podium