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 Jews join Freddie Gray protests – but it’s complicated

Originally published in Haaretz on May 5th, 2015
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After a tumultuous couple of weeks in Baltimore, in which protests, marches and riots raged through Charm City following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray — the Jewish community moved to raise funds, organize volunteers and engage in interfaith outreach. But in Baltimore, which has a complicated, and often fraught, history of Jewish-black relations, there is both a commitment to fight inequality and a reluctance to ruffle long-established relationships with city officials and the police.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which represents about 55 local congregations and institutions, issued a statement that called for Jews to “stand beside our African American partners to combat racism and economic inequality.” Arthur Abramson, BJC’s executive director for the past 25 years, says his organization “has not hesitated for one moment” to stand up for injustice.

But he was frank about the challenges that remain for Jews seeking to combat racism. “Look, Maryland is a southern state. It was a slave state. In general, it’s not what I would describe as a place where African Americans and Jews sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” he said.

Throughout the decades there have been plenty of instances of Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism in the city. Still, Abramson feels proud of the improved relations the BJC has helped to build over the past 25 years, which he attributes to concerted engagement, dialogue and programs involving the two communities.

Rabbi Etan Mintz, who leads Baltimore’s oldest and continually active synagogue, B’nai Israel, spent much of last week – as protests spread in the city and elsewhere following the death of Gray, for which six police officers have been charged – working with other local clergy.

“It’s a very powerful experience just to listen to people, to pray with people, and to be a presence face-to-face with one another,” Mintz said. He noted what he called the “outrageous reality” of poverty, inequality and mass incarcerations, but also stressed that the majority of police officers in the city are “peace-loving individuals who are trying to protect us on a daily basis.” He is concerned about a phenomenon of “guilt by association” — linking the broader police force to a few bad officers who acted inhumanely.

Mintz’s synagogue, which is Orthodox, is located downtown near the Inner Harbor, the former epicenter of Baltimore Jewish life. Now B’nai Israel, which is the last of what were once 20 synagogues in this area, is sometimes nicknamed “the Masada of East Baltimore.”

Jews began moving out toward the suburb of Pikesville in the 1950s and ’60s, and Mintz says the real “nail in the coffin” of inner-city presence was the 1968 riots, where many Jewish businesses were looted and destroyed. The latest disturbances, he adds, have sparked difficult memories for some of his congregants.

Solidarity events

Another organization, Jews United for Justice, (JUFJ) has taken a more demonstrably public role in supporting African-American protestors. The group was formed in late 2014 to provide an outlet for Jews, mostly in their twenties and thirties, to engage in social justice work. Many of these activists turned out for Ferguson solidarity events earlier in the year, so it was not surprising to see 30 JUFJ members marching on April 25th in Baltimore with black-and-white picket signs that called for #JusticeForFreddie.

Last Friday, the day Baltimore’s State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six policemen would face criminal charges, the number of JUFJ members who turned out to march rose to 100.

“I think this reflects the growing interest,” says JUFJ member Owen Silverman Andrews. “[We have] created a space where people can plug in within their own communities in a way that is still connected to the larger struggle.”

Marc Terrill, the president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, says he is pleased with the fast response the Jewish community took, and continues to take, in showing solidarity with the Freddie Gray protests. He says that ultimately there needs to be an agenda, both with short-term and long-term goals.

In the short term, the Associated has helped to organize volunteers and raise funds for food, toys and other supplies in order “to rebuild the communities torn asunder by wide-spread looting and vandalism,” according to its website. In the long term, Terrill mentions the need to promote greater access for city residents to health care, job training, education, counseling and mentoring programs, and to contribute to an overall greater push for societal integration.

“Our relationship with the African-American community is collaborative,” Terrill says. “Not everything is good, but we have the will and desire to work at it.”

While the Jewish community is presenting a relatively united front for now, the question of how and if its members will come together around the issue of police reform remains unclear. This community is one of the more politically conservative Jewish communities in the United States. And the established relationships Jewish leaders have cultivated with city and state officials — which have helped ensure enhanced security and support for Jewish groups and institutions — are very important.

The BJC did not come out strongly for any of the police reform bills that were being considered in Annapolis this past legislative season, despite months of organizing and campaigning by local activists. By contrast, members from JUJF, including Rabbi Daniel Burg, who leads an egalitarian synagogue in Reservoir Hill, offered testimony in support of legislation that would alter the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Jewish communal leaders have all expressed a commitment to tackle the “deeper issues” provoked by the Freddie Gray protests – specifically with regards to economic inequality and poverty. However, whether they will be able to do so without inserting tension into some of their long-standing political relationships remains to be seen.

Inside the Chaos, Rage and Confusion That Consumed Baltimore Last Night

Originally published in VICE on April 28, 2015.
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 photo credit: Rachel Cohen

As I walked through the streets of West Baltimore on Monday evening, small bright green opiates littered the sidewalk, pills left over from when the local CVS pharmacy was looted hours earlier. The air felt thick and musty—police had fired teargas canisters near the Penn-North subway station. By 6:15 PM, clouds of smoke were pouring out of the empty pharmacy, which filled with flames. At one point, protestors cut the hose that was being used to put out the fire.

Except for a few young activists hoisting “Justice 4 Freddie Gray!” picket signs, most people hanging around were not protestors. The majority of Baltimoreans on the streets were just snapping photos and watching the events unfold as spectators. Unlike Saturday’s protests, where thousands proudly marched, chanted, and gave speeches about accountability and justice for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black Baltimore resident who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody earlier this month, Monday felt perilously chaotic.

By the corner of North Avenue and Pennsylvania, just a half-mile down from where Freddie Gray’s funeral took place earlier that day, two Maryland Transit Administration vehicles were burning. A wrecked police car sat in the middle of the street a few hundred feet down—every one of its windshields and windows cracked and shattered. Broken glass lay by its tires. By 9 PM, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan had deployed National Guard troops, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced there would be a weeklong 10 PM curfew, and all public schools were cancelled for Tuesday. The city was officially declared to be in “a state of emergency.”

Saba Nazeer, a local resident who works with the Right to Housing Alliance, a Baltimore housing justice organization, came out to watch one standoff unfold between high school students and the police. The cops knew to meet the teenagers because a flier circulating earlier on social media called for students to meet for a “purge” out by the mall after school. (Frederick Douglass High School is across the street from Mondawmin Mall.) Dozens of cops were ready to meet the 75 or so students that showed up. Things escalated quickly. Students hurled bricks, rocks, and bottles at the police; cops sprayed mace and teargas. Fifteen officers were injured in clashes around the city, six seriously, and two were hospitalized Monday evening.

“These kids were going to fight for their neighborhoods, and they want justice not just for Freddie Gray but for all those who have died at the hands of police in their communities,” Nazeer said, defending the students. “I’ve been seeing it all day, the police try to put fear in the communities, they harass and bully. They’ve been doing it for decades. And people are tired of it.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Speaking out Monday night, hours after the funeral, Freddie Gray’s mother Gloria Darden pleaded for the violence to end. “I want you all to get justice for my son,” she said. “But don’t do it like this here.”

A national conversation on police brutality broke out after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year, but local cops’ excesses have been a major political issue in Baltimore for a while now. A Baltimore Sun investigation released in September found that the city paid out $5.7 million in judgments and settlements in cases related to alleged police brutality and civil rights violations since 2011. Even before Gray’s death, the city was haunted by two recent high-profile incidents of unarmed Baltimore black men dying in police custody— Tyrone West in 2013 and Anthony Anderson a year earlier. Cops faced no charges following the deaths of either men.

Since West’s death in July 2013, Baltimore community members have convened outside City Hall every Wednesday to call for the police to be charged with homicide. (These weekly demonstrations are locally referred to as “West Wednesdays.”) Activists keep count— Monday marked day 648 since West’s death. While an independent review issued in August determined that the police did not use excessive force, some still insist they saw cops kick West in the head, yank him by his dreadlocks, and beat him with batons.

In September, an alarming video surfaced that showed a Baltimore cop repeatedly punching a man. Unable to ignore the damning footage, Mayor Rawlings-Blake vowed to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address police brutality in the city. A few months later, however, she vetoed a bill that would have required city police to wear body cameras. Rawlings-Blake has said she supports the measure, but felt the specific legislation proposed was not within the City Council’s authority.

Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12 after making eye contact with police and taking flight, but more than two weeks later the public has still not been given any meaningful details about how he sustained his fatal injury. (He died on April 19.) Last week, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts admitted Gray was unbuckled when police placed him in a van despite being shackled and handcuffed, and noted that Gray’s multiple requests for medical attention were ignored. Other findings from the department’s internal investigation, however, have not been made public. More information will be released on May 1— a deadline Batts set to share findings with Baltimore’s State Attorney.

“This is one case where body cameras certainly would have been useful,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We’d have a lot better idea of what actually happened, and we’d know far more quickly.” (A bystander’s mobile footage showed Gray writhing in agony as police carried him away.)

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots activist group in Baltimore, has announced that they are planning another protest for Freddie Gray Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM. They told me that while their collective has been in “emergency response mode” for the past two weeks, eventually they will begin to outline more long-term plans. The “pace and emotion [has] left us with less space than we normally have to strategize,” they explained. But soon, they will join with other local organizing groups to “turn our attention to the next steps, including legislative strategy at the state level and organizing here at home for the 2016 city elections.”

Speaking at a press conference in the evening, Mayor Rawlings-Blake referred to the Monday rioters as “thugs” who were senselessly “trying to do tear down what so many have fought for.” Some 200 arrests were made by Tuesday morning. Brandon Scott, a city councilman, said, “We can’t let this be a repeat of 1968″—referring to the violent Baltimore riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “Adults have to step up and be adults.”

Tensions between political leaders, police, and community members are unlikely to abate any time soon, but multiple community cleanup efforts are being organized on social media today in West Baltimore. One group will be meeting back by the Penn-North subway station at 10 AM, and another will start at 2 PM by the University of Baltimore. Organizers have asked individuals to bring their own gloves, trash bags, brooms, and food.

In Baltimore, Protesters Demand Redress for Police Killings of Local Men

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 5, 2014.
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Protesters took the streets of Baltimore on Thursday night, following the announcement that Daniel Pantaleo, the white New York City police officer who used a chokehold to kill Eric Garner, a black man, would not be indicted. Garner’s death at Pantaleo’s hands was captured on video shot by a bystander, who recorded Garner gasping for air, saying “I can’t breathe.” The protests, which succeeded in shutting down the city’s annual holiday lighting event early, came three days after Baltimore’s mayor vetoed a bill that would have required police officers to start wearing body cameras.

Baltimore protesters marched not only for Eric Garner of New York, Michael Brown of Ferguson and Tamir Rice of Cleveland—but also for Tyrone West and Anthony Anderson, two unarmed Baltimore black men who died at the hands of the police in 2013. As in the cases of Garner, Brown and Rice, cops faced no charges following the deaths of West and Anderson.

Every Wednesday since July 2013, community members have gathered outside of Baltimore City Hall, calling for the police to be charged with the homicide of Tyrone West. While an independent review issued this past August concluded that the officers did not use excessive force, several witnesses insist they saw cops kick West in the head, spray him with mace, hit him with batons and pull him by his dreadlocks.

Tawanda Jones, Tyrone West’s sister, traveled to New York City earlier this year to meet with Eric Garner’s parents. When news broke on Wednesday that the officer who killed Garner would not be indicted, the weekly City Hall were protesters further riled.

“They had eyewitnesses in my brother’s case and they did nothing,” Jones told Baltimore’s local ABC affiliate on Wednesday night. “But I thought, O.K., [the Garners] have this video that went viral, that everybody saw all over the world, that something at least was going to get done.”

“One of our major demands is to indict killer police,” an organizer said to a crowd gathered by the Washington Monument on Thursday night. “It’s not enough just to put cameras on them. They have to be indicted.”

When the Maryland legislative session opens next month, Baltimore residents plan to head to Annapolis, the state capital, to pressure the state legislature to repeal key components of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights—a statute which many argue impedes meaningful civilian review of police and prevents the disciplining and firing of bad cops. On November 22, the city held a public hearing on law enforcement reform where community leaders, activists, citizens and cops spoke out for nearly three hours.As The Afro, a newspaper that serves the black community, reports, Diane Butler, the aunt that raised Tyrone West, spoke at the hearing and challenged the Baltimore police present in the room on their brutal behavior.

“When was the beating supposed to stop?” she asked. “My son was on the ground screaming for the beating to stop. Was the beating supposed to continue until he was no longer breathing? No longer moving? My son was dead, and your police officer still was kicking him in the back of his head, and he was cuffed.”

A recent Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city paid $5.7 million in judgments and settlements alleging police brutality and civil rights violations since 2011.

The two groups organizing Thursday night’s protests—the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST) and the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly—stressed repeatedly to the crowd that this was “a movement not a moment” and that police brutality will not be solved without fighting for a more equitable economic society. Earlier in the day, activists in more than 150 cities across the country engaged in one-day strikes and rallies as part of the Fight for 15 campaign.

Although Baltimore activists are still pushing for police to wear body cameras, a failure to indict despite the clear video evidence highlights the need to secure additional reforms.

The next Baltimore protest is scheduled for December 13th, followed by an organized “strike against racism” on January 15th—the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr.