Freddie Gray’s family deserves to know why he died in police custody. The Baltimore protesters, thousands of whom rallied peacefully in the days before violence broke out Monday (and who the media had less interest in), deserve answers too.
Why do black men continue to die at the hands of police? When will something be done about it?
It’s easy for me, a white, middle class guy to write a column about it. It’s harder for black communities who continue to live it. Frustration on their part is not hard to understand. It’s also never an excuse for violence.
But protester violence is no excuse for ignoring or even accepting police violence. Some seem to veer in that direction when these ugly spectacles erupt.
Between Ferguson and Baltimore, we should all be accustomed to the narrative by now. A black man dies in the presence of police under questionable circumstances. The community protests. Some protesters turn violent. The violence receives the most media attention. Police brutality receives less attention. Police violence becomes overshadowed by protest violence. Some Americans watching their computers and TVs might even begin to believe that the citizens of these communities somehow deserve abuse based on the despicable behavior of a relative few. Innocent people speaking up for their rights and basic humanity end up getting lumped together with genuine criminals.
On the morning after the Baltimore riots, some began to circulate Freddie Gray’s criminal record on social media. Why would anyone share this? What are they trying to say? Are they suggesting that his crimes excuse his death? Are they suggesting that his criminal record reflects the character of those who protest in his name?
Lots of people have criminal records in this country.
Actor Will Smith was once charged with aggravated assault and criminal conspiracy in an incident that almost left a man blind. Actor Mark Wahlberg was almost charged with murder but was sentenced to two years in prison for assault instead. Actor Robert Downey, Jr. was arrested for possessing cocaine, heroin, crack and a pistol. He got three years probation and then was sentenced to six months in prison after violating his parole. Four years after all of this, he was arrested again for cocaine.
Former President George W. Bush is said to have been arrested on cocaine charges in the early 1970s and his family connections somehow expunged his record.
If Smith, Wahlberg, Downey, Jr. and Bush were not famous or rich, got into a tussle with police that resulted in their deaths, one could easily try to undermine their character publicly by advertising their criminal pasts. But can you imagine if any of these well-known and influential men died while being stopped by police? No one would stand for it.
Gray’s record shows multiple drug charges, one theft and one burglary. Reason’s Ed Krayewski writes, “Freddie Gray’s lengthy arrest record is making the rounds on social media as certain people look for any reason to dismiss the grievances over police violence residents of Baltimore have expressed.” “Most of the charges on the record are drug-related, and most did not end in a conviction,” he adds.
Krayewski emphasizes, “But Freddie Gray’s record, no matter what’s on it, doesn’t explain why he died. Gray died from a fatal spine injury days after being arrested for alleged possession of a knife.”
One headline from right-wing site Clash Daily read “Freddy Gray’s Arrest Record: Here’s the Rap Sheet of the Dude They’re Destroying Baltimore Over.” “Let the TRUTH be known” was above Gray’s police record.
The story had 381,000 Facebook shares as of this writing.
The Department of Justice’s Ferguson report revealed awful and indefensible systemic abuse of that city’s black citizens by their local government, but it was widely ignored. The Baltimore Sun last year reported on multiple incidents of police brutality and the attempts to cover it up. Between these two reports alone, separated by 800 miles but joined by common circumstances and dynamics, there exist patterns.
There is no excuse for monsters who attack innocent people, loot and destroy private property. President Obama said those who committed violence in Baltimore this week are “criminals” and “thugs.” He’s right.
But the tragic chain of events in Baltimore did not happen in a vacuum. Police brutalizing and killing the people they’re paid to protect does happen—particularly if you’re black—and more frequently than most would, or should, be comfortable with.
The anguish in Baltimore this week in the wake of the riots is real.
So is the rage. And it didn’t start this week.