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Freddie Gray Case Trials

Friends, family bid farewell to Freddie Gray

“The eyes of the country are all on us.” — Gray family attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy

In a funeral service that was both personal and political, family, friends and strangers alike said farewell on Monday to Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man whose death from injuries sustained in police custody has sparked a national furor.

"With everything that we've been through, ain't no way you can sit here and be silent in the face of injustice," the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant exhorted in an impassioned eulogy at New Shiloh Baptist Church on the city's west side.

Among the thousands who packed the church were celebrated activist Dick Gregory and family members of Trayvon Martin. Also in attendance were politicians: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, who drew rousing applause from the crowd; Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and John Sarbanes and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume; and several representatives from the Obama administration, including Broderick Johnson, the Baltimore native who heads the president's My Brother's Keeper initiative to empower black youth.

But it was Gray's family — his mother, father, stepfather, grandmother and sisters — whom much of the crowd came to embrace, figuratively and literally. Attendees caused something of a bottleneck, filing into the church, spending a solemn or emotional moment in front of Gray's casket, and waiting to offer a hug or a few words to the grieving relatives.

Masherra Hunt, 24, of Windsor Mill brought her 1-year-old daughter, Harmony, to the service.

"I'm here to support Freddie Gray and his family," she said. "And hoping we get justice."

The speakers drew both cheers and tears, while soloists and a choir provided a heartfelt soundtrack.

"The eyes of the country are all on us," former judge and Gray family attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy told the crowd. "They want to see if we have the stuff to get this right."

Murphy denounced a police culture that he said protects officers from accountability. Without witnesses, he said, police would not be under scrutiny for their actions during Gray's arrest.

"Let's don't kid ourselves. We wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for video cameras," he said. "Instead of one coverup behind that blue wall after another coverup behind that blue wall … and one lie after another lie, now we see the truth as never before. It's not a pretty picture."

Gray, 25, arrested April 12 near Gilmor Homes in West Baltimore, emerged from a ride in a police van with what turned out to be a severed spinal cord and crushed voicebox. He died a week later.

Protesters have taken to the streets to demand more information on how he was injured in police custody. Despite appeals from Gray's family for peace, demonstrations gave way to incidents of vandalism on Saturday night, and more serious violence on Monday afternoon, after the funeral. But Murphy challenged the media for focusing on the "half of a percent of people who don't know how to act."

Cummings called for "oceans of justice" and "rivers of fairness," saying it's what Gray would have wanted.

"I've often said that our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see," he said. "But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see. "There's something wrong with that picture."

His voice quavering, Cummings said he put his own nephew "in the grave four years ago … blasted away, still don't know who did it."

"For me, I am in the twilight years, but I am telling you we will not rest, we will not rest until we address this and see that justice is done," he said.

He turned to Gray's mother, Gloria Darden.

"It's our watch," he said. "We will not fail you."

Amid a succession of fiery speakers, the crowd fell silent to listen as Gray's stepfather, Richard Shipley, quietly read a poem he said the family wrote for their lost loved one.

"You're still here in my heart and mind," he read. "I feel you, and this gives me strength and courage. The tears I've cried for you could flood the earth, and know you have wiped each one away."

Two hours before the service, dozens of people were lined up at the door of the church in the Mondawmin neighborhood of West Baltimore, waiting to be let in to pay respects to Gray. On entering, they passed a half-dozen white-clad women holding out boxes of tissues.

As mourners filed in solemnly, video screens alternated the message "BLACK LIVES MATTER" and "& ALL LIVES MATTER."

An hour before the start of the service, about 75 members of Gray's extended family came in together, escorted by ushers in dark suits and white gloves. They stopped at Gray's casket, pausing to show their respect, and then began filling row after row of the center section reserved for them.

By the time they were all seated, a 36-member choir on the stage had begun a rousing version of the gospel hymn "Do Not Pass Me By," turning the mood from solemnity to celebration.

Some of Baltimore's most prominent ministers formed a semicircle behind Gray's casket, the Rev. Harold A. Carter Jr. of New Shiloh, the Rev. Frank Reid III of Bethel AME, and Bryant among them, as well as the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Jackson told reporters before the service during a news conference that there are "two Baltimores": the one that includes the Inner Harbor and other tourist areas, and the Baltimore that features 16,000 vacant lots and thousands of lives often deemed "expendable."

He called for special prosecutors who can devote all their energies to cases such as Gray's, and more programs that produce training for jobs helping to cure inner-city ills such as lead paint in older buildings. Gray and his siblings filed a lawsuit in 2008, saying they had been poisoned in one of their childhood homes.

Also at the news conference were people whose relatives had been killed by police, representing a group called Families United 4 Justice.

Erica Garner, 24, whose father, Eric Garner, died in an encounter with police in Staten Island, said his death "turned me into an activist overnight."

She said she felt a connection to Gray's family. "I want to stand with other families like mine," she said.

Constance Malcolm also came down from New York. Her 18-year-old son, Ramarley Graham, was killed by New York City police in June 2012. "This opens up old wounds," she said. "And no matter how hard you try not to be angry, it makes you angry.

"We're being harmed by the people who are supposed to protect us. We can't even tell our children to run to the police when they're in trouble because we're afraid the cops might shoot them."

Garner said her 6-foot-3, 350-pound father was "a teddy bear," but police, in their instinctive "fear" of black men, didn't take the time to look past his size.

Malcolm said her son was not the gang member police believed him to be.

"Why hire officers who are basically afraid of the communities they're serving in?" she asked, tearfully.

Gregory, 82, received warm applause. He told The Baltimore Sun Gray's death could prove to be a turning point.

"This is something that happens every day," he said. "But I think this could be the one that breaks it open. "There's something in the air."

After the service, Gregory surveyed the crush of people at the doorway to watch Gray's casket begin its journey to Woodlawn Cemetery.

"This," Gregory said, "helps heal."

Four members of two city motorcycle clubs, Forever Kyngz and Twist of Fate, sat on a bench outside the church during the funeral, wearing dark vests emblazoned with patches and waiting to provide the funeral cortege a noisy escort to the cemetery.

They didn't know Freddie Gray, but they knew many people who grew up in similar neighborhoods having similar contact with police officers, said Timothy Henderson.

"This is too familiar," he said. "We're supporting our own."

Earl and Cheryl Solomon of Baltimore stood on a curb and watched the crush of photographers surrounding Gray's hearse and other funeral vehicles.

Neither knew Freddie Gray, Earl Solomon said, but they live only a few blocks away from Sandtown, and came to "show condolences and give our respect to the family."

"We feel as though the community needs to come together, to work with city officials and the police so everyone can find a way to get along," he said. "It's a tragedy that it takes something like this to bring us all together."

"We're not asking for a perfect world," Cheryl Solomon said. "We're just asking for basic respect."

An hour after the funeral ended, about 150 mourners assembled below a grassy slope at Woodlawn Cemetery, where an elaborate wreath of white roses sat atop Gray's casket.

Darden, Gray's mother, opened a heart-shaped white basket to release a white dove that soared into a cloudy sky, circled and flew away.

Motorcycle engines revved in the background and friends cried "Pepper! Pepper!" — Gray's nickname — as the casket was lowered into the ground.

Darden leaned over and somberly gazed in.

"He's smiling down there," she said.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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