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Freddie Gray Case Trials

Ex-cop and blackface performer's fundraiser for officers in Freddie Gray case canceled

Fundraiser for six officers charged in Freddie Gray arrest draws criticism and is canceled.

A Glen Burnie venue on Wednesday abruptly canceled a planned fundraiser for the six Baltimore police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray after the scheduled entertainment — a former Baltimore officer singing in blackface — drew sharp criticism.

Bobby Berger, 67, who was fired from the city police force in the 1980s after his off-duty performances in blackface drew the ire of the NAACP, had said he wanted to revive the act to help the families of the officers.

He said he had sold 600 tickets at $45 each to the bull roast scheduled for Nov. 1 at Michael's Eighth Avenue, where he and several singers planned to perform as guests dined.

In his performances, Berger impersonates Al Jolson, a white entertainer from the 1920s, '30s and '40s best remembered for his blackface performance of "Mammy" in the film "The Jazz Singer."

But after news of the event began spreading Wednesday, Michael's posted a statement on its website saying the event would not be held there.

"No contract was signed with Mr. Berger," the venue wrote. "Michael's does not condone blackface performances of any kind. As an event venue, it has not been the practice of Michael's Eighth Avenue to pre-approve entertainment that is planned as part of a contracted event. This policy will be carefully and thoughtfully reviewed."

Berger's plans drew criticism earlier in the day from the NAACP, the city police union and an attorney representing one of the officers charged in the Gray case.

Ivan Bates, who represents Sgt. Alicia D. White, called the planned entertainment "racist and in poor taste."

"My client will not participate. We will not accept a single solitary dime from this sort of action," Bates said before the show was canceled. "This is the type of racist behavior that we do not need and do not want."

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, called the show "disgusting."

"Right now, with all the things that are going on in Baltimore and also with all the issues with the Confederate flag, this is just putting more salt in the wound."

Michael Davey, an attorney who works with the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, said the union was unaware of the event.

"We don't endorse it. We do not support it, and we will accept no funds from anything involving this event," Davey said.

The police union issued a statement Wednesday saying it has "much respect" for Berger and another retired officer organizing the event but does not condone "any performance representing the iconic racist figure that is Al Jolson" or any fundraising for the officers that does not come directly through the union.

Berger could not be reached for comment after Michael's canceled the event, and it is unclear what will be done for ticket holders.

Earlier, Berger said there is not "one iota of racial overtones" in his blackface performance and that thousands of African-Americans have seen his performances and enjoyed them. He said he organized the fundraiser because he knows how it feels to be suddenly without a paycheck from the department.

"I've been through what they're going through and I know they need the help," he said. "Look at yourself as having a wife and two kids and a mortgage and school payments and everything that comes with it, and a guy comes up to your desk and says, 'We've got to let you go.' How do you survive?"

Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a spinal cord injury in police custody. His death sparked protests across the city. On the day of his funeral, rioting, looting and arson broke out.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby filed charges against the officers that ranged from second-degree murder to misconduct in office. All of the officers — three black and three white — have pleaded not guilty; trials are scheduled for October.

Berger began squabbling with the Police Department over his performances in 1981. The next year, a performance at a downtown hotel led to protests by the NAACP.

The Police Department ordered him to stop performing in blackface. With the backing of the ACLU, Berger sued the department, saying the order violated his right to free speech. He lost in court and was fired.

A federal appeals court later ruled in Berger's favor. When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, a federal district judge ordered the department to rehire Berger and give him more than $108,000 in back pay, legal fees and compensation for humiliation and stress.

After he rejoined the force in 1986, Berger said, he was given a desk but was denied a gun and a badge and given nothing to do. He sued again in 1989, and settled with the department for $200,000 more.

Scott Wagner, vice president of Michael's Eighth Avenue, said before the cancellation that Berger was a friend of his late father and has a good spirit, and that he had decided to let Berger hold the event because it was intended to benefit families.

"Mr. Berger had a plan to help these families because he's been through similar issues," he said. "That's what captured me."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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