We don't need four investigations to answer what may be the most consequential questions posed by the events leading up to Freddie Gray's death: Why did police approach him on April 12, why did he run, and why did they chase him? The outcome of that encounter was a tragic injustice of the sort that sends thousands of people into the streets to protest. But the forces that led up to it are the kind of tragic injustice that is too easy to ignore.
By no account — not even that of the officers who arrested him — was Gray doing anything wrong that morning when police arrived. It turns out he had a switchblade in his pocket according to police, but he wasn't brandishing it or threatening anyone. According to a police report, all that happened was that an officer made eye contact with him and another man. Gray and his companion ran, and the officers pursued him.
Why did Gray run? He had been arrested a number of times in the past on relatively minor drug charges and other piddling offenses, like having "gaming cards, dice." Did that make him a bad person, a shady character? His friends and neighbors say no. What it makes him is all too typical in a neighborhood where generations of crushing poverty and the war on drugs combine to rob countless young people like him of meaningful opportunities.
The neighborhood where he lived, Sandtown-Winchester, recently made news as the census tract that is home to more inmates in the Maryland correctional system than any other. But that is not the only way in which it is exceptional. Four years ago, the Baltimore Health Department issued a community profile of that neighborhood and even in a city where poverty is widespread, it stands out. The unemployment rate there is about double the citywide average, and so is the poverty rate. Similarly, there are about twice as many liquor stores and tobacco outlets per capita in Sandtown-Winchester as in the city as a whole. Fully a quarter of juveniles in that neighborhood had been arrested between 2005 and 2009. It had the worst domestic violence rate of any of the neighborhoods the health department analyzed and among the worst rates for non-fatal shootings and homicides. A quarter of the buildings are vacant, and the lead paint violation rate is triple the city average. (Gray and his sisters suffered from lead paint poisoning as children.) The only metric the health department analyzed in which Sandtown-Winchester was the best in the city was in the density of fast food restaurants. Perhaps it's too poor to have any.
If all that doesn't amount to an excuse for Freddie Gray's apparently small-scale, non-violent participation in the drug trade, it certainly should qualify as an explanation.
And what of the police? The Supreme Court ruled long ago that fleeing from officers is not, in itself, probable cause to make an arrest. Department policy calls for suspects to be buckled into seat belts when they are transported in police vans and for officers to get medical attention for suspects when they request it, but neither happened in this case. Whatever role they may or may not have played in the injuries the caused Gray's death, their actions can only be explained by the corrosive effects of a drug war that has turned entire communities into criminal suspects.
The per capita arrest rate for African Americans in Baltimore is more than three times that for other races, and it's not just a matter of blacks committing more crimes. Things people get away with in nice neighborhoods are the subject of heavy enforcement in places like Sandtown-Winchester. For example, though whites and blacks smoke marijuana at about the same rate, the per capita marijuana possession arrest rate for blacks in Baltimore was 5.6 times higher than that for whites in 2010, according to an analysis by the ACLU. The marijuana possession arrest rate declined by 20 percent in the five years after the peak of O'Malley-era zero-tolerance policing, but the arrest rate for blacks increased by 20 percent. The Sun's Justin Fenton this week reported on a man's arrest for jaywalking near a Freddie Gray protest.
Baltimore police officers are not bad people, but they are put in an untenable position. They are sent to clean up communities like Sandtown-Winchester, where decades of social and economic devastation have left the drug trade as the only viable option for many, and their actions only make it more difficult for the people who live there to find legitimate jobs. The cycle self-perpetuates, and resentment builds until it blows over in a case like this one. It cannot continue. Thousands are now in the streets demanding justice for Freddie Gray, and we hope he gets it. But what's needed even more is for the city to deliver justice for the communities full of people like him.