Given the circumstances of Freddie Gray's death, it's hardly a surprise that many in this city are justifiably concerned about the behavior of the Baltimore Police Department and the six officers who had contact with the 25-year-old when he was arrested and placed in custody and who have since been relieved of duty while the incident is under investigation. People are upset, angry and suspicious. And it's understandable that emotions are running high.
What's been remarkable to this point is not that there have been protests, but that to date those demonstrations have been civil and peaceful. No acts of violence or vandalism. No reprisals against officers or vice versa. One can almost sense the disappointment of network cable news crews: Baltimore is no Ferguson, Mo. The city is not in flames.
Yet it wouldn't take a great deal for that to change. And one way to goad the protesters — if one was so inclined — would be for someone in a position of authority to describe this reasonable public behavior as sounding potentially criminal and murderous. And worse, to do so with terminology associated primarily with public hangings of black men in the South. that's what happened this week when Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3 President Gene Ryan issued a statement that the rhetoric of the protests he's seen through television "look and sound much like a lynch mob."
In what way might a group of predominantly African-American men and women concerned about the treatment of an African-American man by police be construed as a lynch mob? To Mr. Ryan, it was because some involved in the protests had apparently called for police officers to be jailed without due process. Well, here's someone who might have been perfectly happy to be jailed during a criminal investigation: George Armwood. He was the last black man killed by an actual lynch mob in Maryland, a 28-year-old dragged out of a Somerset County jail and hanged from an oak tree in Princess Anne on Oct. 18, 1933.
To be fair to Mr. Ryan, his statement also acknowledged that protests have been peaceful, and he suggested at a subsequent news conference that the lynch mob description "maybe" deserved "rewording." His heightened sensitivity to lynch mobs perhaps was provided by William "Billy" Murphy, the Gray family's attorney who not only possesses a greater awareness of Maryland's civil rights history but a better facility with words. He called Mr. Ryan's lapse an illustration of "why black people and police don't get along." Sadly, he may be right.
Police union leaders aren't normally given to restraint when it comes to backing their members — just listen to them on the touchy subject of pension benefits and contract negotiations — but this is one example of where they should be. Not because it's in the public interest (although it would be a better world if all were driven by the greater good) but because it's in the interests of police officers Mr. Ryan claims to represent, including those now under possible suspicion. If the public doesn't believe that Baltimore is conducting an impartial, fair and thorough investigation in the death of Freddie Gray, serious damage will be done to the already-strained relationship between police and the residents of Baltimore.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake clearly understands this. So does Commissioner Anthony W. Batts who has acknowledged that there are historic and legitimate reasons for distrust. So has Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby who told The Sun's editorial board today that the minority community's distrust of police and the criminal justice system is shared by many living in urban centers. "It's real, and we're seeing that," she said. For that matter, so does Gov. Larry Hogan, who was criticized last fall for a dismissive response to the Ferguson protests but who has been spot-on in his reaction to the demonstrations in Baltimore, acknowledging the legitimate concerns of the protesters and thanking those involved for expressing them peacefully.
The last thing this situation needed was the kerosene of lynch mob rhetoric poured on top. Fortunately, it appears that the protesters are not as volatile as some believe. What this community needs right now is for the various investigations, local and federal, to be conducted as thoroughly and swiftly as possible — and most especially without fear of prejudice or outside pressure, either for or against those directly involved. Let all of us be guided by the facts and in the process demonstrate that Baltimore is capable of both civility and justice for all.