On April 12, Freddie Gray was severely injured in an encounter with the police, suffering a severed spine and damaged voice box. He died a week later. He was not the first detainee to experience severe spinal injuries while in police custody. Since 2004, at least two others have suffered severe spinal injuries while detained by Baltimore police officers. And he is not the first Baltimore resident to be mistreated by the police—the city has paid out over $6 million in police-related cases since 2011, and between 2010 and 2014 more than 100 people have died in police custody.
City and state officials are not ignorant here, nor are they passive bystanders. Baltimore residents have organized for police reform for years and have been consistently ignored by both the Maryland General Assembly and the mayor. Cronyism, and a system that grants too much power to officials and influential interests, severely reduces the ability of citizens like Gray to be heard. And our elected officials, whatever their stated differences in policy or personality styles, too often bear twin-like resemblance to one another when it comes to their attention to the serious problems of inequity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Gray's death at the hands of Baltimore police has pushed rage to a tipping point. Last week, we had police in riot gear, a National Guard presence, and curfews in Baltimore. City, and state leaders have not come up with a response beyond controlling communities. During the uprising in 1968, Gov. Spiro Agnew asked black leaders to control the protests and to quell demonstrations while refusing to engage in the issues of racial injustice that drove people of Baltimore to rise up after MLK's assassination. One could argue officials are using the same tactics and strategies Baltimore used almost 50 years ago.
We believe another way is possible.
It is being defined by the efforts of a number of grassroots organizations with actual accountability to their communities.
This way recognizes that the people of the Western District in particular, the people who live in the neighborhood Freddie Gray lived in, have a right to the city. They have a right to all of the services the city provides. They have a right to be treated as full citizens by the government and by government officials. This right is an inherent right, rather than a privilege only conferred to people with the right class background, the right education, the right job, or the right race.
This way also involves recognizing that the police themselves lie at the heart of the problem we face in Baltimore. While Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and President Obama himself talk about "thugs," it bears noting that neither have focused on the specific, literally back-breaking activity of the police; they've only referred to it in the abstract. There can be no effective peace generated by police actions. They have neither the capacity nor the legitimacy.
Finally, this way involves policy. City and state officials have an opportunity to not just provide carbon-copy approaches, but to actually recognize citizens' right to the city, by providing increased access, authority, and control. This would not only allow more people at the table but, by acknowledging that the table is, in fact, the people's table, Baltimore could become a city that breaks the current, unjust, mold of what a city can be.
There are a range of policies we know can make police function to protect rather than harm the public interest. These policies not only include mandatory use of body cameras, but policies that require that review boards include regular citizens, reduce the amount of time police can go without giving a formal statement, and extend the amount of time citizens have to file a formal complaint.
In addition, as Freddie Gray faced not only police violence but economic violence, there are a range of policies that we know can increase the quality of life people like Freddie Gray have, policies that can enable them to exert their right to the city. These policies include support for public institutions like public housing, they include support for local control of schools, they include support for worker-owned cooperatives, they include support for limitations on the types of weapons and restraints police may use.
There's a popular quote that likely predates "The Wire." There's the Baltimore that reads and the Baltimore that bleeds. We know which Baltimore Gray lived in. Indeed, that's likely why he was killed with impunity. It is in all of our best interests to create one Baltimore. A Baltimore that leads.