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As Baltimore reacts to the death of George Floyd, memories of Freddie Gray weigh heavily

As Baltimore residents watch Minneapolis boil in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody, they cannot help but think back five years.

Tamika Pettis was on her way home from work on that evening in 2015, when unrest broke out just a few steps from her front door in Sandtown-Winchester. A 25-year-old black man named Freddie Gray had died of injuries suffered while in police custody, and the neighborhood where he’d grown up was about to become the nexus of a city’s anger.

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Pettis’ mind leaped right back to that time as she processed Floyd’s death, 1,100 miles away. “You can clearly hear the man say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” she said Friday. “That most definitely could have been handled totally differently. I just think it’s wrong for the police, at times, to handle things the way that they do. They are supposed to be the leaders.”

The video from Minneapolis was too terrible and too familiar: an unarmed 46-year-old black man, pinned under the knee of a white police officer for several minutes as he pleaded that he could not take in enough air.

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When Floyd was pronounced dead 90 minutes later, he became the latest name in a painful American legacy, one that also includes Gray, who died on April 19, 2015. Though the details of the cases are different, similar feelings of anger and helplessness ensued in both cities, spilling over into civil unrest as elected officials debated how to dispense justice.

Again, Americans find themselves watching a city seethe in the aftermath, with buildings aflame, protesters raging and others calling for peace in the streets. In Baltimore, these familiar scenes have inspired mournful and angry comment from the police commissioner, political leaders, community organizers and everyday citizens.

Baltimore civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson has an intimate feel for such moments, having marched on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 and on the streets of his own city after Gray’s death.

“It becomes personal,” he said of watching the events unfolding in Minneapolis. “It’s no longer like, ‘Wow, look at what’s happening in this other place.’ People realize that this not only could happen where they are, but it has already happened.”

Mckesson tries never to feel hopeless, though he conceded that might be difficult for Baltimoreans who’ve lived with dispiriting headlines regarding crime and policing in the five years since Gray’s death. He combats this by steering discussion to the “long, long fight” for just policing, which goes back to the earliest days of the civil rights movement.

“You can’t watch the video of George Floyd and say it makes sense,” he said. “People watch it and they say, ‘OK, I get it, this is wrong.’ But what we have to do is help people understand this is actually a microcosm. This exact outcome will continue unless we change something in the structure.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison offered his own emotional response to Floyd’s death, calling it “deeply horrific and heartbreaking.”

“What we saw in the video was disgusting and shocking to the conscience,” Harrison said. “This does not represent the calling of our officers to serve and protect with dignity and respect.”

He said Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo’s swift decision to fire the four officers involved was "absolutely necessary.” Derek Chauvin, the officer accused of kneeling on Floyd’s neck, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter Friday.

Harrison came from New Orleans to Baltimore in 2019 to reform a department still reeling from the aftermath of Gray’s death. Six Baltimore officers were charged in connection with the incident, but none were convicted.

“What we saw in the video was disgusting and shocking to the conscience."


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The Baltimore police chief did not draw an explicit comparison between Gray and Floyd, but he did speak to the gloomy context around Minneapolis’ unrest.

“The death of George Floyd has shaken America to its core,” he said. “This cannot be what the policing profession stands for. We can and we must ensure that all officers intervene in the bad actions of others so that we prevent incidents like this from happening.”

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Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said watching the footage from Minneapolis “sent chills through my body” as a black man who worries about the men in his family and young black boys in Baltimore.

“It was a stark reminder of our city’s own trauma,” Young said, referencing the unrest after Gray’s death.

The mayor said he hopes planned protests related to Floyd’s death remain peaceful. “To destroy property is just totally unacceptable,” he said.

Harrison said his department is working on contingency plans for how to handle both small- and large-scale demonstrations. He added that he’s been in contact with the Maryland State Police, as well as chiefs from across the country. “There are lessons learned from 2015,” he said.

"People realize that this not only could happen where they are, but it has already happened.”


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As protesters and public officials around the country called for swift justice against the four Minneapolis officers involved in the arrest and death of Floyd, debate over the handling of the Gray case became central to the discourse.

Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County district attorney handling the Floyd case, drew an explicit link to fallout from Gray’s death, saying of the Baltimore case, “There was a rush to charge, it was a rush to justice, and all of those people were found not guilty.”

That prompted a harsh retort from Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who brought criminal charges against the six police officers arrested in the Gray case. “I stand by the decision I made 12 days after Freddie Gray was killed,” she said in a statement released Thursday. “I didn’t have video footage of a murder — evidence any prosecutor would dream of. Mr. Freeman needs to own his decisions and be courageous enough to decide whether or not to pursue justice for the murder of George Floyd.”

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore’s mayor during the 2015 unrest, also weighed in during an appearance Thursday on CNN, saying: “It’s very important to get it right and not just get it fast. When you are dealing with charges against a police officer, we have seen historically the bar is so high on findings of guilt.”

During an appearance Friday on NBC’s “Today” Show, Gov. Larry Hogan said he reached out to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to offer support and advice but rejected direct comparisons between the Floyd and Gray cases.

“I don’t think it’s a fair comparison,” Hogan said. “The evidence here seems overwhelming and clear to me. You have a video of exactly what happened.”

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City Councilman John Bullock, who represents the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Gray was arrested, said the parallels between Baltimore and Minneapolis are unavoidable.

He said the unrest in each city was linked to how “police are treating people in communities” and to underlying inequalities in education, housing and employment.

Bullock hopes the Floyd case will force Baltimoreans to reflect on what’s happened to their city over the last five years, which have been haunted by drastic spikes in violent crime.

“Make no mistake, it had a dramatic impact in our city. And now, looking at what is going on in Minneapolis, it is very eerily similar,” he said. “Clearly, we are not where we need to be as a city as of yet, but I think we have made some steps in the right direction.”

The Rev. Dr. Heber M. Brown III, a community organizer and leader of the Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, tried to maintain calm in 2015 by asking out-of-town protesters to avoid violence.

He wasn’t surprised by the unrest in Minneapolis and said there will be more, given the systemic inequalities that plague Baltimore and the rest of the country. “The basic ingredients we are seeing in Minnesota are here in Baltimore and many other cities,” Brown said.

He lamented a lack of substantive change since Gray’s death, arguing that community members can’t wait for reform to come from the top down. For example, he launched the Black Church Food Security Network to promote healthier living in the black community. To see change, he said, “it’s really is up to the black community to organize itself to force the power.”

A protest is planned Friday evening at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and Baltimore activists plan to hold a downtown protest Saturday afternoon.

“I think the frustrations are the same,” said Sharon Black, an East Baltimore resident and activist with the Peoples Power Assembly, which is planning the demonstration. “As long as there are frustrations, people will see the kind of rebellions that took place in Baltimore and Minneapolis.”

Black regularly participated in protests following Gray’s death.

She said reform efforts in the years since have fallen short, in part because residents do not trust their city government or police department. While Harrison was hired improve his department’s relationship with the community, Black still sees a lack of respect from officers. She noted a recent video of a sergeant appearing to cough as he passed a woman in a city housing project.

“When you have that level of disrespect, it becomes an us and them,” she said.

She called for a civilian review board that would be empowered to take action on police complaints. She added that such efforts must be paired with greater investments in education and affordable housing.

A rebellion, “frankly, it’s the only thing to get people to notice stuff,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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