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Eyes wide open to problems experienced by black men

Friends and witnesses to the arrest of Freddie Gray talk about what happened. (Baltimore Sun)

"Innocent people don't run from cops," a follower posted on my Facebook page, a comment on the circumstances that ultimately led to the death of Freddie Gray. To which I respond: "Easy for a white man to say."

Any white American who has not had eyes opened by the citizen-captured videos of Gray's arrest in West Baltimore or the killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina or the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York must live in the nation's 51st state — the state of denial.

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For decades, verbal or written complaints by African-American men about police harassment might have gone in one white ear and out the other. But there's no way videos can be dismissed. In the digital age, they have the raw force of now, the power to make the most skeptical old cynic agree that something is deeply wrong.

I didn't know Gray. I don't know the cops who were involved in stopping and arresting him. I know that he was black, and that historically, 25-year-old black men in Baltimore have far more contacts with police than 25-year-old white men.

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According to a court document, Gray "fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence."

And that was enough for the Facebook poster to presume guilt.

Until recently, I might have agreed with him.

Now I can just as easily think this: Maybe Freddie Gray had reason to fear the police. Maybe his last encounter with them didn't go well. Maybe he thought he could outrun them and avoid a confrontation on a pleasant Sunday morning in spring.

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Of course, that's speculation on my part. But there's a lot of that going around, and for good reason.

Until Monday, we had little information about what happened during Gray's encounter with police in West Baltimore on April 12.

Thanks to a court document obtained by Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Jessica Anderson, we have the first bit of light about why police arrested Freddie Gray. It took more than a week.

But while charging documents mention that Gray was carrying a switchblade-like knife, we have nothing more on why he came to the attention of police to begin with, and we still know precious little about how he received the severe injuries that contributed to his death.

Given that Gray's arrest was videotaped by an onlooker, and given the present atmosphere in Baltimore — with a Justice Department inquiry into police misconduct opening deep and festering wounds — you'd think the mayor and police commissioner would want to get answers a lot faster than at the present pace. And if they have answers, you'd think they would share them with an angry public.

Given the atmosphere in the nation — with distrust of police forged in Ferguson and other places where encounters have led to the deaths of unarmed citizens — you'd think we'd have more information by now.

Obviously, it is prudent for the police to conduct a thorough investigation.

Transparency is good. But some situations call for transparency a whole lot faster than we've seen here. A delay of this length fosters more distrust — not only among the immediate family of the deceased, but among those of us who have had our eyes opened by these disturbing cellphone videos.

In the Gray case, it's hard to believe that it takes more than a week to come up with some straightforward answers: Why did police stop him? What explains his apparently painful condition, as seen in the citizen-captured video of his arrest, when he was led to a police wagon? (Some might say he was carried, others that he was dragged.)

And what happened to Gray during his transport in the police wagon?

Police have provided a timeline of events, but not much else. The fact that officers found Gray with a knife was not volunteered during the last week; the reference was found in a District Court document. The document says Gray was arrested "without force or incident," but the citizen video challenges that assertion as well as the mayor's claim that what happened to Gray occurred inside the police wagon and not on the street.

A few years ago, I might have suggested that we all just be quiet and patiently wait for the investigation to be completed.

But the Freddie Gray video, and others like it, announce the new reality for police departments, for all of us: Eyes are everywhere; citizens are watching and recording, and their videos travel fast. Social and mainstream news media quickly push these stories in front of our eyes, as never before, and a plodding pace of explanation doesn't work. It compounds distrust.

People see a disturbing image, and they want to know what it means.

Earnest as the mayor and police commissioner might seem, this week of mystery about Gray's arrest did nothing to restore public confidence in the Police Department's ability to police itself. And it makes you wonder what might have happened in the old days, before the prevalence of video cameras.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. he also hosts "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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