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'Stay woke,' Baltimore

For those demanding justice for Freddie Gray, and, by extension, for us all, this is no time to retreat into defeatism, permitting the anger and frustration to build to the next explosion. The mission is simple: Stay woke.

"Justice," according to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, "is a process, not a verdict."

People who have had little reason to expect justice, based on their own experiences and those of their relatives, friends and neighbors, are familiar with process. It is justice that is unrecognizable — especially after a process that has so far held no police officers accountable for the fatal injuries Freddie Gray sustained sometime after being chased and arrested in Sandtown-Winchester for reasons that would not hold water in other parts of Baltimore.

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The verdict so far, after three trials, is that criminal law does not cover the actions of the police officers involved in the arrest process. However, it does cover the actions of Donta Betts, who was sentenced to 15 years for destroying property during the riot that followed Freddie Gray's funeral last year. To paraphrase Charles Dickens in the classic novel "Oliver Twist," if the law dictates this, then the law is messed up. For sure, the police are being tried under state law, while Mr. Betts was prosecuted under federal law. But the sickening feeling of something being wrong with this picture is no respecter of jurisdiction.

When Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced on May 1 last year that she would bring charges against six police officers who had been involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, that seemed like justice to the thousands of people who took to the streets and the Internet in joyful celebration. Veterans of process like me warned: Slow your roll. There was nothing particularly prescient in that advice. Experience has shown that police officers are rarely charged and even more rarely convicted in such circumstances — even in the era of smartphone surveillance by civilians standing sentry.

Reaction to the acquittal of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. last week was resignation rather than a riot. But I, for one, am not ready to throw in the towel. Justice will not be measured by the conviction and imprisonment of members of Baltimore's constabulary, but justice has not been completely denied.

So what does justice look like? Its contours are still coming into focus, but a few things are evident, starting with the $6.4 million settlement that Freddie Gray's family and lawyers are getting from the city. No city pays that kind of money unless its officials know that their people have done something wrong — even if they never officially utter such words in the course of the legal process.

The unrest that spawned a heightened level of activism has not been for naught. Though Officer Goodson was acquitted of "depraved heart" murder, surely he and many other cops have been changed. Moreover, the cold hearts of some Baltimoreans who lived in willful ignorance of the struggles of thousands of their neighbors have been warmed to awareness.

Changes in policing are underway, but the extent to which they trickle down from the lips and the pen of Commissioner Kevin Davis to the cops on the beat bears watching. Recent announcements about training and accountability are promising. If little else, the trial process has exposed the gulf between what policing policy supposedly is and what officers on patrol understand they can get away with. An incoming new mayor with an infusion of new blood on the City Council is poised to push for more criminal justice changes; so is an invigorated network of activists committed to obtaining legislative reforms in Annapolis.

For those demanding justice for Freddie Gray, and, by extension, for us all, this is no time to retreat into defeatism, permitting the anger and frustration to build to the next explosion a la 1968 or a la 2015. What must be done now may be simply stated. For all who have marched and registered voters and planted community gardens and set up safe zones for kids, for artists who have given voice in words and in music and in visual arts, for reformists who have won modest changes at all levels of government, for an entering class of officeholders and for budding Jeremiahs in emerging modes of communication, the mission, in the name of Freddie Gray, is this: Stay woke.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: er.shipp@aol.com.

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