By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
The custodial death of an African American, arrested on flimsy charges, brings to the fore simmering resentment against a long history of police brutality in a city beset by endemic poverty and a high unemployment rate.
Man, it’s hard just to live, just to live.
—Nina Simone, 1978.
On April 19, Freddie Gray (25) died in police custody in Baltimore. The circumstances of Gray’s arrest and incarceration will be fully explored in the court case to come. For now, the details are murky. It appears that on the morning of April 12, two police officers saw Gray and made eye contact with him, after which he fled. This is not sufficient reason for the police to have pursued Gray. As the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, Marilyn Mosby, said later there was no “probable cause” for the police to have arrested Gray. He was then forcibly taken into custody and thrown into a police van. During the journey, Gray somehow fractured three vertebrae, injured his voice box and severed 80 per cent of the spine from his neck. The police claim they did not do anything. Mosby, however, said that Gray “suffered a critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside the [Baltimore Police Department] wagon”.
The method used against Gray is notorious in Baltimore, and elsewhere. It is called “rough riding”: the police handcuff suspects, put them into the back of a police van without a seatbelt and then swerve and brake rapidly to toss them around in the van’s cage. In 2005, police arrested Dondi Johnson (43) on the charge of public urination. He was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a van. Dondi Johnson was in reasonable health, but when the van stopped at the station, he had become a quadriplegic; he died two weeks later. His relatives won a court case (including $7.4 million in compensation). Johnson’s case was the most famous one before that of Freddie Gray. Both were African American.
Baltimore, like many U.S. cities, is afflicted with an epidemic of police violence. In the past four years, over a hundred residents have successfully sued the police for brutal incidents. Among those who won lawsuits is a grandmother (87) who was aiding her wounded grandson, a church deacon (65) who was rolling a cigarette and a church volunteer (50) who was selling raffle tickets. The ordinariness of the cases shows how dangerously out of control the police have become. On May 1, after immense pressure from the public, Mosby indicted six police officers for the death of Gray. The charges are serious, including second-degree depraved-heart murder, involuntary manslaughter and second-degree assault. Mosby’s charge against the officers has subdued public anger a bit, but it has also raised expectations. If the six officers are not found guilty, Baltimore is in danger of a much more serious explosion.
Mosby’s statement and the warrants for the arrests of the officers came two weeks after Gray’s death. In the space of those two weeks, Baltimore experienced a powerful and painful uprising. On April 25, six days after his death, city activists organised a rally on his behalf. As with all such protests, the anger could not be contained. Violence against shops began almost immediately.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake blamed it on “a small group of agitators”. But that group quickly grew in size. They could not be contained—not even by harsh police retribution. The anger, built up over a long period of time, simply had to find an outlet. Gray’s death only provided the spur, it was not the reason for this eruption. The riots in Baltimore had too much ferocity in them to be merely about the death of one man.
A study by City Observatory, a website and think tank devoted to data-driven analysis of cities and the policies that shape them, demonstrates endemic poverty in the heart of Baltimore. A high density of unshakeable poverty remains, with only one census tract—the Middle East neighbourhood—showing any change in fortunes (the reason why the Middle East improved has more to do with large-scale displacement of the population for East Baltimore Development, Inc., than any improvement of life for the residents).
Freddie Gray’s Sandtown neighbourhood, which is almost entirely African American, has an official unemployment rate of 24 per cent. Half the residents live below the poverty rate and more than a third of the homes lie vacant. Eviction rates, which had been high even before the financial crisis of 2008, became higher in its aftermath. This is an urban desert, where jobs are impossible to find and where the police are the state’s main emissary.
Why did the rioters target a CVS Pharmacy outlet and the Mondawmin Mall? Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “We worked so hard to get a company like CVS to invest in this neighbourhood. This is the only place that so many people have to pick up their prescriptions.” Economists have shown how in impoverished areas of the United States, consumer goods are on average more expensive than in richer areas. This is known as “retail redlining” or the “ghetto tax”.
Matt Fellowes, who conducted a study on this tax for the Brookings Institute, found that across the board the poor pay higher prices for mortgages, automobile loans, furniture, appliances, electronics, financial services, groceries and insurance. Anger at retail establishments for their harsh treatment of the poor is a simple explanation of why these shops are targeted during riots.
In a statement, President Barack Obama acknowledged the failure of state policy to address the issue of poverty and the centrality of the police. “If we think that we’re just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, then we’re not going to solve this problem.”
Fulminations against the rioters by the political class have become cliched. It is what one expects, and it is what Obama and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake delivered. Politicians say the blame rests with the frustrated and the angry and not with those who produced the social conditions of contemporary Baltimore. Nonetheless, the political class has now openly recognised that the way out for the city is not to send in more police but to tackle poverty. That they have no agenda for this is a separate issue.
Tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets in solidarity with the people of Baltimore and to seek justice for Freddie Gray. These protests put immense pressure on the city of Baltimore to act. Mosby’s indictment, which came partly from the merits of the case, also stemmed from anxiousness about the escalation of the protests.