Baltimore: A Canary in a Coal Mine
We talk to Baltimore activists about the Freddie Gray trial and what it means for the city, as well as the nation
BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about the Freddie Gray trial that’s going on here in Baltimore. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us again. And don’t go anywhere.
FLETCHER: The trial for the officers charged with killing Freddie Gray is underway here in Baltimore, Maryland. On May 21, a grand jury returned indictments against all six police officers charged with Gray’s death.
Gray, a native of West Baltimore, was pronounced dead after suffering fatal injuries to his spinal cord on April 19 of this year. These injuries were sustained after Gray was held in police custody.
In the aftermath of Gray’s death, the City of Baltimore was ablaze with uprisings and protests, becoming a national symbol of resistance.
Today we’re going to talk about the latest in the Freddie Gray case and what it means for the City of Baltimore–indeed, what it means for the United States. Don’t go anywhere.
FLETCHER: We’re joined for this discussion with Mikayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Rose.
Makayla Gilliam-Price is the 2015 recipient of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations Certificate of Accomplishment and the Wired Up Community Hero Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Youth Leadership. She is senior at Baltimore City College high school in Baltimore, Maryland.
Also joining us is Kwame Rose, who’s a native Baltimorean known for his social activism, hip hop career, and online blogging. He served on the executive board for Brothers In Action and is currently developing his own organization. He is with the BE Foundation.
Welcome to The Global African.
MAKAYLA GILLIAM-PRICE: Thank you.
KWAME ROSE: Thank you for having me.
FLETCHER: A pleasure.
So we’re here to talk about the Freddie Gray case. And the trial has just started. But there’s many of our viewers that probably don’t have a clear sense as to what that case is all about. So if one of you could, just take us through it. What happened?
ROSE: So Freddie Gray was a young black man that grew up in the projects of Gilmor Homes and, well, Sandtown, in West Baltimore. One early morning, three bike cops were patrolling the neighborhood and spotted Freddie Gray, and he immediately ran–the normal instinct that young black people have in Baltimore City in particular and across America. After running, he was eventually caught and arrested by Baltimore City cops. And during his transportation to jail, his spine was severed almost 80 percent. He eventually died, a week later, after being in custody in Shock Trauma Hospital.
Freddie Gray’s case sparked an outrage not just a nationally, internationally, but here locally on the ground as well, where you literally had thousands of young people pour into the streets in April and demand justice for Freddie Gray. And things went–the young people in Baltimore showed the extreme measures that they will take to get justice and accountability of police killing on our black people in this country.
FLETCHER: And, Makayla, how did you get involved in this issue?
GILLIAM-PRICE: So I had been involved in activism for quite a long time. My family was directly engaged with the fight to end the death penalty here in Maryland, because my uncle Tyrone Gilliam was executed the same year I was born. So it was almost inevitable that my introduction into this world was one to save black lives and that 17 years later I’d be engaged in the same fight.
So City Block, the student organization that I was a cofounder of, was sparked by Mike Brown’s death, and then we then contextualize all of the events that have been happening around the country in the school system. And then that was then furthered and propelled by Freddie Gray’s murder.
FLETCHER: As you mentioned, in April, I mean, there was this eruption, there was an uprising. Since then, there seems to have been a decline in the activism. I mean, there are people that seem to be active, but there seems to be a noticeable decline. Is that a wrong interpretation?
GILLIAM-PRICE: I think, absolutely. So I think what there has been a decline in is the visible, spectacular activism that mainstream media likes to feed off of and consume. However, just like there was a lot of activism and organizing
on the grassroots level going on way before Freddie Gray’s murder, way before Tyrone West’s murder and all the recent exposure to police brutality in America, there has also been a lot of grassroots organizing that’s been sustaining itself throughout even the lowest points, where there aren’t necessarily, like, physical protests happening on the streets. Right?
And I think we often have a very, like, problematic narrative, where we’re conflating organizing and activism to simply what we can see. Right? But it’s like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, the Baltimore Algebra Project, all of these different organizations are doing an amazing job of keeping the grassroots conversation open and alive in communities. Right? And I think that’s a part of activism that’s very necessary and crucial to the protests that we do see.
FLETCHER: So, as we sit here, this trial is going on. There’s one officer that’s currently on trial, correct?
FLETCHER: What do you anticipate happening?
ROSE: Well, if you look at the track record of America, it’s very hard to convict a police officer of law enforcement, right? Here in Maryland, the law officer bill of rights, it’s law. It’s not a contract; it’s the law. So it’s hard to convict them. It’s hard to hold police accountable. So I don’t have faith in the justice system that Officer Porter will be convicted.
I hope that the pressure being applied by protesters continuing to take to the streets, by us continuing to voice our opinions, I hope that sends the right message to the state’s attorney to prosecute this case the same way that they’re prosecuting protesters. But at the end of the day, I don’t have faith, because the track record of America is one that has never shown value for black lives.
FLETCHER: What about you, Makayla?
GILLIAM-PRICE: Yeah, I definitely echo everything that Kwame said. I think that that piece about not having faith in the justice system is echoed in many American families’ households, especially in Baltimore right now.
And what I’d like to add to what Kwame said was simply the implications of that for all of the people of Baltimore and the citizens who live here. Right? And I think it’s disturbing and troubling to think that we have six officers who are going to be placed on trial. Right? And so I’m not sure that they’ll be convicted. Right? I’m not sure that they’ll be found guilty.
But I know what is really disturbing to me is I’m not sure what the public’s response is going to be. Right? I don’t know if it’s going to be immediate outrage or if it’s going to be this, like, instilling and re-entrenching of complacency in our communities, because people will always be able to lie back on the fact that we have five more officers or then four more officers or three more officers. Right?
FLETCHER: How does it–. I’m sorry. Go ahead.
ROSE: Well, if I can add, like, even if you look at the way that the charges were brought against the six officers, right, the three officers who racially profiled Freddie Gray, they weren’t charged as [harness (?)] as the black officers who just transported Freddie Gray. Freddie Gray would never have died if the three white officers didn’t racially profile Freddie Gray.
FLETCHER: Explain what you mean, then, in terms of the issue of the profiling.
ROSE: So what you had was you had these two white cops who operate with hyper masculinity.
FLETCHER: What does that mean?
ROSE: They–they just–it’s an adrenaline rush for them, this authority, right? They get to be the boss and they get to tell you what to do. And that’s what they operate off of. And so what they did when they were patrolling on bikes in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in the projects, right, something that they have no attachment to, and they saw a black man running from them–and so their first instinct was to just automatically assume he did something wrong. So they jumped on Freddie Gray, and they beat him while he was on the ground and then called backup, and the backup just happened to be two black officers. And one of the most–the highest-ranking official just happened to be a black woman. And so, had it not been for those two white cops seeing a black man running and just automatically assuming guilt, this would have never happened.
FLETCHER: And how does it make you feel that there are–well, let me put it in a different way. This trial has, as you just said, white and black officers that were involved, at least allegedly involved in this black man’s death. This doesn’t come down in a strictly racial way.
GILLIAM-PRICE: Think I would have to disagree, right? I think it is extremely racially driven, right? But it’s just how that racism manifests itself. Right? The same reason why the black officers were a part of the murder of Freddie Gray is about the internalized racism that they are facing every day. Right? Implicit bias is a tactic used by–that’s frowned upon but is used by police on a daily basis, right, to racially profile individuals of color, right, like Kwame Rose was saying.
And it’s like in Baltimore we have very unique dynamic in that a lot of the public officials that we have here, including Marilyn Mosby, including our mayor, our former police commissioner, who was the police commissioner during Freddie Gray’s murder, these were all people of color, right? These were all black people. Yet they’re allowing these things to continue. Right? And I think that speaks to the internalized racism the needs to be confronted on a very serious level. Right? Before we’re able to just handle these surface-deep issues and surface-deep instances of anti-blackness, we need to confront what we as a community are internalizing ourselves and allowing to happen.
FLETCHER: Is it internalized racism? Or is it class?
ROSE: No, it’s in–so I heard Cornel West say in June to an all-white audience, he said, I see a lot of anti-blackness in myself, so I know y’all got a lot of work to do. Right? White supremacy has instilled this fear of black bodies in everybody throughout society. And so, yes, class plays into effect. But the color of your skin–a poor white person is still treated with higher regard than a black person, right? Henry Louis Gates getting stopped at his house, one of the most esteemed professors throughout this country, wasn’t believed to be a professor off of the simple fact that he was black. You had Chris Rock, who took, like, the selfies every time he was pulled over in a two-month span–pulled over seven times. He’s one of the most well-known comedians throughout the world, and he’s still being targeted off of the simple fact that his skin is his crime.
FLETCHER: No, that’s not what I meant, but I agree with your point.
What I meant was, Makayla, when you’re talking about these officials, right, the fact that you have black officials, right, I’m asking whether we’re dealing with a class problem, essentially, within black America that you have–you’ve described it as internalized racism. I’m asking whether it’s something else, in terms of the people that are involved in carrying out these various actions.
GILLIAM-PRICE: So I definitely think that–I don’t think it would be wise of me to neglect that class plays a large part in it, right? Like, these are interjections of oppression that need to be recognized and handled. And this just comes from my own personal paradigm. I think that all of these -isms and different forms of oppression are derived from a fundamental dehumanizing of people of color. Right? And I think the dehumanization of people of color is at the root of all of these other -isms. Right? Being able to dehumanize and other and make someone else anti to the standard or to the norm is what has been used to justify classism, patriarchy, and racism, right? And so class is definitely a problem. And I think that we need to–the only way to effectively confront all of these issues on the most productive level is to recognize those intersections. But I don’t think that it’s–I also don’t think that it’s fair to chalk it up to just a class issue.
FLETCHER: Where does the movement go right now?
ROSE: Well, we’re only in the first few–we’re only in the beginning stages, right? Civil rights movement wasn’t done overnight. It was done throughout years and lots of work. So the issue right now on the forefront in the movement is police brutality. But also you have to talk about the economic disparities, you have to talk about the lack of education in black communities, and then you have to talk about the lack of employment. So it’s broader. This movement is not an overnight movement, won’t be an overnight success story. It’s about the longevity of the movement and continuing to fight, right? This is 400 years of oppression we’re fighting. So it’ll take a long time for us to truly gain freedom.
FLETCHER: And what about here in Baltimore? Where does this particular movement around the Freddie Gray case, where do you think it goes?
GILLIAM-PRICE: So for me–and it’s just piggybacking off of what Kwame said earlier–it’s about a sustainable movement. Right? And so, for me, that looks like creating black sustainable institutions, right, taking the fight beyond the street, taking the fight beyond white institutions, right, but creating our own home territory, right, creating our own the sustainable institutions that create a space of refuge, that also create a space for us to control our own narratives, right? I think that’s a very important piece, and I think that’s the only–like, for me, that’s the most productive next step is to start investing in black businesses, black institutions, like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, like The Bloc, where it’s like we’re seeing sustainable change being made. It’s not just about momentary success or having a demand being met or getting one person fired, right, because I think that’s something that’s also extremely problematic is that we want the movement to be about symbols and martyrs and these instantaneous examples of racism, right? But it’s like we have to realize that every individual and every instance of this racism or classism or homophobia, it’s connected to a larger system, right? And so we need to start fighting it on a very systematic level. And systematic racism and systematic oppression in general manifests itself within the institutions that are created by those rulers. Right? And so I think the only way to productively counter that is to start investing in institutions of color.
FLETCHER: Makayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Rose, thank you very much for joining us on The Global African.
GILLIAM-PRICE: Thank you.
ROSE: Thank you for having us.
FLETCHER: Okay. Take care.
FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment. So don’t go anywhere.
FLETCHER: We’re joined by Dr. Lawrence Brown, who is an assistant professor at the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University here in Baltimore, Maryland.
Welcome to The Global African again.
DR. LAWRENCE BROWN: Good to be here, as always.
I’m curious how you look at this moment. What are your expectations with the trial?
BROWN: Well, first, we’re in an incredible moment. We’re just earlier last week passing the one-year anniversary of the killing of Tamir Rice. We’re passing the year anniversary of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and the non-indictment of Eric Garner.
So here in Baltimore, to have the case regarding the killing of Freddie Gray comes at a moment where there’s a cascading effect of Black Lives Matter, the movement for black lives here in the United States. You know, today is even the anniversary, the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Fred Hampton.
FLETCHER: That’s right.
BROWN: So these issues with police brutality seem to be moving in some sort of seemingly cyclical way, reminding us that it’s not safe to be black in America. And I think that the trial involving the six officers that were involved in the death of Freddie Gray is yet another reminder. It’s in some sense even a traumatic moment. It reopens the wounds that were festering on April 27, when Baltimore experienced both an uprising and rioting, along with looting. And we’re here now trying to hear the testimony about what happened to Freddie Gray. We’re listening to Officer Porter tell the jury that basically it was policy, that the police department didn’t follow its own policy in terms of putting seat belts on suspects and detainees, and this was a systematic problem, and therefore he should not be expected to be held accountable for not playing his part as written in the policy.
FLETCHER: What does it mean that this is taking place in a largely black city with a largely black political establishment?
BROWN: Well, I think it means that first of all there is a recognition that in spite of Baltimore being largely run by both Democrats and predominantly black public officials, Baltimore is one of the top-eight most hyper-segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, according to sociologists Douglas Massey and Jonathan Tannen. And so we’re talking about the legacy, 105 years, on December 20 of this year, 105 years of racial zoning, racially restrictive covenants, redlining, segregated public housing, this litany of policies and practices that have not been undone even with a black political class in place.
And so in many ways what we’re seeing is white supremacy in blackface. We’re seeing black politicians that are beholden to corporate plutocrats and wealthy corporate developers. So they’re not able to really advance an agenda that’s going to help undo the damage that racism has caused in this city.
And we can say that there’s a class element to that, certainly when we think about a lot of political officials here certainly are from maybe a middle- or upper-middle-class background. But I also think that it’s because of that background, because of maybe having some advantage due to their class, that it’s combined with internalized racism, it’s a combination where being–having some privilege, although that privilege is mediated in many ways by having access based on white supremacist structure, having access to the capital or campaign financing that allows them to fulfill or serve in these offices, but at the same time not protect and serve the majority population of Baltimore City, which is African-American.
FLETCHER: I want to ask you a very speculative question. Do you think we can win on the issue of altering police behavior? I mean, one of the things that I found striking was in some research I was doing years ago. I was looking at the annals of a group called the National Negro Congress, which had been, like, a black united front in the 1930s and early ’40s. And it turned out that one of the issues that they had been fighting, particularly in northern cities, was police brutality. Now, I was reading this when I was a bit younger and had associated the fight around police brutality as a fight from the ’60s and ’70s on, right? But here it is. It was, like, in the 1930s these fights were going on. Do you think we can actually win on this issue?
BROWN: I don’t know. I think we can go back further. Policing in America is rooted in slave patrols, where Du Bois, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois in his book Black Reconstruction talks about really the whole South, the whole white South becomes a policing force to keep down rebellions and runaways and black people seeking freedom from enslavement.
And so when you have policing rooted in that sort of mentality, and then you move from 1877 to 1950, there were 3,959 lynchings in 12 Southern states, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, and you have police brutality, as you’re saying, as early as the ’30s, which is still during this time of lynchings taking place, and you have civil rights murders during the civil rights movement, we’re talking about biases, stereotypes, and even masculinity threat when officers feel like their manhood is challenged, how we often as men overcompensate to regain our manhood in some form or fashion. But even that masculinity threat is mediated by racism, because black men in particular and black people or black women, even like Sandra Bland, are viewed as a threat to–more of a threat, compared to other racial and ethnic groups, to an officer’s manhood or masculinity.
So I think we would have to really wrestle and grapple with this legacy that’s so deeply ingrained in the American psyche and not just talk about bias, not just talk about diversity, not just talk about this contemporary moment, but really discuss the longstanding roots of this thing if we’re going to have any hope, because I don’t think the technology’s necessarily going to stop it. It will catch it, but it won’t necessarily stop it.
FLETCHER: And all of this is going on at a time when large numbers of people in the United States, particularly after news like San Bernardino, are nervous and are looking for security. Does that nervousness, does that response to these mass killings, does that undermine the efforts to alter the behavior of police agencies?
BROWN: I think that’s a very powerful and interesting question. I don’t think that necessarily it should be true that as we work to stop mass shootings, that that will somehow prevent or keep us from addressing police brutality that’s targeting African Americans in the United States. I think those are two fights that really can be waged simultaneously.
I also think that in many ways, if we’re talking about gun violence as the root cause of perhaps both what’s happening in terms of police brutality and what’s happening in terms of mass shootings, maybe it means we have to rethink the way that we allow arms and guns to be proliferating throughout our society and rethink how we train police to deploy those type of weapons when we think about police departments having not only a militarized approach, but more military-type equipment. And here in Baltimore, the officers, or the force here under Commissioner Kevin Davis, they say that they have a war room. They say–and when they’re going out to do their work on their shift, they call that a tour of duty. So the psychology is such that there is a mindset of war, a mindset of militarism. And I think that in many ways this militarism is reflected both in the policing, it’s reflected both in mass shootings.
And the other thing that I think we’re not talking about is also masculinity, as a mentioned earlier, the fact that men are doing most of the police brutality cases, they’re committing most of those acts, and men are most of the mass shooters as well, vast majority in both instances. And so something is wrong with American masculinity, something’s wrong with masculinity in America. And I don’t think that we’re confronting what it means to be a man once we’re disrespected. Does that mean we have to go out and kill 12 people and shoot up 30 people? Does it mean if we’re challenged in the streets as a police officer that we’re going to take somebody’s life? I think we have to begin to examine this sort of mindset of militarization, the mindset of masculinity. And I wouldn’t think or suggest that they’re separate. In some ways they interact with each other and they’re part of the same construct.
FLETCHER: Dr. Brown, thank you very much for joining us on The Global African.
BROWN: My pleasure. Always.
FLETCHER: Thank you so much.
And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.
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