Within the last few hours, Baltimore City took an important step forward in our pursuit of Justice for Freddie Gray. The Baltimore City State’s Attorney announced that 6 Baltimore Police Department officers have been criminally charged in the homicide death of Mr. Gray. Charges range from reckless manslaughter (not premeditated), assault, misconduct, and other charges, carrying a penalty of 63 years in jail, against the driver of the police van, to assault and other misconduct charges against the other 5 officers—including one woman sergeant—carrying possible penalties of 20+ years in jail. Five of the 6 officers are already in police custody.
Once again, the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues (Penn-North) has been the center of activity, with car drivers honking their horns in celebration and people swarming the streets—peacefully—also in celebration of this momentous breakthrough. Again, the Baltimore Bloods and Crips are taking a united and constructive part, lending their voices and assistance to police officers in keeping traffic moving and maintaining peace in the area. And once again, residents are expressing hope—tinged with caution—that Baltimore will seize this moment to begin addressing the underlying issues facing our city in a more robust, community-oriented way.
This is just the beginning of a new chapter in my hometown. The issue of brutality, misconduct, disrespect, and corruption in the Baltimore Police Department is not new. It has existed for decades, despite the efforts of citizens—and even some of the leaders of the department—to investigate and root it out. But more than 11 million dollars has been paid out to victims of police brutality in just the last couple of years.
Arrestees have had their heads slammed against concrete pavements, hard enough to bleed, or suffered other injuries at the time of arrest. An “unruly” hospital patient (i.e., a patient in such distress that the hospital called the police to “calm” him) died after being tased by the police. A man and woman at a bus stop were caught on tape being hit by police officers during a dispute.
To be fair, not all officers respond in such hideous ways. But even in my own rare dealings with police officers, I have sometimes been met with callous, dismissive attitudes, and a sense of entitlement engendered by the badge and the gun. I recognize the need for law enforcement, and I try to give respect to the institution of law enforcement and to the officers who represent the institution. But when I give respect to anyone, I expect to be treated in the same manner.
The deepest and most pervasive problem in Baltimore is the economic divide between the affluent, the hard-pressed middle class, and the underdog, poverty-stricken residents of our city. Although this divide does have a strong racial component, my sense is that the color green—the color of money—represents the biggest fault line in our struggles.
Today, I am cautiously hopeful that Baltimore will continue to move forward toward a more equitable city, one of equal opportunity, responsiblity, accountability, justice, and growth.
In looking forward, though, I must always look back. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you cannot know where you are going. And over the past 40 years, we’ve lost the Community of Baltimore. Where once we celebrated our City with the annual Baltimore City Fair, which showcased the diverse and unique neighborhoods of Baltimore, we now celebrate only the most affluent sections of the City—most notably, The Inner Harbor.
Where once the Afro-American Newspaper-sponsored Clean Block Campaign helped residents develop and display pride and ownership of our neighborhoods via prizes and recognition for beautiful flower gardens, many created simply by using old car tires, painted in bright colors, as the flower beds, we now have too many pockets of eyesores—plastic bags hanging from tree limbs, trash too easily discarded in the streets, hopelessness and abandonment in too many people’s gaits and demeanours.
Instead of properly funding and staffing our public school system, instead of supporting the schools that work and thrive, no matter their size, our City—and State—leaders seem to be merely looking for ways to consolidate buildings in the interest of “economy,” with no regard for its effects on the interests of the people. Worse than that, our leaders appear to be abandoning the very ideal of a quality Public School education, in favor of vouchers for privatized education—with no conclusive proof that privatized schools are any more effective than public schools.
In short, if we don’t repair our societal, cultural, civic, and other intangible forms of infrastructure, then this past week of #BaltimoreUpRising will have been for nothing.