On Monday night (November 20, 2017), HBO premiered a new documentary about the events surrounding and following the 2015 arrest and death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. As a native Baltimorean who watched these events unfold and chronicled some of them on this site, I was excited to see this film and gain a different perspective on the case; all the more so, since there continue to be new developments in the adjudication of the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death.
I didn’t learn until after the premiere that the director of the film was Sonja Sohn, one of the stars of the HBO series The Wire which, from my vantage point, portrayed only the underbelly of life in Baltimore and sealed the national reputation of my hometown as a violent, unlivable and unlovable place.
I know better than that—Ms. Sohn and other actors from the series came away from it with a love for Baltimore and have continued to work for its betterment.
But, in contrast to The Wire’s grittiness , Baltimore Rising was a powerful, nuanced—and balanced—documentation of the City’s response to the death of Freddie Gray, from a broad range of perspectives: the residents, especially the youth who were galvanized to stand up for and claim their community; the media, who descended on our city to capitalize on the notoriety of “yet another” urban center rioting in the streets; and the police and the government (both municipal and state), whose own policies and actions—historically and at the time of The Baltimore Uprising—propelled the boiling over, the explosion, and the nascent process of healing that has finally begun after decades of despair, neglect, and disintegration of large segments of the population and communities of this City, engendered by their entitlement to power, at the expense of the citizens they serve.
Ms. Sohn expertly and lovingly wove a tapestry of the past and present West Baltimore community in which I was raised more than 50 years ago, paying homage to “my” era of thriving families, stable neighborhoods, a lively cultural and entertainment district (the famed Pennsylvania Avenue, home of the Royal Theatre, among other iconic locations), some measure of prosperity, and hope, while also acknowledging the road to our downfall—the 1968 riots following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, from which West Baltimore, in particular, never recovered; the ensuing shifts in political power, leading to the zero-tolerance crime policies of administrations including that of Mayor (and later Governor) Martin O’Malley; and even the negative effects of the Baltimore Police Department’s decision to move away from foot patrols (which we now would call “community policing”)—that supported familiarity and mutual respect between the community and police, to the impersonal and increasingly garish and intrusive patrol cars—which segregated the police from the community and gave rise to the callous manner in which Freddie Gray ultimately met his tragic fate in April 2015.
By focusing on individuals who represent all the elements of this tapestry—the young activists/demonstrators and their families; community workers in the Penn-North neighborhood; officers, including the community liaison officer as well as the lead investigator in the Freddie Gray case, from the Western District Police Station [built in 1959 when I was a kindergartener at the now-defunct Coppin Demonstration School, located a block away on Mount Street]; city leaders, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and members of the City Council at the hearing that confirmed Commissioner Kevin Davis as the new leader of the Baltimore Police Department; and others—Ms. Sohn was able to paint a much broader yet more detailed picture of Baltimore’s complicated nature in just one hour.
The Young Activists [the zeal of youth, untempered by the wisdom of experience]
Kwame Rose, 21 years old, standing up to Geraldo Rivera (a so-called journalist I once respected!) in the middle of North Avenue, telling the white media to get out unless they were willing to tell the real story behind the uprising—poverty, boarded up homes, and police brutality—captured the essence of the struggles of my City in a single frame of film! His staunch willingness to face multiple arrests for his new-found activism was too much even for his fellow young activists.
Gerard “Shakey” Barnes, only slightly older than Kwame, yet already a wizened counselor at the Penn-North Recovery Center, worked with passion (but also an undercurrent of low expectations) as a liaison between the young men he served and the Baltimore Police Department. [I wanted to hug him and tell him to never give up!]
Mikayla, the bold revolutionary who was willing to risk her high school graduation and college dreams to fight for a just cause, was molded and guided by an almost Huxtable-esque family.
The young man who stared down the stony and arrogant sheriff outside the Court House, demanding to know his identity and/or that of his commanding officer after Kwame is arrested again for “disturbing the peace,” was another essential story told in a single frame.
The Powers that Be
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, whose appointment I supported at the time, walked (and continues to walk) a razor-thin line between listening to his constituents and defending the Blue Wall. His reluctance to meet with the Young Activists spoke volumes.
Lt. Melvin Russell, the beleaguered but sympathetic Community Liaison Officer, was stuck between his constituents and the Blue Wall.
Lt. Dawnyell Taylor, the lead investigator in the Freddie Gray case, betrayed her loyalty to the Blue Wall in her statements and actions.
The Tension—In the Air and On the Ground
As the fears about the possible reactions to the first officer’s court trial for the death of Freddie Gray mounted, the helicopters flying over the Court House downtown reminded me of where I was that day: driving my mother down Harford Road; we saw those helicopters in the distance—like a scene from Acopalypse Now—and quickly turned on the radio to hear what we already suspected, that there would be no convictions in the case.
Sadly, there are even more new developments in this story than even the updates given at the end of the hour could cover. The assessment by Lt. Dawnyell Taylor has been echoed by the Police Trial Board, which the Young Activists worked so hard to be a part of: Freddie Gray was just a “freak accident;” not police brutality. Over the last week, The Police Trial Board reinstated two of the three officers who faced possible firing for their roles in the death of Freddie Gray.
There was no outward display of outrage or disappointment by the citizens of Baltimore. Sadly, it’s business as usual.
But the struggle continues, and the work goes on.