How you see reality and how you respond to it, that’s who you are

ideo of the April 12 arrest shows cops dragging a limp Freddie Gray into a police van, ignoring witnesses screaming about the 25-year-old’s injuries. While in police custody, Gray ended up with multiple injuries and his spinal cord 80% severed, from which he died a week later. The official police responses have been characteristically dishonest and callous: stonewalling the release of police reports, leaking a false report that Gray injured himself, and calling peaceful demonstrators a “lynch mob.” (The Baltimore State’s Attorney has now charged six officers with 28 criminal counts, including two officers with assault, three (including a sergeant and a lieutenant) with manslaughter, and one with “second degree depraved heart murder.” If convicted on all counts, each of these police officers faces 20 years or more in prison. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby also noted: “No crime had been committed by Mr. Gray.” Police had falsely claimed Gray had a switchblade, the basis for his being falsely arrested.) 

The National Rifle Association is using race-baiting arguments about Baltimore in its pitch for “Stand Your Ground” Laws in Maryland and elsewhere. The NRA on Facebook calls for vigilante violence as “an antidote for brazen in-your-face attacks on city streets,” getting over 32,000 “likes” from folks apparently eager to kill their own Trayvon Martin. (But logically, that’s 32,000 folks also calling for “Baltimore style” [code word] rioters to have an equal right to bear arms, which some might see as only fair.) 

No one really expects police and NRA types to react with comprehension and sanity to situations in which they are a huge part of the problem, not the solution. The same day the officers were charged, the Fraternal Order of Police called belatedly and self-servingly for a special prosecutor, while at the same time claiming, incredibly, that “Not one of the officers involved in this tragic situation left home in the morning with the anticipation that someone with whom they interacted would not go home that night.” (Seriously? None of them expected to arrest anyone or help anyone get to a hospital?) Squalid hypocrisy is common from the Fraternal Order of Police, but one might hope for an adequate response from a mayor or a governor or a president – all of whom have some responsibility for creating the problem and who should accept responsibility for solving it. No such hope was realized in relation to Baltimore. 

At least one business leader showed humane perception is a choice 

Among so-called “leaders,” the response was overwhelmingly inadequate and inarticulate, especially compared to the thousands of articulate protestors marching peacefully in Baltimore (for days without heed) and across the country. There was one private-sector leader whose comments were an exception to the rule of inadequacy the country has maintained for decades. This person, hearing protestors attacked on local sports radio, responded on Twitter by writing: 

… my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

Why doesn’t police killing, apparent lynching, focus official minds? 

The Democratic mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, 45, is a lawyer with a privileged background, including study at Oberlin College and University of Maryland Law School. She has been mayor since 2010. In the election of 2011, she won with 84% of the vote. She’s smart enough and experienced enough and has access enough to know what reality is like for too many of her constituents, but she has not brought her available knowledge to bear heavily on Baltimore reality. Concerns with a wider context may well have informed the mayor’s effort to keep police at a distance during days of peaceful protest that were largely unreported in national media. When scattered violence on Saturday April 25 led to minor injuries to some protestors and six police officers, leading to 35 arrests, the mayor’s press conference response was more in line with the conventional media narrative than any larger, comprehending context: 

I made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act. Because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate.

Political reaction largely ignored the sensible, responsible strategy to use minimal state power and to seek to de-escalate when feasible. Instead, right wing critics especially jumped on the unfortunate ambiguity of  “we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.” To right wingers and others obsessed with the primacy of property damage over personal injury, that sentence was taken to mean the mayor deliberately allowed people to be destructive. While no one can read the mayor’s mind, the sentence, taken in the context of her whole comment as well as her actions, seems much more likely to mean something like: by defending peaceful people exercising their constitutional rights, we also made room for a minority of protestors to exercise violence, to which we responded promptly and appropriately. The alternative, allowing no space for dissent, is the kind of police state control the US has been developing for decades now. 

Two days after the mayor’s press conference comment, her office issued a statement clarifying it along the very lines that were implicit in the original, which was twisted to fit ideological dishonesty, by CBS Baltimore among others, creating more rancor and disorder. That was April 27, when Gray’s funeral in the morning was followed by the most serious disorder. The violence of Monday night, in the context of no answers and no justice, may have been nearly inevitable, helped along by eager right wing distortions to make condemnations of disorder into self-fulfilling prophecies. That night the mayor again spoke imprecisely and hyperbolically, this time offending her own black community: 

What we see tonight that is going on in our city is very disturbing. It is very clear there is a difference between what we saw over the past week with the peaceful protests, those who wish to seek justice, those who wish to be heard and want answers, and the difference between those protests and the thugs, who only want to incite violence and destroy our city.

“Thugs” has taken on a code word meaning, the new N-word, those bad black people. “Thugs” is now part of the dominant media narrative that more often than not, intentionally or not, reinforces racist stereotyping and oppression in the US. The mayor later walked back the “thugs” remark, but the damage done by the inadequacy of her response continues. She might explain why, in a city that has paid over $6 million to settle cases of police brutality, in a city that has had over 100 black people killed by Baltimore cops, why in such a city has she not shown more solidarity with peaceful protestors, or at least shown her face on the street, not just at funerals and press conferences? 

Maryland’s governor makes Baltimore’s mayor seem almost radical 

The Republican Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, 59, has a privileged background, including a father who was a three-term congressman. He founded Hogan Companies, a commercial real estate brokerage firm, in 1985. Hogan has been governor (his first elected office) since January 2015, but he has been active in politics most of his adult life. He grew up in Prince George’s County, where race issues have long been intense, including police brutality. Governor Hogan is smart enough and experienced enough and has access enough to know what reality is like for far too many of his constituents, but he has done little to alleviate that reality. In 2011, he founded Change Maryland to further his main political purposes: to cut taxes and reduce government spending. Hogan’s early response to Baltimore unrest suggested little impulse to change and closely followed the conventional narrative of events, including the obligatory “thugs” code word, now elevated into “gangs,” which don’t show up in the video: 

Everybody believes we need to get to the answers and resolve this situation, the concern everybody has about what exactly happened in the Freddie Gray incident. That’s one whole situation. This is an entirely different situation. This is lawless gangs of thugs roaming the streets, causing damage to property and injuring innocent people, and we’re not going to tolerate that.

The governor gave notice: fear-mongering and defense of property are in, tolerance is out, and Freddie Gray’s broken neck is just an “incident.” Hogan took cheap shots at Baltimore’s mayor for not asking him to order a state of emergency until April 27, even though he had the authority to do so any time he thought it necessary. Hogan told reporters he was ready to activate the National Guard over the weekend, but it reportedly took more than three hours for Hogan to do that after the mayor requested it, a report that Hogan denied. On April 28, Hogan moved his office and much of his staff to Baltimore, where the curfew remains in effect and 2,000 National Guard troops patrol the streets with Baltimore police. 

The governor’s inadequate response is traditional, we’ve seen it over and over in the aftermath of different police killings across the country, and it is a ritual confession of societal failure masquerading as “law and order.” Maybe the governor will find the honesty and heart to thank the street gangs and other citizens who actually stepped up to calm their own communities with personal commitment, in contrast to official bluster and  threats of more violence. 

On April 30, Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts was on the streets with dozens of other officers asking people to obey the 10 p.m. curfew. There had been some 200 arrests on April 27, during the worst of the unrest; something like half of those have reportedly been withdrawn in the face of legal challenges. Batts, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and experienced the destructiveness of the 1965 Watts riots, expressed a protective attitude toward Baltimore and the constitution: 

There is a sense of rage and rightly so. The Constitution says you should have the right to protest in the street and walk to get your point across. So that's what we facilitate. We stand on the side and try to allow people to voice their opinions, voice their rage, voice their concerns. We had a young man lose his life. I think that’s a critical issue.

The [Baltimore police] organization has a long history of causing pain in the community but we are trying to evolve it and change it into something different. We are trying step by step to build relationships…. There is so much distrust here. I think it’s going to take a long time of inch-by-inch-building relationships and growing in the right direction.

Why didn’t the President say, “There’s no excuse for police murder”? 

In a press conference with the Japanese prime minister on April 28, in a long answer to a question about Baltimore, President Obama was morally categorical about one thing: 

Point number three, there’s no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement – they’re stealing. When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson. And they’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities that rob jobs and opportunity from people in that area.

That’s the easy, popular, superficial kind of reflexive morality that requires no judgment or discernment. At the same time such facile condemnations serve as a distraction from far more serious underlying causes, and they ignore the possibility that there were “insurance fires” serving as an exit strategy from an economic disaster. At least the president did not say “thugs” or other obvious racial code words in this context (he used “thugs” later). But the emphasis here, and the one-sidedness of things for which there is no excuse, still adds up to a form of blaming the victim. 

The president’s first two points were unexceptionable expressions of concern, first for “the family of Freddie Gray” and second for “the police officers who were injured in last night’s disturbances.” These are ritual expressions of concern that are easily voiced and easily heard, perhaps because they leave out the dead victim and all the other victims who have risen up in protest over lifetimes of despicable treatment by their country. 

The president obliquely corrects that omission in his fourth point, acknowledging that the “overwhelming majority of the community in Baltimore I think have handled this appropriately,” and even allowing for “the possibility that our laws were not applied evenly in the case of Mr. Gray.” The president is inexcusably minimizing here with traditional, if unjustified deference to the police action at the heart of the matter. There is NO possibility the law was applied evenhandedly to Freddie Gray – Freddie Gray is dead for doing nothing that deserves killing. A president who cannot state that simple, obvious truth is failing his country and its constitution. 

In his fifth point, the president made foggy reference to Ferguson and the scenes of other cops killing black men, only to reach a conclusion with an oxymoron: 

What I’d say is this has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.

Only in a frighteningly tight psychological bubble could someone say with apparent sincerity that people are pretending “that it’s new.” He doesn’t even say with clarity and precision what “it” is, even though he surely must know that lynching is as American as cherry pie. And while the president rambled on about “good news” coming from a White House task force, making some salient but oblique points about current conditions in language just that vague, he never found the will to say that there is no excuse for the kind of violence that killed Freddie Gray or Eric Garner or Michael Brown or Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin or Emmett Till or thousands of others in recent decades or recent centuries. He is not part of that cultural experience. 

“We can’t just leave this to the police,” the president said, beginning his last point – and rejecting a solution almost nobody has made. When was the last time you heard someone other than a cop union rep say, “This is best left to the police”? Maybe people in the White House are advising this, unlikely as it seems, or maybe the president thinks there’s a surge of support for police out there, but that suggests another bubble, and the president makes clear that, really, he thinks everyone’s to blame, which is rarely true and certainly not true of this issue at this time, no matter what the president says after recommending not leaving this to the police: 

We can't just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades.

From there the president meanders through a disorganized mix of truisms and nostrums and preposterous we’re-all-to-blame-isms, all in the same flat, emotionless, carefully modulated voice that suggests none of this is really anything to get excited about, creating a kind of anti-clarion call to think about doing not much, not now, not in the near future, just like the earlier part of his time in office, concluding with: “That was a really long answer, but I felt pretty strongly about it.” Not that anyone could tell. 

What do you mean there’s a “Police Officers’ Bill of Rights”? 

You’d think the president, who’s a constitutional lawyer, might have something to say about a double standard in Maryland state law that gives police officers accused of wrongdoing greater civil rights protection than the rest of the citizenry. You’d think the president might mention it because of his oft-stated desire to see a fair legal process, or especially because this Maryland law is interfering with his own Justice Department’s investigation of events in Baltimore. You might think any of that, but you’d be wrong. 

And the law is wrong, too. Passed in 1974, the Maryland version of the Police Officers Bill of Rights is a direct assault on the concept of equality before the law. Or maybe you could call it an Orwellian police state concept, that all people are equal before the law, but some people are more equal than others (and we know who they are). 

Hampered by the law the president deigned to mention, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has nevertheless brought charges against officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death. She campaigned for her office promising to hold Baltimore police accountable and began to deliver on that promise May 1. Few prosecutors anywhere have come close to this standard of accountability and most, like those in Missouri and New York, fail dismally. In announcing the charges, Mosby said

I heard your call for “no justice no peace” ... Your peace is severely needed while I try to deliver justice for this young man ... To the youth of this city, I will seek justice on your behalf.

With a mayor, a governor, and a president using the bankrupt tradeoff of achieving public peace through state violence, it looks like progress for a prosecutor to suggest that public peace might be achieved for the sake of justice. 

That’s still a far cry from the incisive analysis of the unnamed private sector leader quoted near the top of this piece, blaming public policy for strip mining Baltimore and the rest of the country for the sake of profits that come back to control the victims with force. That is real and true, and so much more honest than the empty moral pablum spooned up by a president at a press conference held primarily to promote the secret government trade initiative Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, that is designed to plunder the lives of more generations of Americans with the same old ruthless injustice.  

The private sector leader who spoke so truthfully against just such deceit was John Angelos, chief operating officer of the Baltimore Orioles. He’s the son of Peter Angelos, the Orioles’ owner. John Angelos had no need to speak up as he did, and it may well have been against his business interests. But what he said was in the interest of the greater good of our country. It might be interesting some day to have elected officials, even a president, who did the same. 

Meanwhile another anonymous, apparent police leak appeared on BuzzFeed late on May 1 – a purported internal police memo to Eastern Command Staff from Sgt. Lennardo Bailey, under the headline: 

Baltimore Sergeant Warns Superiors: “It Is About to Get Ugly”

I respectfully report that we are now being challenged on the street. I have been to five calls today and three of those five calls for service; I have been challenged to a fight. Some of them I blew off but one of them almost got ugly. I don’t want anybody to say that I did not tell them what is going on. This is no intel this is really what’s going on the street. This is my formal notification. It is about to get ugly.

According to BuzzFeed, without documentation, the Baltimore Police officer issued an order to “double up all patrol cars,” two officers per car. Can you say attempted self-fulfilling prophecy? Or threat? 

By curfew, the streets were all but empty, after more than 1,000 white, black, and brown people had marched peacefully for seven miles through the city, ending at City Hall expressing gratitude to the prosecutor who delivered the indictments that could make justice possible. 

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Original at Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work.