One year ago, April 12, 2015, the city of Baltimore was riveted by the arrest and subsequent death of 25-year old Freddie Gray. It was a Sunday morning, Gray and a couple of his friends were sitting on the steps of a row house in a neighborhood known for drug activity, contemplating where they might go for breakfast.
It’s an area where police are constantly patrolling, even deploying bicycle officers to assist with apprehension. Gray was familiar to police because he had been arrested before. A later arrest report would quote officers as saying “Gray looked at us funny.”
Upon this encounter, Gray and his friends went running in different directions, chased by officers on bicycles. When they finally caught up with Gray, officers reported they secured him with a leg lock and placed metal handcuffs on him. A knife was discovered in his pockets, which was the pretense for his arrest. Gray was then placed in the back of a police transport van waiting to take him to the precinct for processing.
In a period of nearly two hours, Gray would lose consciousness and be taken to a hospital where he died a week later. How he died and who caused his death has been a national and local matter of contention and in the last few months it has become a legal quandary in the courts.
The aftermath of his death saw Baltimore lit up in flames. A community on edge took to the streets to express frustration with a lack of information on how Gray died and why he died. Later, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby alleged that the knife found on Gray was legal under Maryland law and police had no reason to arrest him. Some people believed it was a police coverup. Others wanted to know what happened in the van that ultimately led to him losing his life. They knew his spine was severed somehow from him being placed in restraints in the van, but they had far more questions than answers.
Local leaders tried to calm the masses, and there was a lot of blame to go around. Images of police in riot gear, confrontation with protesters, drug stores being looted, and fires burning out of control were beamed around the world via cable networks.
In retrospect, there is a lot of second guessing going on in Baltimore surrounding the riots. Asked about the disturbances, many people are reluctant to describe winners and losers from what happened. Everyone has an opinion. Some people were praised for their actions and others pillared for what they didn’t do. In trying to understand this phenomena EBONY.com talked to those who were there and have years of experience of dealing with the Sandtown-Winchester community.
On the ground, the public would say there were clear winners and losers in this tragedy, especially by those who watched and lived through the days of unrest. A year later, the subsequent police trials are set to continue, recently delayed so as not to coincide with the anniversary of Gray’s death. The trials resume May 10, beginning with Officer Edward Nero, followed on June 6 by Officer Ceasar Goodson Jr.
Clearly, no one wants to be on the loser list. The comment heard most often was the official or government entity didn’t rise to the challenge of dealing with adversity. Passivity and “passing the buck” excuses were used to justify their actions.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake: As she watched events unfold in Baltimore, circumstances beyond her control may have caused her to delay some police action to quell disturbances. A number of people questioned why she didn’t show up at Pennsylvania and North Avenues to calm crowds. She received a lot of the blame for her inaction. Weeks following the disturbance, a woman came up to the Mayor at Mondawmin Mall, which is located in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and doused her with a bottle of water. The woman was subsequently arrested, but the public’s mistrust of her abilities likely factored in her not seeking re-election.
Morgan State University Professor Dr. LaMonte Summers pointed out, “she should have been more forthcoming during the disturbances, got involved in the matter sooner by asking for the National Guard and showed that this was a larger, deeper structural problem, and not a situation with just individuals rioting or thugs.” Summers also wondered why Mayor Rawlings-Blake hadn’t developed “programs to address long term structural issues in the city.
The Baltimore Police Department: Critics have come after them for a lack of information regarding Gray’s arrest and what really happened to him in the back of the police van. Further condemnation came about after the mishandling of protesters and the spike in murders in the city. The most glaring criticisms were based on the actions of then-Commissioner Anthony Batts, who lost the respect of those under his command and ultimately his job. His dismissal came on same day a scathing report went public about the Baltimore Police Department’s ineptitude in dealing with the Freddie Gray disturbances.
Sean Yoes, a columnist for the Afro-American Newspapers and host of a nightly radio talk show suggested the handwriting was on the wall for the top cop. “Any Commissioner who was at the helm during the uprising… the way it all played out, it may have been inevitable that he would lose his job. Pressure had been building on Batts leading up to his dismissal. The Fraternal Order of Police’s dissatisfaction with Batts came to a head and that really may been the greatest contributor to his losing his job,” said Yoes.
Summers is also critical of how police reportedly pulled back from being active during the riots. “Certainly they deserve some responsibility if they were indeed doing that and not in fact carrying out their duties. That would have sent a message that it was okay for folks to engage in unlawful behavior and they weren’t going to do anything about it,” he said.
The weeks following the disturbances, murders skyrocketed to more than 300 and authorities admitted simultaneously there was a drug turf war underway in the city.
Congressman Elijah Cummings: Someone who did get on the frontlines to stop looters and protesters from damaging property was Congressman Elijah Cummings. He represents the district, including the area where Gray was picked up. The Congressman knows the image Baltimore has around the country, but these days he sees it changing explaining, “a light has been placed on Baltimore and there is a potential that the city can be a winner, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”
Community Activists: Gray’s Death mobilized a generation of new activists who took to the streets to have their voices heard. This mass of humanity has always been there according to Yoes.
“The uprising scared a lot of people. It opened a door and provided more moving space for people who had been activists in the community for many years. It was almost like a justification for all that people had been talking about and railing against,” he said.
Summers could also see the rallying from incidents around the country which championed slogans like “Hands Up, Please Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter,” which ultimately were responses not jut to police violence but to poverty, homelessness and high post-incarceration rates.
“Groups who had been concerned about police community relations…especially in Baltimore provided a focus for those individuals in organizations on efforts around these chronic issues,” said Summers. “It provided space, a legitimate space, for activists to actually advocate and gain followers and address these kind of systemic issues that are going on in places like Baltimore.”
In addition, Baltimore mayoral candidate and Black Lives Matter activist, DeRay McKesson, noted: “Freddie Gray’s death and the response thereafter fundamentally changed the conversation in Baltimore and invited more people to the discussion. There are now others who feel it’s their right to be in the conversation.
CVS/Rite Aid : There initially appeared to be little sympathy from corporate America to rebuild a number of pharmacies in the Baltimore metro area which has been looted and burned. At the urging of Congressman Cummings, he called a number of these CEO’s and asked them to commit to re-opening the stores especially for the seniors. The stores were literally a lifeline for many of them who didn’t have transportation. Many of the medicines they needed were essential to maintaining their well-being. The Congressman had a different insight into their importance, “there is something else that happens in the drug store, it’s easier for them (seniors) to see a pharmacist than it is to see a doctor…a pharmacist plays a major role in these communities, it improves the quality life.”
With weeks to go before the anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death, a pair of drug chains (CVS – three stores and Rite Aid – one store) reopened. Some of the same people who were there before the disturbances kept their jobs and joined the reopening.
The stores also play a vital role in communities where there a food desserts according to Yoes, “there are a lot of people who rely on CVS and Rite-Aid to get their groceries. It’s indicative of larger problems our community has.”
Government, the private sector and philanthropic community aren’t just talking about change they are putting resources in the community. Congressman Cummings knows things will change over time, “Baltimore is coming back. The question is will all of Baltimore rise at the same time.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Freddie Gray's age at the time of his death. The article has been corrected to reflect his actual age.