Baltimore’s truth in Freddie Gray’s life and death

April 28, 2015

I came to Baltimore 35 years ago from my native state of Maine, a world only about 600-miles and a solar system removed. Baltimore grows on you. But it’s not always an easy fit.

The strange death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, at the hands of the police reminds Baltimore of this in an especially sad and terrible way.

Gray was Baltimore. He was poor. He was young and he was black. And this not a good place to be a poor young black man. Gray had been in trouble with the police. Nothing major. He suffered from lead paint poisoning while he was a small child. We don’t really know him but his story is familiar. It is such a Baltimore story, a story hopelessness and despair.

Baltimore police officers stand guard outside a CVS pharmacy after it was looted and set blaze in west Baltimore after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Maryland

Baltimore police officers stand guard outside a CVS pharmacy after it was looted and set blaze in west Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

How and why he died under circumstances that are extremely confusing at the very least is a question that will be haunting Baltimore for a long while. Was Gray injured by the Baltimore police before they threw him in the police van? Or did his ride downtown — he was not secured inside the van — cause the spinal injury that led to his death a week later? We don’t know, yet. But black Baltimore (and plenty of whites, too) is suspicious, a suspicion rooted in deep distrust of the police.

Gray’s funeral was Monday at the massive New Shiloh Baptist Church on North Monroe. It covers a whole block. The place was packed. I have been in the church many times and know it well. I also pass it every day on my drive to work.

A few hours after Gray was “funeralized” as they say in West Baltimore, the rioting started. We’d had some protests in the past week and there was a touch of civil disorder on Saturday evening. But on Monday there were police cars and taxis on fire and people were looting discount drug stores and there were cops being hospitalized. Then the governor declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. And then the mayor imposed a curfew. By nightfall a huge fire blazed on the east side of the city. No one seemed sure what caused it.

A Baltimore firefighter walks behind a Baltimore police armored car near burning buildings set ablaze by rioters during clashes after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore

A Baltimore firefighter walks behind a Baltimore police armored car near burning buildings set ablaze by rioters in Baltimore, Maryland, April 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Bourg​

Gray’s death has rocked Baltimore with civil disorder not seen in nearly half a century –not since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. It has been a long time coming. It was a kind of last straw in a mostly black city that regards the police department uneasily as an army of occupation much of the time.

Now, much of the city is in a kind of lockdown, fearing more trouble. The Baltimore Orioles game on Monday night was cancelled. The Inner Harbor, the heart of the city’s tourist zone, was deserted. A riot is not a good thing.

Old-timers, black and white, will tell you that Baltimore never fully recovered from “the riots” — as the unrest after King’s death was called. Baltimore’s population before those riots was nearly a million. It’s now about 620,000.

When people come to visit, I usually take them on a tour of Charm City — one of Baltimore’s rather odd nicknames. I don’t bother with Fort McHenry, home of the Star-Spangled Banner, or the National Aquarium. We have other things to see.

Police in riot gear block a street near the CVS Pharmacy building in Baltimore

Police in riot gear block a street near the CVS Pharmacy building in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

One thing visitors are surprised by is how Southern Baltimore seems. When one of my brothers was in town, we went to see the huge statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that tower over Wyman Park, across the street from Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Sons of the Confederacy (in uniform!) were holding a ceremony that January day. This, in a city that is nearly three-quarters black.

Nearby is an equally large statue commemorating the Daughters of the Confederacy. And, of course, no tour would be complete without a stop at John Wilkes Booth’s grave.

For Americans who grew up, as I did, in a state where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a short distance from the home of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, Baltimore is most definitely the South.

It is about 70 miles below the Mason-Dixon Line — and those are 70 hard miles. Only 2 percent of Baltimorons — as the celebrated journalist H.L. Mencken used to call his fellow citizens — voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Residents greeted the first Union troops heading south at the start of the Civil War with a hail of paving stones and a full-blown riot that earned Baltimore the moniker “Mob Town.”

Green Mount Cemetery, where Booth is buried, is also the final resting place of a number of Confederate generals. Baltimore had ambivalent feelings about the Union.

A demonstrator stands on the street after throwing rocks at the Baltimore police during clashes in Baltimore

A demonstrator stands on the street after throwing rocks at the Baltimore police during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland, April 27, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The past is always with us here. I was invited to speak at the venerable Maryland Club one night and my visit coincided with some sort of Confederate shindig there. The club was festooned with Confederate flags and other reminders of the War of Northern Aggression.

No one else seemed surprised by this — though I had grown up in a world where such a display would have been unthinkable. Possibly illegal. Perhaps it’s easier to acknowledge how Southern Baltimore is if you are from away?

The memory of the riots that took place after King’s assassination was still fresh when I got here. But Baltimore needs no such major events to be reminded that it is a city haunted by its past — and by race. This is the city where Frederick Douglass learned to read after he left a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. One major high school is named after the eloquent abolitionist.  It is the city of Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, who was barred from attending the then-segregated University of Maryland Law School. Both Douglass and Marshall were not fans of Charm City.

Baltimore is also the city of Bob Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll — a ballad about a 1963 incident in which a 51-year-old black barmaid (mother of 10 children) at the old Emerson Hotel died after being assaulted by a drunken tobacco planter from Southern Maryland. She’d failed to bring him a drink fast enough. He got six months in jail and paid a $500 fine. Race haunts Baltimore.

When I got here I was astonished to often run into older black residents who recalled vividly that the downtown department stores were effectively segregated not so long ago. Lunch counters, too.

Baltimore has a rich black past. It is the city of Billie Holliday (her statue stands along Pennsylvania Avenue) and the fabled pianist Eubie Blake (I interviewed him when he was a very, very old man). He’d learned to play the piano in a “sporting house” on the east side of the city, and spoke of a world that seemed so far away.

But Baltimore is still a city that is segregated in many subtle ways and in ways that are not so subtle. Black and white Baltimore do not mix much.

I live in Roland Park, on the north side, a neighborhood often identified with the novelist Anne Tyler. It was one of the nation’s first planned communities, a leafy sward of old Victorian houses, fancy private schools and lacrosse fields. (The Lacrosse Hall of Fame is nearby.) There is little crime, though a prominent older woman was once mugged coming out of Petit Louis, a fancy French bistro in the neighborhood. The city put a police car in front of the restaurant for weeks after the incident. I did not grow up here, so I am something of an outsider.

It’s a short drive from my house to a world right out of The Wire, the celebrated HBO series that Baltimore is so well known for — much to the chagrin of the city establishment.  I drive across Pennsylvania Avenue early in the morning on my way to teach at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Past the Red Fox Lounge and To God Be The Glory Deliverance Outreach, the Friendly Carryout and Grocery Store and Let ‘Em Go Bail Bonds, across the endless blocks of boarded-up buildings.

Demonstrators gather in front of Baltimore Police Department Western District station to protest against the death in police custody of Freddie Gray in Baltimore

Demonstrators gather in front of Baltimore Police Department Western District in Baltimore, Maryland, April 25, 2015. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

The last chain of inner city supermarkets on my route closed last year — leaving already blighted West Baltimore an even larger food wasteland. Lampposts along the way are decorated with posters, balloons and stuffed toys, sad reminders of young black men, who were murdered, most often by other young black men.

I have brought travelers here and they have been slack-jawed.  I thought one young Danish businesswoman  was going to cry. It is possible to drive for miles – that’s miles — and hardly see a hint of any sort of commerce other than the heavily fortified corner liquor stores — which local communities complain about constantly.

Here and there a sad little store-front church.  One sign used to remind — “When the devil rocks your boat, Jesus is your best anchor.” A carryout selling something called “Lake Trout” sandwiches. (The joke in the city is that whatever that fried fish is it’s not trout and it was never in a lake.) One landmark along my morning run is a bar at Edmondson and Monroe that opens at 6 a.m. There is always a line before it opens.

This is West Baltimore. Gray lived here. It is a world where block after block of houses are abandoned, many marked with a red X to warn firemen not to enter the building, as it’s dangerous. Lots of things are dangerous here.

My morning route to work takes me right through the fabled “Corner” immortalized in David Simon and Ed Burns’ book of the same name, as well as the HBO miniseries. I pass the Western District police station (a Wire landmark) and now a heavily fortified outpost.

Even at dawn’s early light, Wilkens Avenue is a gantlet of crack whores and corner boys — and Baltimore, as every schoolchild knows, is the home of dawn’s early light.

At the corner of Saratoga and Fulton, there’s a whole block of abandoned houses. The only signs of life nearby are a fortress-like liquor store and a church. The doors of the abandoned buildings are boarded up with plywood. But some enterprising soul has decorated them with crude drawings and slogans. A particularly poignant one asks: How Many More Have To Die Before You Make A Change?


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Freddie died, according to your words above, ” at the hands of the police “. So you made a judgment already. OK. Proof? Video? Journalism?

Baltimore is 3/4 Black? Then why so many problems? Their police force according to Washington Post is 54% Black. So no Ferguson there- what is the “justification” for destroying then? There is none.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Let them rebuild the place on their own dime!

Posted by Mustang81 | Report as abusive

LetBalanceCome, the police threw him into a van, shackled him, severed his spine and beat him to death…. without formally charging him with anything. This they do not dispute. They are just remaining silent on further details because their lawyers told them to shut up.

If the police there don’t like the backlash, they should quit acting like a Colombian kidnapping ring.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Another tragedy. We really do not have the facts concerning the case. If police officers were abusive they should be prosecuted. The criminals who destroyed property and assaulted police last night should be arrested and prosecuted. It is interesting that in majority of these cases we are dealing with criminals who will not obey police orders. In Ferguson we have a guy that just robbed a store, multiple felony convictions, walking down the middle of the street and attacks a police officer. That is not a racial incident, despite what our racist Pres Barack Hussein Obama says. In this case, Freddie is a nice young man – arrested over twenty times. Has served two terms in prison for multiple felonies. Five open court cases. Upstanding citizen! The people that are rioting and destroying peoples lives are being paid to do so by George Soros and the race baiters like Al Sharpton – aided by a racist Dept of Justice. I am white – if I attacked a police officer I would expect to get shot. Abide by the law which includes obeying the police and the chanced of getting in trouble in this country are pretty low.

Posted by talstadt | Report as abusive

50,000,000 died in World War 2

2 1/2 times the population of Mexico in 1945

Does Mexico cry over the loss?

Posted by alamonow | Report as abusive

Alkaline, where is your evidence for your spine-severing, beating accusation?

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

LetBalanceCome: You’re wasting your time challenging facts that the police have already admitted.

Posted by pmr4 | Report as abusive

LetBalanceCome, you are right :)

The police just lost him from their Columbian drug cartel-looking van for 30 minutes…. and forgot to alert dispatch that there was a suspect on the loose. Then forgot to charge him with anything. Then found him again with a broken back and blunt-force trauma. Yep. ok.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

LetBalanceCome, would you let your son-in-law tell you that same story if your daughter had black eyes and broken bones?

“I don’t know how she got that way. We went in the house, came back out, and she was all messed up.”

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Over policing is manifest everyday all over the country. Each time they leak exculpatory information, but nothing pertinent. A citizen is arrested and charged, everything is on the blotter the next day. Cops not so much. They whine about not doing their job, outflanked and buffaloed by high school kids chucking rocks. All of their investigations of themselves are top secret.

Stop killing, start serving and protecting.

Posted by Amwatching2c | Report as abusive

LetBalanceCome asks: “Alkaline, where is your evidence for your spine-severing, beating accusation?”

Well, you can ask the State Attorney General now. Murder and false imprisonment charges filed today. 6 dirtbag officers arrested. Hahaha.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Hopefully all those subhuman scum pretending to be officers of the law will get the maximum sentencing possible. Everyone of them is culpable. So sick of their disgusting blue line where scumbags protect other scumbags and think they’re better than those doing the actual deeds. The are all accomplices, every last one.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive