Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Do you see what's happening in Baltimore, Mom?"

You know, I can't possibly write about every instance of a Black man killed in suspicious circumstances following encounters with police. I can't live in that place emotionally. So I didn't write about the South Carolina cop shooting a fleeing but unarmed Walter Scott in the back after pulling him over for a broken taillight. To write about it I would have needed to immerse myself in the details, so that I could be sure I had them right. I didn't want to do that again. I've done it so many times now. I could spend my whole life running down such details, so often does this particularly story of deadly but unwarranted police force occur. In this case, a bystander's smartphone camera caught the cop pumping nine bullets into Walter Scott's back as he ran from the scene.

Some reports say Scott owed child support and didn't want to go to jail for it, because of course his rap sheet was revealed in a by now typical effort to demonize the victim after the fact. It's easy to say he shouldn't have run. But maybe he feared for his life. I mean, we all know the stories. In this case, after cutting Walter Scott down in a grassy field, the cop, who didn't know he was being filmed, then walked over and planted a taser next to Scott to support the story he told that Scott was threatening him with it. The phone camera footage caught him planting the evidence and revealed his lie. The cop has been charged with murder. Kudos to the powers that be in making that call based on the video footage.

And now we have Freddie Gray in Baltimore, a young African American man who sustained fatal injuries to his spinal cord and larynx after being arrested for possession of a so-called switchblade. His death sparked riots and looting in Baltimore on Monday night as protesters vented their frustration at this history that just keeps repeating itself in a nightmarish loop. I'm not saying the rioting was in any way helpful, but I really didn't feel like delving into the details. I've barely watched the news this week, though I did field calls from my daughter saying, "Do you see what's happening in Baltimore?" and asking in a voice both bewildered and so very weary why this keeps happening and is there anything at all we can do to change it? Sometimes her idealism breaks my heart. But I'm glad for it, too. I try to help her believe that we are each capable of increasing what is good and just in the world by the choices we make in our own lives every moment. Even so, I didn't head off in a quest for the facts because, you know, I have to keep living my life.

But now.

The Baltimore police department issued a report yesterday saying that another prisoner heard (not saw; he was separated by a metal partition) Freddie Gray trying to injure himself inside the police van when he was being taken into custody. He says he heard Freddie Gray throwing himself around inside the van. Wow. Are they really trying to sell us this one? Do we really think Freddie Gray strangled his own larynx and severed his own spine?

I might have to follow this thread after all, just so I can decide what I think about the whole sordid mess. Again.

One thing I found right away: The cops didn't have cause to arrest Freddie Gray. The knife he was carrying was not illegal, nor was he brandishing it in any way. The knife was a reason fabricated after the fact. So why did they arrest him in the first place? Apparently Freddie Gray saw the cops in his neighborhood and ran. Why did he run? Because one of the cops had beaten him up several times before, and Freddie decided he didn't want to be whaled on again. But in a cop's mind (and America's mind too, if we're being completely honest) a Black man running is automatically a suspect, so the cops gave chase, and then they arrested Freddie for resisting arrest, and after searching him found the pocket knife. Which was legal to carry. But they charged him for possession of a weapon anyway. Never mind that they knew full well it would be thrown out at the first pass.

Freddie Gray wasn't supposed to be in police custody at all.

And now he is dead.


  1. Baltimore breaks my heart. My mom used to live there and I visited often. It carries the burden of its history AND it's a beautiful city. The news about how the police shut down the bus hub so that students couldn't go home makes me sick. It didn't have to go like it did.I just can't imagine the fear the families of those students experienced when they weren't allowed to get on their buses and go home. I think every police encounter must be filmed.

    1. Densie, Baltimore has such a hard history, and pockets of such poverty and despair, which only adds to the incendiary mix. Yes, it all could have been handled better. It might be the only thing I'm sure of.

  2. What can one even say? Those entrusted with keeping the peace have become monsters. Not all of them, of course. But the system. And at some point, people break and they strike out. There is NO WAY this story of how Gray may have caused his own injuries is going to be believed by anyone with as much sense as a goose. It only makes the police look more monstrous. More untrustworthy. More insane. More ridiculous. Why don't any of these law enforcement agencies learn from the last mistakes made by events in other cities? When will this end? Ever?

    1. Ms. Moon, I wish I had answers. I don't. See Tearful's comment below.

  3. I don't know what to say. I'm a cop, so I feel responsible. I am responsible. This is my responsibility.

    I feel everyone's opprobrium.

    And maybe it's wrong of me to even pipe up at all. I feel that, too, like I should just keep quiet and accept the rage and dismay and that that is fitting, too. When the voices of the oppressed are already unheard, what right have I to say anything at all?

    Perhaps none.

    My prayer is that we'll grope our way towards more compassion, more openness, more fairness, more restraint. That we'll talk less and listen more. It feels like a good thing to me, like light pouring into something that's been too long in the darkness- not just that white cops shoot black men for bad reasons, not just that violence warps us when we grasp it as a tool to control our world, not just that the system is unfair and built to maintain itself on the backs of those it oppresses- but more than that. We are all of, without exception, full of these storms of rage and stupidity, fear and violence. If you think you're somehow above these terrible forces, I submit to you that you have not been sufficiently tested. Or you are a saint, in which case, you know, thank you. But most of us, we're half fucked up. I know I'm more than that.

    I don't know. The police is always going to be killing people. And there's always going to be police, because lots of folks are bad and stupid and do terrible things to other people and we all want there to be someone to come make those folks stop doing that. And those people do not want to get punished. So there is going to be more bad things, you can't stop it. It's not possible for it to be excised from the whole endeavor. It isn't.

    But we can make it better. We can yell and shout and demand that our police do better at this. The police will do what they are allowed to do. We have to show them how we want them to do it.

    All of this is a good start. It's awful that it's taken us so long, it's awful that so many have died. But it's good that we're starting to really demand a change.

    I'm a white cop. I have done a lot of violence on others while enforcing the law. Every one of these shootings I know could have been me behind the trigger. I am accountable. But you know, it's true, too, that every shift I ever worked my wife and child had to worry that I might not come home. So, it's not like I don't have skin in the game. All these cops do. I'd ask that you keep that in mind, not that it forgives anything.

    I'd like to know how to do this job without making a mess of it.

    And thanks for letting me say my piece.

    Big love,

    1. Scott, I think of you when these things happen, and because of you, I have come to know that these horrifying encounters are rooted in systemic bias and ancient stereotypes much more than in individual will, not that there aren't some truly bad cops and bad criminals out there, but that's only one little bit of the story, and then you mix in the fear on all sides, the split second decisions that are happening at a subconscious level, our poor flawed humanness, and the result is this recurring nightmare, and our natural need to impose a story on the events that will allow us to think we understand what has gone down, so that we can raise our children, and pray our loved ones home each day, and go to sleep at night.

      I am blown away by these sentences you wrote: "We are all of us, without exception, full of these storms of rage and stupidity, fear and violence. If you think you're somehow above these terrible forces, I submit to you that you have not been sufficiently tested."

      My God, I know you are right.

      I guess my issue today is with the attempt to rewrite the storm in ways that make no sense to me. Lies on top of tragedy. I know how and why the tragedy happens, even if I don't like it. But I'm offended to be taken for a fool, too.

      Truth is, I couldn't do the job you do. I confess to being secretly relieved when I heard you were retiring, because I too worry about you out there on the street, I too want you to come home to your wife and kid and grands every day. At the same time, you have more true consciousness and wisdom and compassion that most of us out here, so your retirement is a loss for law enforcement, too.

      I am grateful that you commented. I don't truly accept that any of these instances could have been you, but I know what you're getting at. In Baltimore the cops were not all White. And yet the Freddie Gray still rooted in racial fear. Such fears weave through every corner of the culture, pitting us against one another is ways we don't even see. What do we do? I wish I knew.

      Maybe we build bridges. Thank you for helping in that endeavor. Thank you for walking over this bridge with me, again and again.

      I'm glad to know you, Scott.

      My love to you and Yolie.

    2. Scott's comment was great to read. I believe there are good cops but I know there are asshole cops too. I was driving this morning and a Black man crossed in front of my car and others. He had attitude because a driver was in the intersection. I thought a lot about him and what he and other Black men have had to endure and where anger has likely come from and I understood in a different way given all that has been happening with police hurting and killing Black men. It sickens me. I have a simple mind when it comes to these kinds of things. I don't know how incidents like these can be repeated. If it happens once, the cop should be jailed and worse and that should be the end. The fact that nothing happens to the cops and it is allowed to happen again is an outrage. I don't believe in war and violence and Scott's words ring true because that these incidents keep happening make me feel violent inside. How can it keep happening?? Rhetorical question. Enough is enough. I'm afraid to voice what I think should happen to these cops and if you knew me, you would never think I'd have such thoughts.

  4. Wow. What a thought-provoking post and response from Tearful Dishwasher. I think police in general are over-armed and need to be taught more about defusing potentially explosive situations, rather than exacerbating them. I think they reach for guns awfully quickly, and not just when dealing with black men (but definitely disproportionally so). I can't imagine what it's like to be a policeman, but I also think in many of these situations -- the ones in Cleveland and in South Carolina, particularly -- the police were positively trigger-happy.

    I saw a touching post on Tumblr of photos of black Baltimore residents sweeping up their streets after the rioting and handing out water to the riot officers. It goes to show that there are a lot of peacemakers out there, even in the midst of chaos and anger.

    1. Steve, I saw a photo from that series. Yes, blessed are the peacemakers.

  5. So disheartening. it seems like the police culture needs to change dramatically, and big change is usually slow. But it looks like there may be some justice on the Freddy G. case. It's just heartbreaking and scary.

    1. Betsy, heartbreaking indeed. I hope we all learn something from it about the culture, about ourselves. (Nice to see you here.)