Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What really happened to Freddy Gray?

With each incident of police violence unleashed on yet another unarmed African-American – another wave of consciousness sweeps the country as new rebellious uprisings emerge.  There are black and brown communities all over the country – the constant targets of police violence – who have said no more and are actively galvanizing, mobilizing, organizing and yes, resisting.  There is something emerging in this country that can longer be contained – and we recently bore witness to that in Baltimore, Maryland. 

For the last two months there’s been relatively two burning questions asked by those in and out of Baltimore - what exactly happened to Freddy Gray and how did he die? Since Mr. Gray died from horrific spinal injuries occurring while in police custody - these questions were left unanswered only for the public to draw their own conclusions – until now.  The recent “leaking” of the autopsy report to the Baltimore Sun is supposed to finally address these questions.  The “leaked” autopsy report revealed that Mr. Gray suffered from what the report described as a “high energy” injury while making a comparison to injuries suffered from shallow-water diving accidents. The report states: The type of fracture/dislocation documented in imaging studies on admission is a high energy injury most often caused by abrupt deceleration of a rotated head on a hyperflexed neck, such as seen in shallow water diving incidents.”  

But the report also appears to indicate that Mr. Gray played a role in causing his fatal injuries: revealing toxicology results where cannaboids and opiates were found while pointing out Mr. Gray’s apparent aggressive behavior as “yelling, banging and causing the van to rock”.  See this excerpt from the autopsy report: “…After the inner and outer doors were closed, it is reported that Mr. Gray could be heard yelling and banging, causing the van to rock.  No injuries that would suggest the use of a neck hold, Taser deployment or physical restraint, other than wrist and ankle cuffs, were identified…” These findings will open the door for further scrutiny in a case that instilled doubt from the very beginning.

The “leaked” autopsy report extends a story line that emerged in the days after Mr. Gray’s death that focused on Mr. Gray’s role in his own death. Remember the original reports of Mr. Gray's death that determined that Mr. Gray died of a head wound from a bolt sticking out within the van. Then there were reports about another prisoner in the police van with Mr. Gray who disputed initial reports that he said Mr. Gray was “banging against the wall” and “intentionally trying to hurt himself”. The autopsy report clearly puts a damper on the glee and excitement from the indictment of the six officers involved, and presents an even greater challenge for the prosecutor to make their case to imprison the officers.   

Well – just how did we get here? An encounter on April 12tha fatal encounter - between Mr. Freddie Gray and Baltimore City Police officers left Mr. Gray comatose with devastating spinal injuries.  Initial reports indicate that 80 percent of his spinal cord was severed leaving Mr. Gray with essentially a broken spinal vertebrae, and a crushed voice box.  Mr. Gray died from those injuries a week later on April 19th.  As daily protests began to take hold, Baltimore quickly became the latest flashpoint in the national resistance to police violence – the site of an intense uprising unseen before and yet witnessed before the world – as uprisings quickly followed suit across the country.

The Baltimore Rebellion managed to cast a spotlight on Baltimore in particular and police violence in general that one could argue surpassed even the Ferguson uprisings of last year. What exactly did we see with the Baltimore Rebellion – or should have seen if framed in the proper context? For one, like Ferguson, the Baltimore rebellion ripped the crusty scab off, for all to see the open pus-filled sore of racism permeating the body of white supremacy.  With each additional incident of police violence – the people living in black and brown communities have said emphatically – enough is enough! What the world is witnessing today in 2015 is the utter frustration and yes – anger with what really appears to be an escalating pattern of police violence that includes harassment, abuse and in your high profile cases – the use of excessive and deadly force against unarmed African Americans.  When you look at what happened in Baltimore and throw your hands up asking why then look no further than the failed leadership of Baltimore City’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The mayor did not show even the slightest inclination to lead during the most critical moment during her political career. Now bear in mind that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also serves as the Vice- President of the U.S Conference of Mayors and Secretary of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) thus enabling her to build a national profile that saw her appear frequently on the Sunday morning talk shows – until now. An argument can certainly be made that Mayor Blake’s utter failure in effectively addressing the police violence issue in Baltimore ultimately led to the full scale rebellion engineered by a group of high school students.

The mayor used her emerging national profile and testified before President Obama’s blue ribbon panel on 21st Century Policing just months ago and informed the gathering about successful policing in Baltimore!  You would think that with the smoldering ashes of Ferguson still visible in the rear view, Mayor Blake should have known what Baltimore needed to see and what they needed to hear in the wake of Mr. Gray’s arrest and subsequent death. Instead, when the mayor made comments such as when she was asked whether the police officers involved may have put Gray in a chokehold or took any action that led to the severed spine – she responds by saying, "I have not heard any of those details," Rawlings-Blake said. "And that's why I said we are still until the investigation stage. But nothing like you've mentioned has been mentioned." Such responses from the mayor tended to rally the court of public opinion against her.

You could just sense in the days that preceded Mr. Gray’s burial, a narrative was slowly beginning to take shape – and once again the public was compelled to take sides, those who are against police violence and those who support and defend police violence against blacks.  Day by day, you could just feel the steamy tension building in Baltimore as daily protests caught the strobe lights of national attention attracting outsiders like MSNBC, FOX and CNN.

Meanwhile as protesters were routinely dismissed and characterized as “outside agitators” and a “lynch mob”, the scent of a police coverup began to carry a heavy stench as critical questions were unanswered.  The public were fed a story line that framed Mr. Gray’s injuries occurring during what’s called a “nickel ride” – reminiscent of the cheap and rocky rides at the local amusement park. The prisoner is handcuffed but not secured with a seatbelt – so they will bounce around a bit as the police van makes turns, stops and go. Yet, incredibly there was absolutely no focus on the police procedural tactic where the police officer places his knee – with the thunderous downward force of body weight on the victims neck and/or shoulder area.  This was such a huge missed and squandered opportunity to review this particular police tactic in the way the chokehold was reviewed and subsequently banned.  But this police tactic of using the knee to secure the prisoner totally escaped the public’s view because the media’s focus was elsewhere.  
Meanwhile, you could just imagine the anger, frustration and tension escalating as questions about Mr. Gray’s death grew only to be left unanswered – or outright dismissed. But as the winds of resistance grew stronger and stronger in Baltimore, within hours of laying Mr. Gray to rest, a rebellious confrontation with the police created a storm in and of itself. The world witnessed an open rebellion on the streets of America as images splashed across the television screen of Baltimore students hurling rocks, stones and metal pipes at a battalion of Baltimore police officers clad in military and riot gear.  With no guidance or leadership, these young people took matters into their own hands apparently disgusted by their own daily experience of police harassment and violence – they decided to fight back the only way they knew how.   

The images were so foreign to the typical American – they were more reminiscent of the battles in the Middle East of young Palestinians pummeling the Israeli military with mere sticks and stones. While the rebellious actions in Baltimore were immediately and widely condemned as "thugs" by the president and yes, the mayor – the real story that was missed in all of this was that their actions – their response to Mr. Gray’s death is a direct reflection of the contentious relationship they have with the police.  This is a relationship that bears no resemblance to the experience white communities share with their police. This helps to explain just how differently and divided this national crisis is viewed along racial lines – particularly between blacks and whites.  One would think this would put aside the notion this issue of police violence has nothing to do with race.  
Then, there’s the curious position taken on the “special prosecutor” question. Baltimore City State Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby became an overnight celebrity since filing indictments against the six police officers involved in Mr. Gray’s death in police custody. However, despite coming from a family of police officers, and dismissing the pressure to recuse herself for “conflict of interests” – Ms. Mosby has nevertheless gained enormous support from black communities in Baltimore, and across the country for taking such a “courageous” position against police officers. If you recall, this is a significant departure from the previous calls for a special prosecutor in the wake of the police related deaths of Mr. Eric Garner and Mr. Michael Brown.  But understanding the relationship between local prosecutors and the police, is the call for a special prosecutor now “conditional” - dependent on whether the local prosecutor is black and/or police officers are indeed indicted? It’s a question that needs to be answered as these incidents occur more frequently.

Meanwhile, two months has passed by since the full scale rebellion in Baltimore and the city on edge continues to get their share of hits – plans to build a $30 million youth jail, divert nearly $12 million allocated for Baltimore City schools towards pensions instead, thousands fighting turnoff notices for delinquent water bills, and FEMA rejected Baltimore’s request for disaster aid to cover the millions lost in property damage.  To make matters worse, in the wake of Baltimore City suffering a record 43 murders during May 2015 – Mr. Gene Ryan, the head of the Baltimore police union made statements regarding the fear the police are experiencing while out on the streets. These assertions should be readily dismissed and recognize the real story is the amount of prescription drugs that are now on the streets creating strife on the corners in much the same way crack did some 25 to 30 years ago.

The officers charged are: Top, from left, Caeser R. Goodson Jr., Sgt. Alicia D. White, Officer Garrett E. Miller.; bottom, from left, Lt. Brian W. Rice, Officer William G. Porter, Officer Edward M. Nero. All have pleaded not guilty. 
Now the pressing question is where will the next uprising take place and how will the people respond to the next case of police violence.  Over the last year or so, more and more people are realizing this is a real human rights issue that has become a national crisis. You have seen the many nationwide protests and acts of civil disobedience, and fierce uprisings attracting international support over this issue of police violence.  For years now, black and brown communities all across the nation recognized the police as an intruding force who have clearly abused their power thus shattering this notion of public trust.  But the recent rash of escalating police violence not only shows the apparent lack of accountability afforded to police officers but really provides some insight to the extent of the political support police departments across the country have. 

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