Baltimore: by any means necessary

[Baltimore, April 28/2015] It is not easy to sum the history of oppression that is being expressed in these days of protests and riots in Baltimore. Such task gets even more difficult when your hands are shaking of anxiety and helplessness, while right outside your window a couple of police officers are arresting a teen and the entire city is a frenzy of sirens.

But let us start from the beginning. Or not quite, as the beginning of this story is not easy to spot. Let us start from Freddie Gray. On April 12, at 8.40am, at the intersection between Presbury e N Mount Street (in the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, West Baltimore), Freddie made the fatal mistake of running away from a police officer (Brian Rice) on bicycle who had just made eye-contact with him. After deciding that this was enough of a probable cause to arrest the 25-year old, Rice called out for the support of other five officers (Garrett Miller, Alicia White, William Porter, Edward Nero, Caesar Goodson) with the help of whom he arrested Freddie (probably already injuring him at this point) and threw his limp body on a police wagon. Despite several calls for medical assistance by Freddie Gray, no officer responded, and rather they dragged the victim around for 40 minutes (time in which the wagon picked up other suspects) before arriving to the police station. By that time Freddie was lying unconscious on the wagon floor. A week later, on April 19th, Freddie dies in the hospital for a severe spinal injury. 

The death of Freddie Gray is only the last of a long series of which we remember but a few names, such as that of Trayvon Martin (killed in the February of 2012) and Eric Garner (July 2014). In particular, the huge issue of police brutality against the Black community hit newspapers’ headlines and became a pressing topic for policy-makers after the murder of the young Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. The premature death of Mike Brown triggered days, weeks and even months of protest in Ferguson and across the country, under the key words ‘Black Lives Matter’.
Thus, the murder of Freddie Gray occurred in a context in which police forces’ actions are under the tight sights of the public opinion on the one hand and of the legislators on the other, and the tension in the Black neighborhoods (yes, urban segregation in the US is not a thing of the past) is running high. To this background we must add the fact that we are talking of Baltimore here: a mostly Black city (65% of the population is Black) where a big majority of the population lives in the hoods of East and West Baltimore. A very thin ‘safe stripe’ remains in the middle, predominantly white. , where the wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods of Guilford, Roland Park, Canton and their perfectly mowed lawns are in stark contrast with the worn down, crime-ridden neighborhoods that make most of the city (the Black city), where the rates of unemployment are in the best scenarios double those recorded in white neighborhoods, and this without counting in those who have stopped actively seeking employment (and these are many, given that a big obstacle in pursuing for a job is having a criminal record and that, according to the sociologist Alice Goffman ‘among young Black men, one in nine are in prison’ - Alice Goffman (2014) On the run: Fugitive life in an American city, University of Chicago Press.).

Figure 1: Table extracted from the paper 'Down to the Wire: Displacement and Disinvestment in Baltimore City', by Lawrence Brown

In this context, the predominant job opportunity that is left to the Black youth in the hoods is the drug traffic, with all the informal economy that revolves around it. The drug-dealing business not only destroys the Black community with the dependence, but also with the chain of violence that is inevitably attached to these kinds of activities.

Thus, the umpteenth murder occurred in a city where the social tensions were just there, ready to burst. In the days following Freddie’s death, Sandtown has walked to the streets to protest every single day, bringing along an increasingly thick crowd of supporters. Last Saturday, April 25, everybody was there: from Freddie’s friends to Hopkins academics, from local unions to the angry mothers who have lost their husbands, their sons, their brothers at the hands of the police force. 1,500 people yelling ‘We want justice for Freddie!’ – some at the police officials, some at the Mayor, some others at the sky.

After four hours of marching through the city, the crowd flew into the square in front of the City Hall, where the leadership of the New Black Panther Party (not to be taken for the Black Panther Party) made an attempt to keep the mass stationary for a series of speeches. This attempt failed half an hour afterwards, when Malik Shabbazz’s request to ‘Calm down, we will let you march again in about an hour’ was met by a spontaneous leaking of hundreds of people in the streets, towards the stadium, where recently the baseball season has started again. If on the one hand the police forces had been almost invisible throughout the march, the stadium and all the devoted Orioles fans could not go unprotected by rows of riot police equipped with pepper-spray and horses. At the same time, though, it was clear that the orders police officers were receiving was to stay calm, so much so that they remained relatively composed even during the attack to the six police cars parked nearby the stadium and the four-hour long block of the intersection between W Pratt St and S Howard St.

Only towards 8pm the police helicopter (which never stopped circulating over our heads since the beginning of the march) started to yell the usual message ‘You must clear the intersection or you will be arrested’. Even in this case, though, police authorities showed a surprising self-possession, clearly ordered from above: the Mayor, the police authorities, everybody new how incendiary the situation was. But the composure displayed by the police was not enough to sedate a anger that is deeply rooted not only in the racism and abuses of the law enforcement apparatus, but also in the lack of alternatives to the hood and its economy for the most part of the Black youth in Baltimore. Hence, while only 50 miles away president Obama was going loose in a stand-up show for the annual dinner with the White House Correspondents’ Association, the protesters went back towards the Western District, where people engaged in a night of clashes with the police.

Following the night of clashes in Sandtown, peace in the streets was called for until the celebration of Freddie’s funeral, scheduled for Monday, April 27. Rallies were not to be resumed until the following Tuesday. But things got more complicated: April 25 saw a truce being set between the three major gangs in the city, the Bloods, the Crips and the Black Guerrilla Family. If until only a few days before they were killing each other, on April 25 the members of the different gangs were walking together in the same march, for the first time since the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, ensued from the beating by the law enforcement of the African-American taxi-driver Rodney King.

The truce is of such importance that it was used later by the police to abandon the low-key approach of April 25 and deploy the National Guard in the streets. On Monday morning a declaration was released by the Baltimore Police Department (BCPD) stating that Intelligence sources had issued a warning about a ‘credible threat’ regarding a partnership between the city’s gangs aimed at ‘taking-out law enforcement officers’.

With this statement (of which the validity has been questioned by a number of public declarations made by the members of the gangs in question), the police authorities wanted to send a clear message: we do not appreciate your achieved unity, so be careful, as we are ready to act. After all, the criminal economy constitutes the main relief valve of the underclasses. The possibility of them finding a common perspective represents too big of a menace. Thus, justified by the gangs’ ‘credible threat’ and by rumors of imminent riots, the city authorities decided to first close down all public schools in the area and let the students head home and secondly to install 400 riot police officers nearby Mondawmin Mall (the location where rumors of riots were pointing to). At this point, hundreds of school boys that had just been let out from the nearby public school Douglass High found themselves faced with hundreds of riot policemen determined to not let people leave. This was the set off mechanism that triggered a long day (and night) of riots, which ended – according to estimates by the city authorities – with more than 200 arrests, 144 car fires and 15 structure fires.

The state of emergency has been declared across the entire city and the newly elected Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan has called the National Guard into the city. Helicopters are overlooking the city 24/7 and since today (Tuesday, 28) a curfew has been imposed which forces everybody to stay inside their homes from 10pm to 5am. In the meantime, protests continue.

These are important days, not only for Baltimore, but for the entire country. People had to resort to bricks and fire in order to be heard, but finally the authorities (and the world) can no longer ignore the voices of the youth, the mothers, the fathers of Sandtown, who have much to talk about. They talk about the constant abuse of the police force and the popular racism that consigns Black people to a status of less-than-human. They talk about how the city authorities have completely disinvested in these neighborhoods, privatizing the little public housing that was left, closing down the rec centers and cutting down water provisions to those households that cannot afford to pay the bills, while at the same time they have spent millions of dollars in TIFs and various subsidies to the big downtown developers. And they talk about jobs, or more precisely the lack thereof, and the absence of perspectives for most of the Black youth of Baltimore (and of many other cities in the US). Because racism is the mask exploitation hides under. It constitutes yet another instrument to oppress the underclasses and hinder their solidarity. Hence, in a city that has since the 1970s experienced a process of severe deindustrialization while companies fled abroad in the search for cheaper labor force, African-Americans have been consigned to be the poor, either unemployed or hired for the low(est)-end jobs, predominantly in the service sector (the only sector that has expanded in the last few decades). First victims of the subprime bubble that trapped many household into a spiral of debt, now they are also the first to be evicted by their residences to leave room for big developers’ plans.

The protests of the last few days talk about all this. And, yes, they also talk about Freddie.

I close with one of the best interviews I have listened to so far, result of a friend’s video of the first clashes on the evening of the 25th:

By any means necessary.

UPDATE, May 2nd:
As many of you probably heard already, in the morning of May Day the recently elected state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six police officers involved in the arrest and transport of Freddie Gray towards the police station have been charged with charges that range from second-degree murder to manslaughter. The announcement came completely unexpected, especially after rumors had been circulating in the previous days about police authorities sticking to the version that Freddie actually broke his own spine on purpose while in the police wagon. This is a big victory, despite the police union effort to change the revert the verdict by pointing to an alleged ‘conflict of interest’ between the state’s attorney and Gray’s family and the local media (see picture below for the official statement).

The struggle is not over though. While people are now fighting (and getting arrested) against a curfew that has no reason to be (since the National Guard stepped into town there has been no clashes, but only peaceful rallies), steps forward are to be made to turn this victory into systemic change.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy it a bit

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