It’s been seven months since protests over the death of an unarmed black man after his arrest erupted into looting and arson, leading Baltimore’s mayor to declare a curfew and call in the National Guard. Now, that unrest remains a potent backdrop as the trial begins for the first of six police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death.
“I just want peace while the trial is going on,” says Missa Grant, standing at a bus stop across a busy intersection from the former CVS that became a televised symbol of the violence. The store was looted, set fire to, and eventually torn down. The walls of a new red brick structure are now halfway up.
Grant says if the evidence shows the officers are not guilty, so be it. But with such a long and growing list of unarmed black men killed by police all over the country, she doesn’t think everyone will see it that way
“I believe there’s going to be another riot, I really do,” she says. “It’s not what I’m looking for. But I really believe that they’re going to react out if somebody doesn’t have to stand up for what happened to Freddie Gray.”
The officers face six separate, consecutive trials, on charges ranging from second degree depraved heart murder to misconduct in office. Officer William Porter is the first up, charged with manslaughter, assault, and reckless endangerment. He was called in as backup after Gray’s arrest, and was present at several stops of the policy paddy wagon in which the 25-year-old man was transported, handcuffed and in leg irons.
According to charging documents, Porter was present when Gray said he couldn’t breathe. The Baltimore Sun has reported that Porter told police investigators he informed the van’s driver that Gray was in medical distress, though also wondered if he was faking it. Prosecutors say they are trying Porter first because he is a “material witness” against at least two other officers.
“Porter is going to be the key to everything,” says A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore defense attorney not involved in the case. “What he negotiates or doesn’t negotiate, whether he’s acquitted or whether he’s convicted, he is going to be the determiner of how the other five proceed.”
Pettit is the first to allege systemic racism among Baltimore police. He’s won a long string of civil cases over excessive force. The city’s paid out millions to settle such claims in recent years. Yet Pettit says the this case is no “slam dunk,” despite that video of Gray’s arrest that played over and over on cable TV.
“That video is very inconclusive in many areas,” he says, as is the “cause of death. It’s going to be a major war between pathologists as to how he died. Ample opportunity to paint reasonable doubt.”
Outside Mondawmin Mall, where high school students started the spasm of looting the day of Gray’s funeral, Tanya Peacher says she’s hoping for convictions.
“It’s just going to be lack of respect even more for the police now, if they don’t be found guilty,” she says.
Like many here, Peacher says she, her children and neighbors have had bad run-ins with police. However the Freddie Gray trials turn out, she doesn’t see that changing.
“Because one stupid cop is going to do something stupid again, then it’s going to be on camera again,” she says. “It’s not the end, it’s just going to be bad.”
Adding to tensions, Peacher thinks Baltimore police have pulled back since last spring’s unrest, fueling a homicide rate that’s hit record levels.
At a makeshift memorial on a residential West Baltimore street, purple, gold and red balloons tied to a pedestrian crossing sign mark the city’s 300th homicide this year, a number not seen since the ’90s. Neighbor Ray Bond blames drug dealers, and he’s frustrated this kind of killing doesn’t galvanize people the way Freddie Gray’s death has.
“You’re killing each other every day, people that you grew up with,” he says. “You shooting them every day. But when an officer does something? All hell break out.”
A short drive away, the No Boundaries Coalition has seen one good thing come out of all the bad: more money for its grassroots community development work.
“I think we can’t get lost in the trials,” says organizer Ray Kelly. “I think we have to remember to focus on the systemic oppression, so to speak, that led up to Freddie Gray being able to just be killed in a paddy wagon. I mean, that wasn’t unique.”
Kelly’s group wants more teeth for the civilian review board that oversees the police department. It also wants to double voter turnout in the zip code where Freddie Gray lived. It’s been stunningly low, in the single digits for two of the past three elections.
Last week Kelly organized a “know your rights” meeting with officials from the Justice Department, which is investigating whether there’s a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing in Baltimore. The forum was a chance to air all kinds of grievances, from police abuse to poor schools to lead poisoning. Yet despite Kelly’s efforts to publicize the meeting, hardly any local residents turned out.
“I’m very disappointed,” he said, as he surveyed a church hall full of mostly empty round tables.
Kelly wants residents to get more involved, and to feel safe, no matter the outcome of the trials.
While Freddie Gray’s death and the charges against police may have brought new attention to Baltimore’s problems, an uphill struggle remains over how to fix them.