“He shouldn’t be up there with Martin Luther King”: A mural of Freddie Gray with the civil rights leader provokes disgust, on my ride-along with the Baltimore Police

Trying to get past the good guy/bad guy narrative, I ride along with two Baltimore cops. Here's what I learned

Published August 22, 2015 1:29PM (EDT)

  (AP/Gail Burton)
(AP/Gail Burton)

The streets are quiet tonight in West Baltimore. I’m in the backseat of a car on a ride-along with two Baltimore City police officers in late May, nearly a month after the riots following the death of Freddie Gray. There have been 26 murders this month to date, a number that will leapfrog to 43 before May draws to a close.

The media is calling this a “surge in violence” and touting theories to account for the spike, everything from officer apathy to a plethora of looted prescription drugs flooding the market and causing gang violence, but tonight the streets of West Baltimore are largely deserted. We see one group of young men hanging on a corner and a few kids pedaling around on bikes, but otherwise it’s eerily quiet.

I’ve come on this ride-along because I want to see for myself what’s happening on the streets in the wake of the riots. Many of stories told by the media have sympathized either with the protesters or with the police, thus setting up an “us versus them” dynamic that feels reductive.

I don’t buy into this good guy/bad guy type of narrative. I don’t believe that the majority of the rioters were bad people or that the majority of police officers are bloodthirsty brutes. What I believe is that most of the rioters were good people engaging in bad behavior and that most of the police are good officers doing the best they can while working in deeply flawed system, a system that revolves around the “War on Drugs,” a system that targets poor, black neighborhoods.

We ride by the burned-out CVS and the boarded-up buildings. We slow down next to the huge mural that has been painted on the side of a row house in Sandtown-Winchester, close to the spot where Freddie Gray was first arrested. Two chimney-like structures divide the mural into three panels. In the center is a huge painting of Freddie Gray’s face; on the left Martin Luther King Jr. is depicted marching with a group of protesters, and on the right, Freddie Gray’s family also marches.

We all stare at the mural in silence for a moment. It reminds me of the statue that towers outside of Baltimore’s Penn Station, which features two bisecting body profiles, one male and one female. Baltimoreans either love or hate this polarizing piece of art. Whenever I look at it, I both understand it and question it, which is the same way I felt when the riots occurred.

The riots made no sense to me and yet, they made perfect sense. For years, I’ve heard stories from young, black men about their experiences with the cops — young men who have been pulled over without cause, who have been illegally searched, who have been spoken to disrespectfully. Some have been physically assaulted.

I have also been witness to some of these acts on a handful of ride-alongs that I went on several years ago with the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). I went with the goal of writing about the fraying relationship between the BPD and the black community, but every time I tried to put pen to paper, the task felt impossibly complex.

On one of the ride-alongs, I watched a car full of young black men dressed in bright polo shirts and cocked ball caps get pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. The driver of the vehicle handed over his license and explained that he was a college student, and that he and his friends were on their way to meet some friends.

The young man was polite and respectful, but it was easy to see that getting pulled over like this was not a new experience for him. There was a lilting impatience in his voice, the slightest tinge of angry exasperation that he attempted to keep tucked away. After the young man answered a few questions, the officers let him off without issuing any sort of traffic citation.

I remember watching him drive off and wondering what he would do with the remnants of that anger that he’d kept so neatly tucked beneath those polite answers. I have long wondered where that young man and all the others like him put their anger over this kind of degradation.

But I stopped wondering on the day of the riots; when I saw the images of young people lobbing bricks, stomping on cars and looting stores. There, I thought, the anger is right there.

The riot was a release. A giant exhale on a long held breath that has been waiting for the proverbial arc of justice to bend toward it.

“He shouldn’t be up there with Martin Luther King,” one of the officers finally says of the Freddie Gray mural, a note of disgust in his voice.

These officers, one Caucasian, one Hispanic, knew Freddie Gray long before the media ever uttered his name. At the station where we started the night, there were photographs of Gray hanging on the wall. In the photos, he was surrounded by a posse of baby-faced young men who mugged for the camera. In one picture, Gray held up his middle finger. There were handwritten numbers above the head of each of the young men and below a list of names that corresponded with the numbers.

When these officers look at this larger-than-life mural with Gray in the center, they see a drug dealer next to the greatest civil rights leader of all time and they can’t seem to make sense of that.

“Put that little girl up there. McKenzie. Not him,” the officer says.

He is referring to 3-year-old McKenzie Elliot, who was killed in a drive-by shooting last August. “Why weren’t there riots for her? That, I would understand.”

McKenzie Elliot and Freddie Gray — the former was presumably killed by drug dealers (although nobody has been arrested despite the fact that the crime occurred in front of multiple witnesses), the latter indisputably died in police custody.

I’ve heard similar sentiments in the wake of the riots — on the radio, on TV, in essays. People have pointed to the phenomenon that’s been dubbed “black on black violence” and they’ve wondered why there seems to be no outrage over this more common occurrence.

On its own, I suppose this is a legitimate question, but when it’s stacked up against the death of Freddie Gray, it feels like a diversion tactic, like some way to distract from the conversation about the use of excessive force.

Yes, it’s true that the majority of the murders that will occur in Baltimore this year will not be police killing civilians, but black men killing other black men. And yes, the astoundingly high murder rates among inner-city black men is a conversation that needs to be had, but it needs to take place apart from the topic of police brutality, not in answer to it.

As we sit there staring up at the mural of Gray, I think back to that night that the officers pulled over the car full of young men in bright polo shirts. Shortly after they’d let the young men go, they pulled over another car in a similar fashion. The driver was carrying an illegal gun.

I remember wondering whether the end justified the means. I didn’t have a solid answer. I believed the answer was no, yet I was glad they took a gun off the street. I was aware that there was a good chance they’d just preempted a shooting, possibly a murder.

* * *

When we started the night back at the station, I stood looking at the bulletin board where one of the officers had photos of his family pinned. Two little boys smiled brightly, a toddler and an infant. There were photos of the officer smiling gleefully with the boys, and another of him and his wife.

“Here,” he said, handing me a bulletproof vest. I looked at it for a moment. Did I really need that? The people who lived in those neighborhoods didn’t wear vests, so why should I? But I took the vest and pulled it over my head, then stood fumbling with it like an inept preschooler trying to work a zipper. The officer smirked at me before helping me to secure it properly. I felt both ridiculous and invincible.

I had similar contrasting emotions on the night of the riots as I sat on the couch in my Baltimore County home watching the television coverage. I felt hollowed out, devastated and yet simultaneously aware of the fact that none of this could touch me; of the fact that I was in a safe place, far away from the looting and violence. Outside I could hear the kids on my block riding their bikes down the hill, squealing with joy. I was all too aware of my whiteness and all too aware of my privilege.

My city was burning, but it was not my city anymore. Maybe it never was. I lived in Baltimore years ago, but not in the part of the city that was on fire. That part always felt a million miles away, even when I lived less than seven miles from it. That’s how Baltimore is — a Jekyll and Hyde city. Which face you see depends on whether or not you have money. If you have money, Baltimore is the land of pleasant living, charm city; if you don’t it’s Bodymore, Murderland — violent, drug-riddled, the streets full of crushed drug vials, the police oftentimes more menace than comfort.

The only time I ever visited West Baltimore, where most of the rioting took place, was to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. I drove in, did my good deed, then drove out. I made sure to lock my car doors and to pack my own lunch when I went, because there were no stores other than the tiny corner shops where all of the valuable merchandise sat behind bulletproof plastic next to the clerk. Afterward, I returned to my home, a house I rented in the Butcher’s Hill neighborhood, a neighborhood full of restaurants, bars and grocery stores.

* * *

When I ask the officers I’m riding with about the day of the riots, they liken the scene at Mondawmin Mall, where the riots began, to a war zone. They even refer to what happened there as “The Battle of Mondawmin.”

To understand what happened that day, it’s necessary to note that Mondawmin Mall serves as a hub for 10 Maryland Transit Administration bus lines, as well as a metro stop. On any given school day, the area teems with kids going to and from school. On that particular day, the BPD had heard reports about a “purge” (a reference to a movie in which crime is made legal for 12 hours) that was going to take place at the mall around school dismissal time.

The previous weekend, there’d been several violent clashes at Camden Yards between protesters and police. The department had canceled all leave.

These two officers started the day stationed near the Inner Harbor as part of a mobile response unit. The sun was out. People milled around Baltimore’s Rash Field. There was a game of pickup football underway. Then, the crackle of the radio sounded sometime after 3 o’clock. A flood of panicked, distressed voices followed.

We need backup here.

They’re throwing bricks.

Officer down. Officer down!

We need a medic.

For a police officer, the words “officer down” provoke an almost Pavlovian response: They hear it, they go. There’s a special code for an officer in distress, and when this code comes over the radio, the response is immediate.

But this day was different. When the distress calls began, their unit’s orders were clear: stay put in the event that protesters headed toward the Harbor. Some of the officers couldn’t stand it. They broke rank and raced to the scene at Mondawmin.

The lieutenant of the mobile response unit got on the phone and pressed to be dispatched. “Let us go. Nobody is down here. There’s nothing fucking going on here. Let us go.”

After 20 minutes and a couple of urgent requests to be dispatched, their unit got the go ahead. “Grab your gear and let’s go,” the lieutenant shouted.

The “gear” consisted solely of plastic helmets. “We grabbed these old, dry-rotted helmets,” one of the officers explains. “That was our riot gear. They were so old that one impact and they were useless. Some guys had shields. That was it.”

The body armor and industrial canisters of pepper spray, mace and extra shields came later, flooding in from wealthier jurisdictions, according to these officers.

Their unit sped toward the scene, coming in from Druid Park Drive. They parked their cars a good distance from the Mondawmin Mall in a staging area that had popped up. Here, a crew of officers from another jurisdiction had been assigned to stand guard over the cars because police cruisers had become targets.

At the staging area, they formed a line and began to march toward the mall. Two lieutenants, three sergeants and 21 officers.

As they approached Mondawmin they didn’t know what to expect.

“Were you scared?” I ask.

For a moment, all that can be heard is the whir of air blowing in the window of the car.

“Not scared, nervous,” the officer who is driving says.

“I was scared,” the other officer admits. “I was thinking about my boys, about getting home to my boys.”

As they marched, people popped out of alleys and hurled rocks, bottles, bricks and then disappeared. Smoke filled the street.

“It was like something out of a video game,” one officer says. People yelled at them, taunted them: Fuck the police. Fuck y’all. Murderers. A brick exploded in front of them and a portion of it came smashing into one of the officers’ thighs.

The people who were throwing things were teenagers mostly. Kids. Angry kids.

* * *

As we drive toward Mondawmin Mall, the officers tell me that morale is low among the BPD, that the police are afraid to stop anybody, afraid that even if they have the best intentions, they will make a mistake and that the mistake could be the end of their livelihood or, worse, the end of their freedom.

That is how these two officers view what happened to the six members of the BPD (dubbed “The Six”) who have been charged in the death of Freddie Gray. They see Gray’s death as a tragedy that was caused by a series of mistakes. Not murder.

Though they acknowledge that Gray should’ve been given medical care, the way they see it, the chase and the arrest were justified. The knife was illegal. There was no unreasonable use of force. The officers involved made poor decisions once Gray was in custody, but there was no intent. They feel that Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore state’s attorney, has overcharged the officers and that they will be exonerated from the gravest of the charges.

“There was no intent to kill,” one officer says. “No police officer wakes up and thinks, ‘I’m gonna go kill somebody today.’”

Earlier in the evening both of these officers attended a fundraiser for “The Six.” All but one has been suspended without pay. As the night unwound, we stopped at various precinct stations. Without fail there were fliers posted on the walls of each station for upcoming fundraisers for the officers who have been charged. Whenever I saw one of these fliers, I thought of Freddie Gray’s severed spinal cord.

“They’re going to lose their homes,” the officer who has two young boys says repeatedly of “The Six,” a fact that seems to greatly trouble him.

“The thing that drives me crazy is the automatic assumption that we wanted to kill Freddie Gray,” he says as we drive around the parking lot of Mondawmin Mall. “That we murdered him. That we murdered Michael Brown. That we murdered Eric Garner. A lot of people like to throw this word, ‘murder,’ out to show intent but it’s so far from the truth. Michael Brown didn’t have his hands up, that’s been disproven.”

And indeed, this is probably true, at least according to the report released by the Department of Justice. When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” mantra became an almost immediate rally cry; however, the narrative around what happened that day was shaped in large part by eyewitness accounts that were later widely discredited.

It has been concluded that Michael Brown most likely did not have his hands up when he was shot; that he was most likely not in a position of surrender and the DNA evidence supports Officer Darren Wilson’s version that Brown reached into the car. This, however, was not reported until nearly seven months after Brown was shot. What’s more, the report barely made a blip on the news radar since it was released on the same day that the Justice Department’s scathing review of the practices of the Ferguson Police Department came out.

The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” mantra lives on at rallies and protests, the accuracy of the origin seemingly unimportant. And perhaps the accuracy truly doesn’t matter because if the rally cry doesn’t quite fit the Michael Brown narrative, perhaps it fits the Walter Scott narrative. Or Oscar Grant. If it doesn’t apply in Ferguson, perhaps it applies in Charleston, South Carolina, or New York. If the six officers in Baltimore are found to be not guilty, the fact that we have a problem in our country that centers on race, class and the police remains undeniable.

* * *

When we get back to the station, one of the officers sits in front of his computer. “Here, look at this. This is why I hate the media.”

The officer shows me two versions of the same footage in which a young, black, male protester gets maced, horse collared and then arrested. In the first version, the writing on the young man’s shirt has been blurred out. Music has been dubbed over the actual sound on the video, making it difficult to discern what’s going on between the protester and the police. The police seem to come out of nowhere with little to no provocation and take the protester down forcefully.

The second version contains the raw footage. It is obvious that the young man’s shirt reads "Fuck the Police," even though the word "fuck" has been blurred. He walks in circles getting closer and closer to the police. He continually lunges his chest toward the officers saying, “Arrest me! I dare you,” in a taunting tone. His hands are balled in fists. After the young man circles several times, an officer steps forward and dowses him with mace. Another officer grabs the back of his shirt collar and brings him to the ground. Suddenly, glass bottles begin to explode on the ground, thrown by unseen protesters.

“See, they had to move him,” the officer explains of the way that they drag the young man out of the street. “It was for his safety and theirs.”

I continue watching the footage. As the crew of officers moves the man, one of the officers grimaces as he struggles to lift him. I recognize the officer from a meme I saw circulating on social media in the days after the riots. The meme contained this photo, which was snapped at the moment that the officer strained to lift the man up, along with a slew of comments condemning the officer.

When I first saw this image, I thought, that’s sick. It looked like the officer was posing and smiling in the style of those infamous Abu Ghraib photos, but something inside of me questioned the photo. In the wake of the riots, what police officer would be stupid enough to do this? I got my answer when I watched the video and saw for myself that there was no pause in the officer’s action for a quick photo. What appears to be a sick, demented smile turns out only to be an officer grimacing with the exertion it took to lift the young man (around 1:08 is when the photo was shot).

When I ask this same officer about rough rides, he denies that they take place. “I’ve never seen one. Half the time, the wagon guys barely show up to pick up your prisoner and it’s a different guy all of the time. There’s no relationship between the wagon guys and the officers. Those wagon guys are mostly all old-timers getting ready to retire. They aren’t going to risk their jobs, even if someone asked them to. They’d be more likely to turn you in for asking.”

When I express skepticism over this, the officer nods understandingly, but says that rough rides are a thing of the past — a thing that might’ve happened back in the era when there was much more camaraderie, when guys took much more pride in the job and in having each other's backs. Back then, he explains, there was something called post integrity, which meant that if there was a call in your sector, you answered it. If an officer from another sector came in to answer a call in your territory, it was a thing of shame, but today this happens all of the time.

I nod. This explanation seems both plausible and implausible, but even if it’s 100 percent true, it doesn’t change the fact that Freddie Gray is dead; it doesn’t change the fact that his spinal cord was severed while in police custody.

* * *

In the past year, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” has risen into the collective consciousness. It appears on T-shirts, bumper stickers and on signs at rallies. It’s an appropriate rally cry given the number of black civilians that have been shot or killed by the police: Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner; however, not everyone agrees with the slogan.

Some have rejected it, saying instead that “All Lives Matter,” but I find myself wondering how the people who use that rebuttal can take themselves seriously. We live in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, a country of excess where people still go hungry, where people still grow up in desperate poverty in drug-riddled neighborhoods. Neighborhoods like the one where Freddie Gray grew up.

Freddie Gray, who was placed into a police van on his stomach.

Freddie Gray, who was not given medical care despite numerous requests.

Freddie Gray, who was unresponsive by the time he arrived at the Western District police station.

* * *

When people saw the footage of violence erupting in Baltimore, many expressed disapproval over the actions of the protesters. This is not the way to have their voices heard, they said.

But for so long we have not heard their voices, I thought. We cannot have it both ways.  

For years we’ve covered our ears and closed our eyes and locked our doors when we drove through neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester, but once the city was on fire we turned on our television sets, and we watched the news with our eyes wide open. We could not turn away. For the first time in a long time we were listening, seeing, paying attention.

One of the voices I heard while I was tuned into the coverage of the riots came from a young black man who was being interviewed by a reporter from a local newscast.

“What are your hopes and dreams?” the reporter asked.

“To be a lawyer and make a lot of money,” the young man said, “so my kids don’t have to go through this.”

“Do you feel that you have the opportunity to do that?”

“Yeah. Baltimore gives you a lot of opportunity. But at the same time it doesn’t give you a lot of opportunity.”

 As I sat listening to that young man, I marveled at the simplicity of his words: There is opportunity and yet there is so little opportunity.

Sure, it was possible that the young man could become a lawyer, but what were his odds? He would have to thread his life through the eye of a needle to achieve that dream. He would have to do every single thing right while so much wrong went on around him. He would have to be exceptional in every way, unlike the younger version of myself, a middle-class white kid who could’ve driven a mac truck full of mistakes through my teen years and still made it to college.

But still, there was a chance for him, however slight. And isn’t that the promise of America? Of the American Dream? That there is always the possibility for a person to become something more? That the possibility exists that this young man could rise up against all odds and become a lawyer?

* * *

In the neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up, 47.6 percent of children live below the poverty line. Nearly half. In his neighborhood and others just like it across our great country, kids go to school hungry. In these neighborhoods, kids are far more likely to see the inside of a jail cell than they are to see a law school classroom.

Where does that fit in with the American Dream? Where does a number like 47.6 percent of children living below the poverty line fit in?

If all lives matter, they surely do not all seem to matter equally.

By Danielle Ariano

MORE FROM Danielle Ariano

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Baltimore Baltimore Police Department Baltimore Riots Black Lives Matter Editor's Picks Freddie Gray