As Baltimore Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, issues the controversial directive to give space to those who “wish to destroy”, the city continues to burn with racial unrest and anger. Peaceful protests following the death of a young black man, Freddie Gray (dead from injuries inflicted while in police custody), quickly devolved into violent clashes between law enforcement and protesters. Maryland Governor, Larry Hogan, sent National Guardsmen to the city, Tuesday morning, to help contain the chaos that persisted through the night, leaving property destruction, looting and injured law enforcement.
Over 500 rifle-toting National Guardsmen were deployed to help restore order to the streets of Baltimore with up to 5000 being made available if needed. 15 police officers were injured, six requiring hospitalization, after protesters hurled rocks, bricks and bottles toward police lines. Thus far, over 200 people have been arrested and authorities report more than one hundred vehicle and structural fires. Schools were cancelled Tuesday and transit was suspended in many parts of the city. The mayor planned to institute a mandatory 10 PM curfew on Tuesday evening. Critics of the mayor’s leadership facing this alarming escalation of unrest say these efforts are too little, too late.
25-year-old Freddie Gray died from a severe spinal cord injury and a crushed larynx. Gray was originally taken into custody April 19 for possession of a switch-blade discovered after he fled from patrolmen in a section of Baltimore known for gang and drug activity. Witnesses report that Gray did not physically resist arrest but was dragged forcefully toward a police van. One witness claimed that Gray was “folded,” with one officer bending his legs backward while another officer pinned his neck to the sidewalk. Video showed officers beating the man with batons.
Exactly what happened after Gray was placed into the transport van remains in dispute. Police records show that the suspect was transported without incident to holding. However, within 30 minutes of arrest, paramedics were summoned to the facility as Gray lapsed into a coma and was transported to a University of Maryland Trauma Center. Freddie Gray died one week later. Autopsy reports showed that his spine was severed up to 80 percent at the neck with three fractured vertebrae and an injured larynx.
As a result of preliminary investigation, six Baltimore police officers were suspended without pay pending a report due May 1. On April 24, Police Commissioner, Anthony Batts, admitted that his officers failed to get Gray necessary medical care in a timely fashion. Batts also confirmed that arresting officers failed to buckle Gray into the van properly while being transported to holding. Members of the community are decrying this ill-performed transportation as the perhaps lethal component of Gray’s arrest.
In police circles, it is referred to as the “nickel ride,” nicknamed after a rickety roller coaster ride that slams the rider roughly around after paying the paltry nickel fee. Handcuffed suspects are thrown into the back of transportation vehicles completely unsecured, then slammed around by sharp turns and sudden stops on the way back to the police station. This is tantamount to torture and it is as illegal as it is against police regulations. Baltimore Police have a storied history with this very activity. Another suspect, Dondi Johnson, was killed ten years ago after a rough ride back to central holding. There have been several multi-million dollar settlements for excessive force and police brutality in the city. Obviously, community dissatisfaction with this type of police activity is justified.
However, the violent devolution of righteous demonstration is certainly unjustified. Newly-appointed Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, condemned the rioting, looting and violence against already-reeling law enforcement. She pledged full cooperation with state and local authorities to restore peace to the city. As Baltimore burned Monday night, many officials pointed to the mayor’s “space to destroy” comments as an indication of her poor response to the growing unrest in her city and even tacit approval for vandalism.
Rawlings-Black initially attempted to deny making the comments and then tried to back-peddle the connotation of the statements. She had ordered police to stand down amid protests after the funeral of Freddie Gray. Furthermore, as protests escalated to violence, police refused to intervene in many instances. Over the weekend, violence erupted outside the Baltimore Orioles game after protesters began to lob beer cans and bottles into the crowd of Orioles fans. Entrances to the stadium were locked down, limiting fans from exiting or re-entering due to the rioting outside of the facility. Onlookers report that police did not engage perpetrators of violence and property destruction. Many of the injured police officers were wounded during this incident. Sources in the governor’s office report that his office had waited all weekend for contact from Baltimore leadership asking for help as violence escalated dangerously.
No one on either side of this debate denies that the death of Freddie Gray is a tragedy. Responsible law enforcement is difficult enough in without rogue authorities perpetrating their own crime against suspects. While critics are questioning the discretion of the mayor for the wording in her plea for the space to destroy for would-be peaceful protesters, the city of Baltimore continues to figuratively and literally burn with racial hostility and unrest.
By Chris Marion
Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen – Creativecommons Flickr License