I’m going to piss off many of my FaceBook friends in coming days. Some are even family. Read at your peril. As events have unfolded in Baltimore around Freddie Gray and his death while in police custody, I’ve found myself increasingly out of step with many of my Facebook ‘Friends’. You of the left persuasion know who I’m talking about–they’re the people you went to high school or college with, who (on the issue of race at least) have morphed into right-wingers. Sometimes it’s a large number of friends–sometimes it’s even members of your family.
For those of you joining late, the police murder (I can’t see how an honest medical examiner can put it any other way) of Freddie Gray has exploded Baltimore into a city of riots and pandemonium. Freddie Gray was a young man with a number of arrests on drug charges. He ran after making eye contact with a Baltimore police officer and was arrested. He was taken away in a police cruiser, and when he next surfaces, he has huge injuries and a severed spine, and died shortly thereafter. No police investigation (SOP for Baltimore and many other departments).
So what happened? Nobody’s saying, but Ray Lewis has an interesting and plausible theory. Lewis is a retired Philadelphia Police captain who rode off the reservation and joined Occupy Wall Street. Ray has been arrested for civil disobedience in his police uniform. And he knows how police misbehave:
“I’ll tell you how he “broke his neck and severed his spine.” The officers played, “Rattle the Can.”
For unruly prisoners, officers place them seated right next to the rear doors. After attaining a high rate of speed, the brakes are suddenly and quickly applied, sending the prisoner wildly sprawling and careening toward the front of the wagon – often times, head first, into the steel barrier separating the officers from the prisoner. This is done multiple times.” In other words, murder.
I leave it to readers to follow the particulars of this case. I can’t do that–I can’t follow the familiar blow-by-blow of charges and countercharges that leave Freddie under the dirt and his murderers unindicted. I’m already hoping for justice to make uncommon personal appearances in the cases of Eric Garner, Kimani Gray, Kenny Lazo and a host of other victims of police brutality. And that wasn’t the point of my post anyway. My point is just how wide a chasm has occurred between myself and many of my contemporaries. Literally, all I did was live in NYC for 31 years. Doing so can make one an activist–you just see too much going on that shouldn’t be happening. In the ‘burbs, it’s easy to hide sketchy behavior (as my friend Nissa Tsun, who’s trying to bring justice for Kenny Lazo, can tell you). And the city has plenty of white people who don’t trust the police–as I recounted here. When I sat on Voir Dire, the attorneys and DA on a murder trial whose primary evidence was from police officers could not seat a jury in Brooklyn–virtually every potential juror had a tale of woe with police (either personal or through a family member) and would not accept uncorroborated testimony from a cop. That was 1998, folks.
And sorry, white folks–those pesky rights you get through the Bill of Rights don’t mean much of anything if you decide to exercise them in contradiction to the wishes of the police. The case of Chris Hennelly is something everybody should be aware of–a non-violent protester beaten mercilessly into a coma by police (all caught on video). And the more recent cases in the Occupy Wall Street movement are pertinent as well. In NYC alone, the city has had to pay out a HALF BILLION DOLLARS to settle police misconduct cases over a five year period. If you want the police to be polite to you, better not point out any flaws in ‘Murica.
This guy is safe:
an anti-anti Iraq war protester who won’t get beaten, tasered, or tear-gassed.
You aren’t. Especially if you’re protesting against the status quo. Especially if you’re a person of color. Especially if you’re a member of an oppressed group (gay men with AIDS or HIV)
So, open letter to my contemporaries who are shouting about Freddy Gray’s criminal record and ‘supporting the police’ and ‘why are they rioting’ and saying bromides like ‘I don’t see race’. Freddy Gray isn’t the first African American brutalized by police in this country for no especially sound reason. He won’t be the last. Baltimore has a long history of endemic racism. They were called out about it back in the 1960’s (the last period of African American uprising) when the late activist Philip Berrigan, then a Josephite priest with a black congregation in a Baltimore neighborhood with even less hope now than in 1965, was part of a public meeting on the ‘Problem of the American Negro’. Berrigan, an Army vet who’d been among the occupation forces that went through the Death Camps, kicked a beehive. He said that nothing the Nazis did was as systematic, as carefully planned and ruthlessly applied as America’s oppression of the Negro (I’m using the archaic language of the time, apologies).
He also had this to say about the riots in Watts in 1965. Like Baltimore and the death of Freddy Gray, the inciting action for the Watts riots was an act of police brutality:
…the Negroes of Watts rebelled, because life fragmented and coerced by a myth had become unendurable. How long will Negroes, particularly the Negro masses, be content with ‘the violence that comes with being forced to live by white myths? At what point does such existence so rob people of hope that the only possible means of self-assertion are the brick and the Molotov cocktail? At what point are Negroes forced to say No! and with such pent-up violence that they are quite indifferent to whatever form the Yes! might take? At what point will Negroes be so convinced of the sterility and despair of their lives that to die in a welter of assault and blood is a more honorable thing than to live in shame and degradation? At what point do we make the last phase of our own Civil War an inescapable contingency, since in this age, a condition of colonialism is hardly better than slavery was a hundred years ago?
One more little note: I was relatively abstemious during the 70’s when recreational drugs were all over the place. So, to my moralizing friends huffing and puffing about Freddy’s drug arrest record, be wary of judging. I wasn’t stoned when you were, and I saw things go down and I remember. If in the 1970’s the cops had been arresting people for possession regardless of race, I would have a whole lot of contemporaries with prison ID. That’s a topic for another discussion, of course. I’m just saying. I’d hate to have to embarrass you in front of everybody on Facebook.