“If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston, reflecting on the de jure segregation and iconic Civil Rights struggle of her day. Nearly half a century later, the eruption of protests in Baltimore illustrates the shrill sounds of pain, repeatedly and ruthlessly inflicted by the police, poverty, and the unseeing of Black bodies as equal citizens.
Freddie Gray, the 25-year old killed by Baltimore police, was far more than merely the most recent victim of police brutality. He lives on as a talisman. The tragic brand of archetype standing alongside scores of killed Black men and women, who spurred and drive the Black Lives Matter movement forward. Gray lived in the Gilmor Homes neighborhood of West Baltimore, a pubic housing project overwhelmingly populated by Black residents. Policemen and patrol cars were ubiquitous. As were drugs, organized crime, and the familiar temptation and trappings they posed.
In a community with a staggering unemployment rate of 58% – poor, Black men like Gray are born running from police, and away from the lure and costly wages of crime. Decayed schools, spatial and racial segregation, the conflation of Blackness with criminality, and their recurrent intersections leave few options. Therefore, young Black men and women from indigent inner-city contexts like Baltimore – running through a minefield of criminal suspicion and police violence, poverty and emaciated opportunity – are predisposed to slip, fall or fail.
Gray ran. Until he could no more. He arrived at the police station, following his arrest, unable to breathe or walk. Somewhere and sometime between his final steps on the block on April 12th, and his coming to the police station a half an hour later, Gray’s spine was broken in half. This injury, preceded by the institutionalized harms inflicted on his body since birth, ultimately took his life on April 19th.
Although Gray was unable to speak before his demise, the streets spoke on his behalf. Baltimore, a blue-collar city where racial segregation maps neatly with economic division, vented in pain as much as it did protest. The actions unfolded primarily within Baltimore’s poor and working class Black communities, spearheaded by Black youth and young adults who knew Freddy Gray; were intimately familiar with his struggle; and perhaps most importantly, conscious that they could have easily been in his stead.
The city spoke in protest, and mourned by marching. Buildings were burned, patrol cars decimated, stores looted, and city blocks covered with debris and trash. All of which could be restored, rehabilitated and insured. Except the life of Freddy Grey.
Media cameras turned their attention to “violence” and “riots,” shifting the lens away from Gray and the mystery surrounding his death. Although peaceful and passive marches proliferated throughout the city, summoning racial justice activists from around the country, mainstream media outlets centered their stories on violent strands of the broader movement. The trite headlines and television bylines unleashed the same stereotypes about Black men, most underlined by the preemptive and presumptive indictment of criminality that steers police looming over Baltimore’s most deprived sections.
Overlaid with the narrow illustration of black bodies on news media, the broader public conversation generally unfolded within the framework of violent versus nonviolent protest. The majority of voices aligned neatly along both axes of this binary, with staunch proponents of passive resistance condemning “violent” strands of the protests; while others advocated, or understood, the sources of aggression. While some observers vacillated in between, the most nuanced voices analyzed beyond this binary. And appropriately enough, spoke from the very streets where Gray was arrested and likely brutalized.
The protestors not only understood the racialized poverty that bound Gray. But live it. They may not know the parlance of Broken Windows Theory and community policing strategy. But are routinely victimized by it. The protestors may be unaware of the economic machinations that keep them unemployed and indigent. But are pushed further and further to society’s margins by them. Indeed, the very victims impaired and injured by evil understand it, and the depth of its malice, better than the rest of us.
Intimate experience with the structural ills that entrap much of the Black community of Baltimore – who make up 64% of the City – render their voices more authoritative and expert than the scores of talking heads behind microphones, casual commentators shooting judgment from far off suburbs or rigid advocates of passive nonviolence preaching behind a keyboard.
If we listen beyond the endless allegations of racially constructed criminality, we will heed an undeniable truth coming from the streets of Baltimore: that Freddie Gray was a victim well before he was arrested on April 12th.
A victim squeezed between ruthless poverty and relentless racism, suffocated until he was forever silenced. As are the majority of the protestors mourning and marching in Baltimore, who are speaking on behalf of the fallen Gray.
It is far easier to criminalize a people than to cure the ills designed to fail them. As long as we are unwilling to heal these ills, and heed the words of their principal victims, the protests are sure to continue between Baltimore and everywhere else ravaged by them.