Christopher Corbett, the author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express and The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West, is a former Associated Press news editor in Baltimore.
Freddie Gray died in an encounter with the Baltimore Police Department that remains unexplained and unexplainable. Now that all charges against the six police officers involved were dropped on Wednesday, it may remain so forever.
Four police officers were tried in connection with the 25-year-old Gray’s death as a result of severe spinal injuries that appear to have occurred during his arrest a year ago. Three were acquitted. A fourth had a hung jury and was facing retrial when all charges were suddenly dropped. Two officers never went to trial.
Now Baltimore is weary and sad. That seems to be something everyone agrees upon. When the last verdict was announced a few weeks ago, there were a handful of protesters outside the courthouse. On Wednesday morning, when the case against the cops finally unraveled, there was one old man there with a sign.
I did not know Gray but I have seen a thousand Grays every day on my drive across West Baltimore. There is a standing army of guys like him. Small-time criminals with the sort of small-time record too often acquired in West Baltimore. It’s a kind of CV. Gray was the product of a world that is simply unimaginable. He suffered lead paint poisoning as a child. It is unclear how much education he had. But he was not a bad guy and he was not violent.
Baltimore being Baltimore, I had lunch with his bail bondsman not long ago. Baltimore is the sort of town where it is possible to actually know a bail bondsman. We ate at Parts & Labor, which is a hipster joint in a garage that used to be called James & John, for the two old black men who fixed tires there. Baltimore’s streets are hard on tires. Baltimore is hard on guys like Gray.
When not fixing tires, the employees would read the Bible. I miss them. The place is now full of skinny kids in flannel shirts with pork pie hats. It’s not the same. My dining companion, a world-weary fellow with some knowledge of Baltimore’s robust criminal community, spoke affectionately of Gray. I believe him. If you can’t trust a Baltimore bail bondsman who can you trust?
Gray’s death will not be the only death that remains unresolved here. At this writing, 169 Baltimorons (as H.L. Mencken dubbed his fellow citizens) have been murdered this year. Last year 344 people were slain. July has recorded a solid 31 homicides – more than one a day. July is not over.
Murder is what we do here. For a small city (about 620,000 people) we have a lot of murders. Tyriece Watson, better known as Lor Scoota, a young rapper, was murdered on his way home from a peace rally earlier this summer. Shot dead at an intersection. Lor Scoota was best known for a song called “Bird Flu.” More than 1.1 million folks have listened to it on YouTube. (It’s about pharmacology, not ornithology. But we’ll let that pass.) A few days later, someone capped Scoota’s manager. Some folks round the way say that this was some sort of grudge thing. Who knows? Sounds about right.
Neither of those murders has been solved. Baltimore does not now have a famously high clearance rate for murders – somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% is accepted. No one sees anything here. Period.
On the north side of the city, near Johns Hopkins University, not far from where I live, a 59-year-old woman was stabbed in the throat and bled to death one evening in early July. She was white, an economist who advised on economic and environmental implications of space exploration in Washington, a Christian Scientist who was killed while walking her two rescue dogs. Her case, too, is still open.
Some of the city’s best-known criminal defense attorneys – mostly African American – strongly criticized the prosecution of the police in the Gray case. The general argument was that Marilyn Mosby, an untested and inexperienced prosecutor, brought the charges in a hurry and set in motion a legal catastrophe that has cost poverty-stricken Baltimore millions. The Baltimore Sun has estimated that the price tag of the trials was more than $7.4 million. Add that to the $6.4-million civil settlement paid out to Gray’s family.
Mosby has been pilloried for her impulses – the latest a call by a faculty member at Georgetown Law School for her disbarment and the disbarment of her prosecutorial associates. But the 36-year-old prosecutor has had her defenders, too. Most recently Ronald S. Sullivan, a prominent legal scholar at Harvard Law School, who characterized criticism of her as “wholly unfounded.” He may be right. But that is not an opinion widely held in Baltimore, where Mosby’s handling of the case is now widely viewed as a disaster.
It’s a strange time, and it’s summer and it’s hot. Very hot. On the afternoon of the day when the charges in the death of Gray seemed not to matter, I drove across West Baltimore as I do most weekdays. It is a true no-man’s land, with miles of vacant houses. For a long time, activists had been putting up signs exhorting the citizens to not kill one another. You still see them around, but the newest sign that plasters the fronts of vacant properties cryptically reads: “THIS ABANDONED BUILDING BROUGHT TO YOU BY:.” That sign speaks to the grim economic reality of West Baltimore. This was Gray’s neighborhood.
On Wednesday afternoon, not a creature was stirring along Monroe and Fulton. It was simply too hot – 96-degrees at 3 p.m. Brutal humidity. Down on Payson Street, the crew at Wise Guys Car Wash had packed it in. Too hot to wash cars. There were no hookers on Wilkens Avenue where a sign declares THIS IS A HOOKER FREE ZONE. Now that’s hot. A lot of businesses that were burned out during the riots (which the wide of eye call “the uprising”) remain boarded up.
Occupants of the two- and three-story narrow brick row houses that make up West Baltimore were clustered on their front stoops in the shade that afternoon. No one seems to have air conditioning hereabouts. There was good business at Zam Zam Snow Balls at North and Fulton, where most of the economy involves African hair braiding, check cashing operations, carryout food joints selling something called Lake Trout (the joke here is that it’s not trout and was never in a lake), Chinese food and heavily fortified corner tavern/liquor stores run by perpetually anxious Koreans. Over at Monroe and Edmondson, Dot Neal’s Uptowne, which opens for the thirsty at 6 a.m. seven days a week, was doing a brisk business for those who didn’t want a snow ball.
Though I am not a native of Charm City, as Baltimore calls itself, I have lived here for 37 years. I live in the city, own a house, pay taxes and vote - unlike the city’s critics who kibitz from the suburban glades. They don’t live in the city or pay taxes here. But in letters to theSun, all of them know what’s wrong. Much of the criticism is purely racial and thinly veiled. The suggestions as to what to do to fix Baltimore increase as one moves away from the city.
For more on the Baltimore riots, watch:
One thing that most Baltimorons seem to agree on (and the court proceedings supported this) is that no one knows precisely what happened to Gray on that spring morning last year when he encountered six Baltimore cops – three white and three black. Was he injured in a “rough ride,” in which cops truss up arrestees and toss them in the back of the police van where they bounce around like a tennis ball on the way to the police station? Was he injured before he went into the van? Was his death simply an accident? Perhaps we’ll never know?
It still puzzles me that the cops even bothered to chase Gray. He does not appear to have done anything. He may have run on impulse. West Baltimore is a place where the policeman is not necessarily your friend.
Little more than an hour after the charges were dropped, Mosby held a news conference outside the Gilmor Homes in West Baltimore, a depressing complex of pre-World War Two brick barracks, Gray’s old neighborhood. This is where it all began and so it was fitting that it might end here. But the death of Gray is far from over. Its impact will long haunt Baltimore. There is not a single conviction.
Mosby, who had been under a gag order for the past 15 months, was explosive at the news conference. She does not do gag orders well. Shouting much of the time, she defended her actions and demonstrated that she keeps score. Her bitter rant will do nothing to make nice with the city’s police department. How her office can do business with the police now is beyond comprehension.
And Baltimore is a city that desperately needs a police department. Naturally, Gene Ryan, the president of the local police union, weighed in. He fired back from the headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Police that Mosby’s remarks were “outrageous, uncalled for and simply not true.” Anthony Batts, the former police commissioner who is black and lost his job last year following the riots, called Mosby “immature, incompetent and vindictive.”
Mosby may have filed charges in the case of the six officers too soon. But she has not wavered and did not waver Wednesday, when she lashed out against the police and even the judge, also black, who was so often critical of the prosecution.
True to form, Mosby spoke too soon on Wednesday. A night’s sleep might have helped. Perhaps also a reminder that revenge remains the dish best eaten cold –or not at all.