You're Nobody 'Till Somebody Kills You: Baltimore, Freddie Gray and the Problem of History

As residents of Maryland and the nation brace for what could potentially be another night of civil unrest in Baltimore, it is important to pause and reflect on what has brought us to the current moment.
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A protestor faces police enforcing a curfew Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. A line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke grenades and fired pepper balls at dozens of protesters to enforce a citywide curfew. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A protestor faces police enforcing a curfew Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. A line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke grenades and fired pepper balls at dozens of protesters to enforce a citywide curfew. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

As residents of Maryland and the nation brace for what could potentially be another night of civil unrest in Baltimore, it is important to pause and reflect on what has brought us to the current moment. It would be easy to attribute the violence now taking place in the nation's 20th largest city to external factors including the rash of police killings that sparked the national Black Lives Matter campaigns. These grass roots efforts demand greater accountability and oversight of the police. One could also locate the roots of the unrest deep in the tangles of both Baltimore and the nation's troubled history with race and policing. Both have merits.

Long before video surfaced of a battered Freddie Gray being hoisted into a police van, students working on an African American history project at the Maryland historical society were uncovering one of the forgotten turning points of Baltimore's history, also coalescing around race and policing nearly three quarters of a century ago.

On February 1, 1942, a Baltimore police officer named Edward Bender killed an African American serviceman named Thomas Broadus in an incident of police brutality. Broadus's death mobilized the city's Black community. According to published accounts, the altercation began after Bender stopped Broadus and three companions for trying to hail an unlicensed taxi. The incident turned violent after Broadus insisted he was free to spend his money in whatever way he chose. Angered, Bender seized him and began beating him with his nightstick. When Broadus managed to break free, the crowd that gathered at the scene pressed him to flee. Although injured, Broadus attempted to stagger from the scene but not before Bender took careful aim and shot him in the back. He then proceeded to where Broadus was trying to take cover under a parked car and shot him in the back a second time. To the horror of witnesses, he then began kicking Broadus and threatened to shoot several bystanders who volunteered to transport the wounded solider to the hospital. Broadus died later that night. Bender, who was also responsible for the killing of another black man, was initially charged with murder by a grand jury. However when they reconvened after a several day recess, they changed their vote and Bender was never prosecuted.

Angered by the killing, and after more than a month of organizing, on April 24 some 2,000 black protesters made their way to the state capital at Annapolis to demand an immediate end to segregation and police brutality in Baltimore. After the demonstration and meetings with Black leaders, Governor Herbert R. O'Conor assigned a Commission on Problems Affecting the Negro Population and ushered in a series of modest changes including the hiring of three uniformed black patrolmen. O'Conor's plodding pace however caused one black leader to warn of the possibility that, "a serious racial conflict may result unless some remedial steps are taken."Another complained, "Our people are being taught that policemen do not move among to protect them and uphold the law, and to say the least, it is producing a damning psychology which in the end must lead to disaster."

It is a familiar forecast to what we have witnessed over the past year in communities from Ferguson, Missouri to Staten Island, New York where the killing of unarmed men of color has garnered national attention, but not necessarily national action. Now as broadcast images of rock-throwing looters clashing with police and setting fire to cars threatens to displace the discussion of police violence, we have an even greater responsibility to be mindful of the past and the unfulfilled promises of justice that haunt the pages of history and silently condemn the indifference of the present. In this sense, Freddie Gray is no more unique than a half century of victims, like Thomas Broadus, whose names are now attached to violent urban uprisings. They mock us from the pages of history divorced from the social, political, and economic conditions that fed the social unrest to which their names are now attached. The faces and locations change but the agents of the killing or beating in each case have not. By ignoring that history we also ignore our collective responsibility to address the persistent problem of police brutality on persons of color.

When I was a graduate student at Howard University in the 1990s, I often visited the U street corridor where remnants of the 1968 Washington, D.C. riot remained nearly three decades later. Baltimore will bear similar scars and, despite optimistic and triumphant talk of rebuilding, in a city where poverty and joblessness are rampant, residents are justified to scratch their heads about what is there left to rebuild.

Amidst all the talk of economic recovery it is important to note that those gains have not been general and that cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit that were once thriving urban centers have become heavily policed islands of despair.

In this context, it perhaps understandable why Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake chose to restrain law enforcement rather than unleash the devastating force of police in riot gear on residents. By the same token, the smoldering ruins of a city already in great physical and financial distress point to the limitations of electoral power. A Black mayor or a Black police chief, even a Black president for that matter are not sufficient to meet the needs of those, in the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, "smothering in an airtight cage of poverty."

Lecturing the disaffected on their moral responsibility to be non-violent loses its power when they are constantly confronted with images of men and women of color in their own city and in the nation as a whole subject to brutal treatment at the hands of law enforcement on YouTube, social media and the nightly news.

In the 1960s, politicians worried about the prospects of "long hot summers" where riots erupted episodically. In the age of social media, however, Baltimore may prove to have more in common with the Arab Spring. Perhaps, Freddie Gray may be the harbinger of a much-needed non-violent social revolution that once again privileges human life and democratic values over wanton police brutality dressed up as law and order.

Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael spelled it out in an editorial in the New York Review of Books in 1966. Commenting on the rash of race riots then sweeping the nation he forcefully observed:

"In a sense, I blame ourselves--together with the mass media--for what has happened in Watts, Harlem, Chicago, Cleveland, Omaha. Each time the people in those cities saw Martin Luther King get slapped, they became angry; when they saw four little black girls bombed to death, they were angrier; and when nothing happened, they were steaming. We had nothing to offer that they could see, except to go out and be beaten again. We helped to build their frustration."

The same can be said for the contemporary scene. For more than two years, much longer for those who have been paying close attention, officially sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies has weaved through a procession of names like Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and now Freddie Gray whose lives mattered. The erasure from public discourse of their very humanity in the legalese of official responsibility and the racially coded terminology of urban crime was certainly a contributing factor in Baltimore where other ambiguous lives have responded in the language of despair, urban unrest.

In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King noted what he described as the psychologically debilitating condition of "nobodiness" that induced racial resentment among people of color against white Americans. The kind of nobodiness that forces people to resort to social media campaigns that cry out what should be obvious, Black lives matter, human life matters, democracy matters, social justice matters.

I abhor violence in all of its forms. I also agree that the rioting will solve little. But, I also understand that when you are dealing with peoples whose experience is filtered through a constant struggle for recognition out of a degenerating sense of "nobodiness," the turn to rock throwing and looting is easier. Even if temporarily, it compels the world to confront the profound misery and pain that is the centerpiece of life for far too many Americans living on the margins.

It has become trite for some to seek solace for their indifference by writing such occurrences as police shootings and riots off as part of some imagined ineluctable cycle of history. We should, nevertheless be clear. History does not repeat itself nor does it rhyme. What it does is reflect. And what it displays in the current crisis is the jagged edges of a broken mirror reflecting back at us the distorted images of poverty, policing, and race, through the deeply wounding translucent shards of opportunity loss.

The deepest cut is the fact that we have failed to substantively address the issues of race and inequality that produce such moments in our history. We also have to be far more honest in acknowledging that they are not really moments at all, but part of a larger problem that eats away at the fabric of our society like a chronic disease. Our remedies thus far only treat the symptoms allowing the life-stealing cancer to run malignant. As politicians and pundits search for meaning in the aftermath of the unrest in Baltimore, the flames of anger and discontent will continue to burn in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans who feel that they have no vested stake in the society in which they live and intensely fear. For in one unfortunate encounter with the wrong officer that they may traverse the ignominious existence of nobodiness to the infamy of another Eric Garner, Tamir Rice or Freddie Gray -- another nobody killed in the custody of police.

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