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Tracing rage and distrust in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood

April 28, 2015 at 6:30 PM EST
Protesters March Over Death Of Freddie Gray
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now the view from the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived.

PBS NewsHour special correspondent Jackie Judd has spent the last few days trying to understand why Gray’s has sparked so much rage.

JACKIE JUDD: Baltimore often lives up to its nickname of Charm City. But after a week of peaceful protests, Baltimore is now showing itself to be an angry and volatile city.

MAN: Baltimore, we don’t have a good relationship with the police. They whipped our ass every day. This is nothing new to Baltimore.

JACKIE JUDD: Freddie Gray’s videotaped arrest April 12, and his death a week later from a severe spinal cord injury, has exposed a crisis long in the making.

The city’s police commissioner, Anthony Batts, acknowledged that broken relationship in a remarkably candid interview.

ANTHONY BATTS, Commissioner, Baltimore Police Department: Where we thought we were doing God’s work, where we’re going out trying to make the community safer, we have made mass arrests, we have locked people up, we have taken people to jail in numbers, and we have obliterated this community.

JACKIE JUDD: If there is a ground zero, it is here where Gray lived, Sandtown in West Baltimore, pockmarked by vacant buildings struggling with higher-than-average unemployment and poverty and a robust heroin market. It is a place empty of what usually constitutes a neighborhood.

There are no grocery stores, no banks, no restaurants, but plentiful liquor stores, a place seemingly without a future for its young men and women.

Ray Kelly had run-ins with local police as a young man and is now a community activist.

RAY KELLY, No Boundaries Coalition: You’re dealing with a population here trying to eat, trying to survive. And it’s not really about black or white in this country. Right now, it’s about survival.

JACKIE JUDD: Officers do not have an easy task in patrolling Sandtown and similar high crime neighborhoods. The very tactics police employ to serve them are alienating residents, like Tito Dillard.

TITO DILLARD, Sandtown Resident: So, it’s just kind of devastating to know that at the end of the day I would rather put my trust in my neighbor. I would rather call my neighbor in the need of help, rather than somebody who was getting paid.

JACKIE JUDD: A front-page story in The Baltimore Sun last year caused ripples through the city because it confirmed the reality of what had long been alleged. Investigative reporter Mark Puente documented excessive force almost exclusively against black men and women.

MARK PUENTE, The Baltimore Sun: They were teenagers up to an 87-year-old grandmother. An 87-year-old grandmother suffered a broken arm. A 60-year-old church deacon, a 25-year-old pregnant accountant, a 50-year-old cafeteria worker.

JACKIE JUDD: What conclusions did you come away with?

MARK PUENTE: The Baltimore Police Department has a culture of — where discipline isn’t a priority. We looked at most of these cases — most of the cases that we looked at, we asked for discipline files.

Many people filed complaints against officers. Internal affairs didn’t investigate them. They couldn’t provide any paperwork on what the complaints said. Or they said they never — the people never filed the complaints, although they did.

JACKIE JUDD: Despite that stonewalling, residents were still able to reach legal settlements in more than 100 cases, costing the city over $6 million. How did Baltimore get to such a low point?

In other cities, like North Charleston or Ferguson, where black men have been victimized by police, the assumption has been that if minority communities were more fully represented on the police force and in city hall, then their deaths may not have occurred. But Baltimore has a black mayor, a black police commissioner, a largely black city council and a diverse police force.

That’s not enough, according to Lawrence Bell, himself a former elected official. It’s less about the color of the officer. It’s about the culture.

LAWRENCE BELL, Former City Council President: It’s kind of an old boy network. It, unfortunately, is very military to a large extent. And there are people who have been recruited, many of whom have a spirit of service. But then you have people who have a spirit of adventurism. And they’re people who are not from Baltimore who, when they see an African-American male, they see an enemy.

ANTHONY BATTS: I know that we need to make changes. We need to change the culture in this organization. And I’m going to focus on making it happen.

JACKIE JUDD: Some here in Baltimore trace the uneasy relations back 50 years to the civil rights movement and subsequent riots, or to the late ’90s, when violent crime was alarmingly high, and then-Mayor Martin O’Malley instituted a zero tolerance crime policy.

LAWRENCE BELL: What you do is, you go around and arrest people for petty crimes. The idea is that you can stop major crimes by enforcing the petty crimes. But what happened was that we had just an epidemic of arrests.

JACKIE JUDD: Violent crime dropped dramatically, at a cost.

LAWRENCE BELL: So it created an antagonism. It seemed as though every black man in the inner city of Baltimore was getting arrested. So you have a whole generation of people who have arrest records, which affects the ability to get employment and so forth. So that exacerbated that strain.

JACKIE JUDD: Which helps explain in part the rage seen on the streets of Baltimore in recent days.

At Freddie Gray’s funeral yesterday, speaker after speaker expressed hope that this fraught moment in the city’s history would be an opportunity to institute reform. But, shortly after, that rage again took over, and in the words of Mayor Rawlings-Blake, thugs looted stores, set fires and clashed violently with the police.

Some reform ideas being talked about include outfitting the police with body cameras. The Gray family’s lawyer spoke about a need for a special prosecutor. Community organizer Ray Kelly wants a more engaged mayor.

RAY KELLY: She still has not come out as a leader in Sandtown, where we need a leader right now. Right now, unless we can reach every resident individually, we need our city leader to come forward and say, look, this is what we are going to do about it. That’s why there’s pandemonium, because there is no structure from the top.

JACKIE JUDD: It is not uncommon for black parents to explain to their children how to behave, to be invisible around police. Freddie Gray’s troubles started when he looked an officer in the eye, instead of looking away.

Mariska Lee, a community activist, says her hope is the change will now come, and the conversation won’t be needed when her toddler son is a teenager.

MARISKA LEE, Community Activist: The thing that bothers me the most is, sometimes, I see people looking at him and oohing and aahing and cooing. And then I realize how those very same people may one day be afraid of him.

I see a lot of people saying, you know, I have to teach my son how to interact my son how to interact with the police and how to do this. And I don’t want to have to teach him certain things.

JACKIE JUDD: It will take breaking very old, very embedded habits to end the long mistrust between the police and those they pledge to serve and protect.

For the PBS NewsHour, this is Jackie Judd in Baltimore.

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