#BlackLivesMatter in Baltimore

[Content Note: Police brutality; racism; dehumanization.]

Freddie Gray was arrested after Baltimore police saw him "[flee] unprovoked upon noticing police presence," according to court documents. He took off running when he saw police, so they gave chase, detained him, and searched him. Witnesses say they heard a Taser being used, but police say a Taser was never used. During the search, police found a small pocketknife of legal size. Nonetheless, Gray was arrested on a weapon charge, pressed into the sidewalk as he told police he needed his asthma inhaler, and was then thrown into the back of a police van.

Video shows Gray looking weak as he's loaded into the van, but he is conscious and talking. By the time he was removed from the van, within an hour of his arrest, his larynx was crushed, his spine was 80% severed at the neck, and he was in a coma. A week later, he died.

Six Baltimore police officers have been suspended with pay, following the announcement of an investigation into Gray's death. But 10 days after Gray died, we still have no idea why he was arrested. Baltimore Police Department spokesperson Captain Eric Kowalczyk dodged questions over the weekend: "Pressed on why police initially stopped Gray, Kowalczyk said the department hadn't released that information because investigators are still conducting interviews."

We also still have no idea what happened to Gray in that van. But there is speculation, based on the nature of his injuries and previous suits against the city, that he was given a "rough ride" by police—that is, shackled but not seatbelted in the van, so he was left to tumble about the back of the van as officers made quick starts and stops.

You can imagine what sort of injuries, especially around the head and neck, you'd get sliding around the back of a vehicle with your arms and legs constricted, no way to hold yourself steady, no way to break the tumbling.

So this is the immediate background to what is happening in Baltimore now. The larger background, of course, is that Freddie Gray is just one of many black men and women who have been harassed by police without cause, arrested and detained unfairly, been subjected to "rough rides," been hurt and killed by police.

In Baltimore. And everywhere across the country.

And it's the same pattern as always: Police lie about what happened. Video surfaces. Police close ranks. The city government says words about investigations, but no information is forthcoming. Accountability is elusive. Justice is elusive.

People protest. Peacefully, in large numbers. A few people engage in criminal behavior. The media focuses their cameras on them. Police show up in riot gear. "Police clash with protesters." The situation escalates as the city starts to look like a war zone with police filling the role of an occupying force. Tensions rise. The media asks questions about whether black people should really be allowed their constitutional right to protest. Dehumanizing language permeates public discussion: The protesters are "thugs" and "animals."

There is very little conversation about how police were throwing rocks at protesters yesterday.

There is very little discussion about how the police shut down public transportation hub for the part of town in which protests were happening, stranding kids who were trying to get home from school, then declared all the kids stuck there a mob.

There is very little concern about how Ravens fans rioting to celebrate their ballsports team winning a big game did more damage to the city than people protesting for their very lives.

There is very little willingness among white people to try to understand that their lives are not policed like black people's lives are policed; to try to empathize with the anger and frustration and fear that underwrites people destroying property in their own communities; to see that the media images we get are filtered through institutional racism; to stop fucking policing how black people respond to being killed by people who are meant to protect them; to look at our history and see that revolutions always start with riots; to listen and offer support instead of condemnation and dehumanization.

Every time this happens, I point out that dehumanizing language is part of the problem. That there is something wrong with looking at images of people desperate to be heard and for their lives to matter and seeing nothing but "thugs" and "animals."

And every time, every fucking time, I get pushback in the form of rank racism and red herrings. I get stupid quotes about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., from white people who think they own him but only care about his message insofar as they twist it and use it to condemn civil action. I get lectured about how I wouldn't feel that way if I were a small business owner in Baltimore whose life's work was being destroyed. As if small business owners in that community and the protesters are mutually exclusive groups. (They are not.)

One of the buildings destroyed by fire last night was a community senior center. Dr. Donté Hickman, pastor of the Southern Baptist Church, who with his community built that center, appeared on MSNBC last night. He expressed his disappointment and grief at the profound loss of the center, without ever using dehumanizing language. He is someone who lost so much, and yet he still centered the humanity of all the protesters.

Dr. Hickman practices inclusive social justice at his church. If you have the desire and the means to donate to Southern Baptist Church, in order to support their rebuilding, you can donate here.

That seems rather more important than trying to appropriate the lived experiences of men like Dr. Hickman in order to justify using dehumanizing language to describe people who are fighting for their very lives.

Today, the public schools in Baltimore are closed, and the National Guard is rolling in. A curfew has been imposed. And there are still no answers about what happened, what really happened, to Freddie Gray.

The protests will continue. And we must listen.

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