In an atypical move in cases of police killings of unarmed African Americans, six police officers in Baltimore have been charged with serious crimes over the death of 25-year-old African American man Freddie Gray last month.
Baltimore state attorney Marilyn Mosby announced the charges on May 1, which include second-degree murder against one officer.
The reaction by police was immediate. A lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which represents Baltimore's police force said: “No officer injured Mr Gray, caused harm to Mr Gray … These officers did nothing wrong.
“We believe that the actions taken today by the state’s attorney are in egregious rush to judgment and we have great concerns about the fairness and integrity of the prosecution of our officers.”
The FOP immediately put up the bail money for the cops, who were released. One week later, lawyers hired by the FOP launched a campaign to mobilise white racists in Baltimore to discredit Mosby and the charges.
The killer cops have brought a court case to have the charges dismissed, and failing that, to have Mosby disqualified as the prosecutor. They are also demanding more than US$75,000 in damages for each of the accused cops for their “loss of freedom and dignity” and psychological harm.
The aim is to derail the prosecution before it starts, to undermine public confidence in Mosby and at the same time influence the people who will be sitting as jurors if the trial goes forward.
A review of recent events helps to explain this situation. The case is especially egregious.
The “crime” Gray was accused of when arrested on April 12 was “making eye contact” with police, and then running away from them in fear.
The cops then chased him down, piled on top of him, and injured him so severely his legs were paralyzed. Gray screamed in pain as the police loaded him into their van.
All this was caught on video, otherwise we would not know about it. “He was just screaming, screaming for his life,” said the man who took the video.
The cops then took Gray on a lengthy ride in the van, a purposely “bumpy ride” that police often use to terrorise people, which tossed him about the van. The police repeatedly denied Gray medical attention that he begged for.
By the time the van reached the police station, Gray was in cardiac arrest and had stopped breathing. His neck was broken, either in the initial police attack or in the van. Placed on life-support, he remained in a coma until he died in the hospital on April 19.
The <i>Baltimore Sun</i> reported that nearly 2600 detainees in police vans between June 2012 and April this year were so severely injured they had to be hospitalised before they could be jailed.
Gray's death sparked days of mass demonstrations. Then on April 27, police surrounded a protest by Black youth and attacked with Tasers and mace. The youths fought back against the heavily armed cops with rocks.
At least one police car was set on fire, others smashed. There were a few other fires and some looting. Many arrests occurred.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Blake, who is African American, decried the “riot”, denounced the young people as “thugs” and ordered a curfew. President Barack Obama also attacked the young people as “thugs.”
Blake asked the Maryland governor Larry Hogan to declare a state of emergency. Hogan agreed and also sent the National Guard to occupy the Black ghetto. Demonstrations continued for the next few days during daylight hours.
The original police statements about Gray's death were ludicrous. They said no force had been used against Gray — yet his neck was broken and he died in their custody.
Street interviews in alternative media sources such as <i>Democracy Now!</i> and in some mass media reflected anger in the Black community. The sentiments expressed raised the threat that if there was no indictment of the police, all hell would break lose.
Indeed, the April 27 “riot” was a relatively mild indication of what was brewing.
Another mass demonstration was planned for May 2. On April 30, the police floated another “explanation” — that Gray deliberately tried to harm himself while in the van, which resulted in his broken neck.
This only further inflamed Black anger. There was a real prospect that the May 2 demonstration could spill over into a major uprising.
That was the background for Mosby’s dramatic May 1 announcement of the charges against the six officers. Rather than denouncing the young protesters as “thugs”, she acknowledged their demands and identified with them.
She said: “To the youth of this city, I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment…
“You’re at the forefront of this cause. As young people, our time is now!”
Mosby is 35, the youngest person to have been elected to an equivalent post in a major US city, and is also Black.
The May 2 demonstration turned into a huge, but qualified, victory rally. Protesters hailed the charges, but emphasised there would be no victory unless there was a conviction.
Given past experience with juries failing to convict cops, such scepticism is more than justified. When CNN interviewed Black youth at the rally, the determination to fight on was evident. One young woman summed it up: “We are not thugs! And we will be heard!”
The state of emergency has been called off and the National Guard removed. The mayor backed off from her previous rhetoric about “thugs”, reversing her previous position and asking for a federal investigation of the police.
The same day the FOP filed its charges against Mosby, federal Attorney- General Loretta Lynch announced such an investigation would be launched.
In an atmosphere of heightened tensions, intensified by the police campaign against Mosby, all eyes will be on what happens next in the case against the cops.
The situation in Baltimore is the result of the cumulative effect of previous police killings and protests, particularly since the police killing of Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson in August.
Such police killings are not new. Blacks know this, but there is a deepened awareness that this is a national problem, not just a local one.
Black people in Baltimore were inspired by the protests that have broken out in recent times. The eyes of many white people have been opened to a reality they have largely ignored. Racist whites, for their part, are affronted by the protests and are rallying around the police.
Also, this is the first such instance of police killing and mass protests since August to occur in a majority-Black major city.
The Baltimore mayor is a Black woman. The Police Commissioner Anthony Batts is African-American, as are half of the city council members. Three of the six officers charged over Gray's death are also Black.
But the Black establishment does not reflect the great majority of Blacks in the ghetto, who suffer huge unemployment and poverty, mass police presence and high jail rates. This is justified by the “war on drugs” and resultant street crime, and worsened by woefully inadequate education and lack of health care — conditions vividly depicted on the HBO TV series <i>The Wire</i>, set in Baltimore.
Some in the mass media have said that the fact that Baltimore has a Black mayor and police commissioner, that the city council is half African-American, and that three of the officers charged are Black, proves that racism has played no part in this case.
Given the huge police harassment of the Black community and opposition to this, the assertion is absurd on the face of it. But the above facts do show that electing or appointing Black officials into the establishment is not the answer to institutional racism — they become part of that system.
Blake has been in office for five years. The huge levels of police harassment and violence now brought to light continued unabated during her reign. She is also a leader of the Democratic Party National Committee.
Before becoming Baltimore's police commissioner in 2012, Batts served in that role in Oakland, California. In that job, he oversaw police violence against a mass protest against the police killing of Black man Oscar Grant in 2010. In his long career as a cop, Batts has been known for his “tough on crime” stance.
Another line pushed in the press, and by both Black and white capitalist politicians, is that there are only a few “bad apples” in the police departments involved. If that were so, why do all the police mutual aid societies — such as Baltimore's FOP — denounce the protests? After all, they are the elected representatives of all the police in their cities.
Why has not one officer broken ranks in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City, Charleston, Baltimore or elsewhere to challenge their spokespeople?
Of course, there are probably officers who privately disagree, but they are intimidated by real threats from speaking out.
The events in Baltimore and beyond are proving the issues at stake are systemic. That charges have even been laid against the six cops involved in Gray's death shows that militant protests, not incorporating Black people into the establishment, is the way forward to win justice.