Fair and Unbalanced

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Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

Littwin: Seeing and unseeing Freddie Gray’s Sandtown

Littwin: Seeing and unseeing Freddie Gray’s Sandtown

THE QUESTION of what happened to Freddie Gray will, with luck, eventually be answered in court. And although it’s a critically important question, it’s not the only one.

As a New York Times headline put it the other day, Sandtown — the impoverished section of Baltimore where Gray was born prematurely and where he suffered from lead poisoning as a child and where he grew up in and out of trouble and where he was arrested one April night and put into the van that sent him to his death — is home to “lots of Freddies.”

It’s home to so many Freddies, in fact, that the story has now become part of the presidential campaign narrative. After Ferguson, after Cleveland, after Staten Island, after North Charleston, when you put the next chapter of what seems like an endless story 40 miles from the nation’s capital, you know what happens next.

Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood is home to a lot of kids like Freddie Gray. Half of the adult population is unemployed. It has been easy for the country to pretend not to notice.

The media descend on Baltimore to find the other Freddies. The candidates give speeches — Baltimore was the topic of Hillary’s first major campaign speech — to explain what can be done to reduce the Freddies. Martin O’Malley, who is planning to run against Clinton in the Democratic primary, was mayor of Baltimore and will undoubtedly be held responsible for at least some of the Freddies.

Baltimore is a wonderfully idiosyncratic city full of charming neighborhoods (I lived there for 12 years), but one that also happens to be among the most segregated in the country. It’s a city where poverty and violence rub hard against a gentrified success story. It’s one where inequality is in plain view, at least for those who take the time to look. It’s a city where David Simon’s “The Wire” told the story of the city’s drug wars. In other words, it’s the perfect setting for political debate.

Clinton made Baltimore the centerpiece of her speech, speaking of poisoned police-community relations and of the “era of mass incarceration” that has taken so many black men from their communities — 1.5 million gone, reports the New York Times, from incarceration or early death. (Yes, Bill Clinton played a key role in the whole incarceration problem, which she didn’t quite bother to mention.) As Hillary Clinton knows, the Sandtown neighborhood qualifies, with 3 percent of its population — the highest percentage in Baltimore — in state prison.

The Republican response is varied – that’s what happens when you have a field the size of the Kentucky Derby’s — but it’s mostly a matter of blaming LBJ and the Great Society and dependency and spouting variations on Paul Ryan’s hammock theory. Mitt Romney, who’s not running, still got into the fray by blaming Clinton for “politicizing” a tragedy and for saying that we have no “mass incarceration” in America. I guess it depends on what his definition of mass is. Presumably it’s less than 47 percent.

Whichever side of the argument you’re on, the story is still one of race and of class and of how, particularly in places like Baltimore, they intersect. Income inequality will be a major issue in the campaign. But imagine if the campaign were really about investment in cities vs. cuts in social programs, a campaign about “mass incarceration” vs. “broken windows,” a campaign centered on the best way to provide opportunity (read: good jobs; read: better education) for those who have been too long denied it.

What we know is that the immediate cause of the Baltimore demonstrations — some of which turned violent — was inequality of treatment of a young black man, starting with Gray’s unexplained death in police custody, which began with Gray’s apparent crime of making “eye contact” with the cops and then running. When they caught him, the cops found he had a knife, but not an illegal knife. And so no one could say why he was arrested or why he died or if his spinal cord was severed when he was bound and cuffed and taken on a so-called rough ride.

What we also know is that none of that is acceptable. But how to fix it? We haven’t fixed it for all these years, and at some point we decided what — that it wasn’t worth the effort?

And so we come to Baltimore. The city is hardly a secret, but visitors don’t often show up in parts of town like Sandtown in West Baltimore. It is not the shiny Inner Harbor or any of the funky neighborhoods that otherwise define Baltimore. When the reporters came, what they found was shocking, more shocking, in its way, than Gray’s death. First, there were the numbers. Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods — part of its charm — and in 15 of those neighborhoods, according to a Washington Post article, life expectancy is lower than in North Korea. Eight neighborhoods are lower than Syria.

I lived in a beautiful eclectic neighborhood in the city which I could afford only because white flight had, over 40 years, shrunk Baltimore’s population by a third. In my neighborhood, the average life expectancy is now 82 years, higher than France, a little lower than Sweden, but not the highest in Baltimore. Sandtown comes in at just under 69, and it’s not even the lowest in the city.

More numbers: About half of Sandtown residents of employable age are without a job, a third of families live below the poverty line, more than a third of buildings are vacant, as opposed to 5 percent throughout Baltimore.

And more: In two Baltimore neighborhoods, writes Sarah Kliff in Vox, two infants out of 100 die before their first birthday, which is higher than in the West Bank.

How did we miss any of this? Or did we see it and just pretend not to notice?

But now it’s all there for everyone to see. And once we’ve seen, do we have any choice but to ask what can be done about it?

That, as much as anything, is the real question of Freddie Gray.

Photo: Baltimore sunset by Blink Ofanaye

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About the Author

Mike Littwin

He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
mlittwin@coloradoindependent.com | Twitter @mike_littwin

3 Comments

  1. Don Lopez on said:

    It’s always interesting to examine the aspects of a story Mr. Littwin ignores. And this column is very, very interesting.

    FERGUSON VS BALTIMORE

    After Ferguson Mr. Littwin had it all figured out. The problem was two-fold:

    – a majority-black community with a mostly white government
    – a majority-black community with a mostly white police force.

    Neither of those conditions exist in Baltimore which not only has a black mayor but a black police chief, a majority-black city council and a police force that is almost 50 percent black. None of that prevented the rioting. I’m sure in a future column Mr. Littwin will explain how in the world that happened.

    Or he’ll simply ignore it.

    THE COURT CASE

    Nowhere does Mr. Littwin mention the six Baltimore police officers (3 of whom are black) who have been charged in connection with the death of Mr. Gray or the charges against them (involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, second-degree assault, false imprisonment and misconduct in office) or the likelihood of a conviction.

    But there’s a very good reason for that. This from Mediaite:

    “(Harvard law professor) Alan Dershowitz really went after Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby today for charging the six cops involved in the death of Freddie Gray, saying it was entirely based on politics and “crowd control.”

    Dershowitz lamented that “this is a very sad day for justice” and told Steve Malzberg that Mosby acted out of a “desire to prevent riots.” It will be “virtually impossible,” he predicted, for the six officers involved to get a fair trial.

    And as for murder charges, Dershowitz said there’s “no plausible, hypothetical, conceivable case for murder” and “this is a show trial.” He predicted that Mosby might get removed as prosecutor and Baltimore citizens may get upset if and/or when they “move to a place with a different demographic.”

    He concluded that it’s “unlikely they’ll get any convictions in this case” and if they do they’ll likely “be reversed on appeal.”

    If Professor Dershowitz is correct the civil unrest that Marilyn Mosby sought to avoid with her overreaching indictments may simply have served to delay and possibly magnify the unrest.

    CREATIVE CROWD CONTROL

    And Mr. Littwin also fails to mention the new crowd control tactic employed by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake who “admitted in a press conference that she asked the Baltimore Police Department to “give those who wished to destroy space to do that.”

    Interesting. Not successful but interesting.

    And there was another very creative tactic that while not government sponsored did use local resources to reduce damage to black-owned stores. This from the New York Times:

    “…… some Bloods had stood in front of black-owned stores to protect them from looting or vandalism. He said they had made sure no black children, or reporters, were hit by rioters. They pointed them toward Chinese- and Arab-owned stores. “

    A New York City police officer (Brian Moore, 25) in plain clothes was shot in the face and critically wounded on Saturday in Queens after driving up in an unmarked car to question a man on the street, officials said. New York Times

    “But it’s far from certain that a Ferguson City Council with more black members will change how the city is run. Black leaders may not necessarily mean better lives for black residents, a fact of life that anyone from Detroit or Newark could tell you about.” Daily Beast – April 07, 2015

    “An Indiana pizzeria under fire for saying it would refuse to cater a gay wedding shut down on Wednesday after its owners said they received threatening messages.” Huffington Post April 02, 2015

    “I marched with many people back in those days and I have reached out to some of my friends who marched with me, and all of them are shocked,” Rev. William Owens of the Coalition of African American Pastors (CAAP) told Breitbart News. “They never thought they would see this day that gay rights would be equated with civil rights. Not one agreed with this comparison.

    President Obama is a disgrace to the black community,” Owens said. “He is rewriting history. We didn’t suffer and die for gay marriage.”

    Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, has told worshippers at a church service in Nairobi that homosexuality had no place in the east African nation, reports said Monday.

    “’Cause I don’t have no use
    For what you loosely call the truth” – Tina Turner

    Folds of Honor
    Wounded Warrior Project

    Memorial Day – May 25, 2015

  2. Don Lopez on said:

    Thanks for asking!

    The point is this: Mr. Littwin simply ignores aspects of a story that are inconvenient.

    For example:

    FERGUSON vs BALTIMORE (see above)
    THE COURT CASE (see above)
    CREATIVE RIOT CONTROL (see above)

    And let’s not forget Mr. Littwin’s assertion: “When they caught (Freddie Gray) the cops found he had a knife, but not an illegal knife.”

    Really?

    This from the Daily Beast: ““The knife was recovered by this officer,” Officer Garrett Miller wrote in the arrest report, “and found to be a spring-assisted, one-hand operated knife.”

    Spring-assisted knives open on their own after a small push on the blade by a finger, unlike switchblades, which shoot out with the press of a button.

    Despite their differences, they’re both illegal in Baltimore.

    “It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, carry, or possess any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade, commonly known as a switch-blade knife,” says Article 19, Subtitle 59, Section 19 of the Baltimore City Code.”

    For the sake of argument let’s assume—and I recognize this is highly unlikely—Mr. Littwin is, well, wrong about the knife and Mr. Gray was arrested for more than just “making “eye contact” with the cops and then running.”

    Do you think he’ll admit it?

    And what about violence? Does Mr. Littwin believe violence is ever justified? Don’t look for an answer in this column, you won’t find it.

    Although with the amount of violence that occurred during the demonstrations in Baltimore you’d think he might.

    It would seem as important as sharing this bit of nostalgia about his halcyon days in Baltimore: “I lived in a beautiful eclectic neighborhood in the city”

    Or maybe not.

    Does Mr. Littwin agree with Benji Hart who wrote about Baltimore in Salon:

    “And when we see police cars being smashed and corporate property being destroyed, we should see reasonable responses to generations of extreme state violence, and logical decisions about what kind of actions yield the desired political results.

    I do not advocate non-violence—particularly in a moment like the one we currently face. In the spirit and words of militant Black and Brown feminist movements from around the globe, I believe it is crucial that we see non-violence as a tactic, not a philosophy.”

    And “all policing is racist terror”

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for Mr. Littwin to answer because he won’t.

    —-

    A New York City police officer (Brian Moore, 25) in plain clothes was shot in the face and critically wounded on Saturday in Queens after driving up in an unmarked car to question a man on the street, officials said. New York Times

    “But it’s far from certain that a Ferguson City Council with more black members will change how the city is run. Black leaders may not necessarily mean better lives for black residents, a fact of life that anyone from Detroit or Newark could tell you about.” Daily Beast – April 07, 2015

    “An Indiana pizzeria under fire for saying it would refuse to cater a gay wedding shut down on Wednesday after its owners said they received threatening messages.” Huffington Post April 02, 2015

    “I marched with many people back in those days and I have reached out to some of my friends who marched with me, and all of them are shocked,” Rev. William Owens of the Coalition of African American Pastors (CAAP) told Breitbart News. “They never thought they would see this day that gay rights would be equated with civil rights. Not one agreed with this comparison.

    President Obama is a disgrace to the black community,” Owens said. “He is rewriting history. We didn’t suffer and die for gay marriage.

    Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, has told worshippers at a church service in Nairobi that homosexuality had no place in the east African nation, reports said Monday.

    “’Cause I don’t have no use
    For what you loosely call the truth” – Tina Turner

    Folds of Honor
    Wounded Warrior Project

    Memorial Day – May 25, 2015

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