When Baltimore exploded in protests a few weeks ago following the unexplained paddy-wagon death of a young African-American man named Freddie Gray, America responded the way it usually does in a race crisis: It changed the subject.
Instead of using the incident to talk about a campaign of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of illegal searches and arrests across decades of discriminatory policing policies, the debate revolved around whether or not the teenagers who set fire to two West Baltimore CVS stores after Gray’s death were “thugs,” or merely wrongheaded criminals.
From Eric Garner to Michael Brown to Akai Gurley to Tamir Rice to Walter Scott and now Freddie Gray, there have now been so many police killings of African-American men and boys in the past calendar year or so that it’s been easy for both the media and the political mainstream to sell us on the idea that the killings are the whole story.
Fix that little in-custody death problem, we’re told, perhaps with the aid of “better training” or body cameras (which Baltimore has already promised to install by the end of the year), and we can comfortably go back to ignoring poverty, race, abuse, all that depressing inner-city stuff. But body cameras won’t fix it. You can’t put body cameras on a system.
As a visit to post-uprising Baltimore confirms, high-profile police murders are only part of the problem. An equally large issue is the obscene quantity of smaller daily outrages and abuses that regularly go unpunished by a complex network of local criminal-justice bureaucracies, many of which are designed to cover up bad police work and keep all our worst behaviors hidden, even from ourselves.
Go to any predominantly minority neighborhood in any major American city and you’ll hear the same stories: decades of being sworn at, thrown against walls, kicked, searched without cause, stripped naked on busy city streets, threatened with visits from child protective services, chased by dogs, and arrested and jailed not merely on false pretenses, but for reasons that often don’t even rise to the level of being stupid.
“I can guarantee if you look up here and look down there, it might be five people who ain’t been fucked over by the police,” says Baltimore resident Shaun Young, waving a hand at a crowd of maybe a hundred people gathered at Penn and North, site of the protests. “It’s small shit — they get taken advantage of.”
A. Dwight Pettit, a legendary African-American civil rights lawyer in Baltimore, says he and others in the city’s legal community stopped pursuing what he calls “simple civil rights violations” years ago: the verbal-abuse cases, the humiliating cavity searches conducted in public, the non-lethal beatings. “We were dumping them on each other,” he says. “But we had to stop. There were just too many.”
Most Americans have never experienced this kind of policing. They haven’t had to stare down the barrel of a service revolver drawn for no reason at a routine stop. They haven’t had their wife and kids put on an ice-cold sidewalk curb while cops ran their license plate. They haven’t ever been told to get the fuck back in their car right now, been accused of having too prominent a “bulge,” had their dog shot and their kids handcuffed near its body during a wrong-door raid, watched their seven-year-old dragged to jail for sitting on a dirt bike, or dealt with any of a thousand other positively crazy things nonwhite America has come to expect from an interaction with law enforcement. “It’s everywhere,” says Christen Brown, who as a 24-year-old city parks employee was allegedly roughed up and arrested just for filming police in a parking lot. “You can be somewhere minding your business and they will find their best way to fuck with you, point blank. It’s blatant disrespect.”