"Running While Black": Protests Swell Over Death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police Custody
Baltimore has entered its fifth day of protests amid the death of Freddie Gray. The 27-year-old African-American man died Sunday from spinal injuries, one week after Baltimore police arrested him. His family and attorney say his voice box was crushed and his spine was "80 percent severed at his neck." A preliminary autopsy report showed Gray died of a spinal injury. Video shot by a bystander shows Gray screaming in apparent agony as police drag him to a van. Another witness said the police bent Gray like a pretzel. While the police union has described the protesters as a lynch mob, former Black Panther Eddie Conway says Gray is the one who was lynched. "There was a lynch mob. There is a body. There was a death without a trial, without a jury, without a sentence. There was an execution. That’s lynching," Conway says. "They’re blaming the victims. They’re blaming people that suffered the lynching for protesting."
Joining on Democracy Now! with Conway was Dominique Stevenson, a Baltimore-based prison activist and program director for the American Friends Service Committee’s Friend of a Friend Program. She was recently arrested during a protest over Gray's death. "I think that we really need to take a look at how policing is done in Baltimore," she said. "It cannot be disconnected from our high incarceration rate. Black folks make up almost 80 percent of the total population in the Maryland prison system, yet we comprise about 28 percent of the population in the state." Also on the program was Lawrence Bell, former Baltimore City Council president. He represented West Baltimore, which is the area where Freddie Gray was arrested. Bell spoke about the need for change. "We need civilian review," he said. "We need a different attitude within the police department. We need a better attitude in the whole city."
Below is an interview with Conway, Stevenson and Bell, followed by a transcript:
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Baltimore, where protests over the death of Freddie Gray have entered their fifth day. The 27-year-old African-American man died Sunday from spinal injuries, one week after Baltimore police arrested him. His family and attorney say his voice box was crushed and his spine was, quote, "80 percent severed at his neck." A preliminary autopsy report showed Gray died of a spinal injury. Video shot by a bystander shows Gray screaming in apparent agony as police drag him to a van. You can hear a bystander’s voice.
BYSTANDER: His leg looks broke! Look at his f—ing leg! Look at his f—ing leg! That boy’s leg looks broke! His leg’s broken! Y’all dragging him like that!
AMY GOODMAN: Another witness said the police bent Freddie Gray like a pretzel. Gray was then held inside a police van for 30 minutes. Police said, quote, "During transport to Western District via wagon transport the defendant suffered a medical emergency and was immediately transported to Shock Trauma via medic."
The Department of Justice is now investigating Gray’s death for possible civil rights violations. Since 2011, Baltimore has paid roughly $6.3 million to settle police misconduct claims. Baltimore authorities say five of the six officers involved in the arrest of Gray have now given statements to the Baltimore police. One has not. They remain suspended with pay. Baltimore police union attorney Michael Davey told reporters the officers were right to chase Gray after he ran away when a lieutenant "made eye contact" with him.
MICHAEL DAVEY: They pursued Mr. Gray. They detained him for an investigative stop. Had he not had a knife or an illegal weapon on him, he would have been released. They know what role they played in the arrest of Mr. Gray. What we don’t know and what we’re hoping the investigation will tell us is what happened inside the back of the van. He was placed in the transport van. Whether he was seat-belted in, I don’t believe he was. Our position is: Something happened in that van; we just don’t know what.
REPORTER: Do you think any of the six officers committed a crime that day?
MICHAEL DAVEY: No.
REPORTER: Unequivocally. And what makes you say that?
MICHAEL DAVEY: Based on the information that I know, no.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, on Wednesday, our next guest spoke with residents of the Gilmor Homes housing project in West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was arrested, including one woman who says she witnessed officers loading him into the back of a police van. In a minute, we’ll be joined by our guest, Eddie Conway of The Real News Network, but first, this is a clip of his interview.
EDDIE CONWAY: How are you doing? I’m Eddie Conway.
TAMIKA: Hi, I’m Tamika.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK.
JACQUELINE JACKSON: And I’m Jacqueline Jackson. I seen it.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah.
JACQUELINE JACKSON: I live 1628 Mountmor Court. My kitchen faces Mount Street.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK.
JACQUELINE JACKSON: The paddy wagon was right there. They took the young man out, beat him some more. The man wasn’t responding. They took him by his pants, and he was dragged. And I asked them to call an ambulance. They told me to mind my business. I told them it is my business. And they just threw him up in there. They boy wasn’t hollering or nothing. And he wasn’t hollering or nothing. How can you holler if you ain’t saying nothing? They killed that young man. They killed him.
AMY GOODMAN: Eddie Conway of The Real News Network interviewing residents of the Gilmor Homes housing project where Freddie Gray was arrested. He was there last night when protesters [calling] for justice in his case marched again. And he joins us now in Baltimore. Eddie Conway is executive producer of The Real News Network, also a former Black Panther leader in Baltimore, Maryland, who was released from prison last year after serving 44 years for a murder he denies committing. We spoke to him last March, just 24 hours after he was released.
We’re also joined by Dominique Stevenson, who was arrested at last night’s protest in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray. She is program director for the American Friends Service Committee’s Friend of a Friend Program, which fosters the peaceful resolution of conflict and promotes reconciliation and healing inside Maryland’s criminal justice system. She’s also co-author of Eddie Conway’s memoir, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.
Dominique, let’s begin with you. Can you explain why you were protesting yesterday and how you got arrested?
DOMINIQUE STEVENSON: Well, I was protesting because this is—there’s a history in Baltimore of not so much police shootings, but people being beaten to death by the police. There is a long history. I feel that I needed to be there with the community. We have for some time been doing work in Gilmor Homes housing project, and I wanted to, you know, be there to stand in solidarity with the community. I was arrested because at some point a young woman, Michaela Price, decided to commit civil disobedience. She’s 17 years old. I, one, did not want, or even trust, her being in police custody alone, and so I came over the barrier to accompany her.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dominique, the state of Maryland also has the highest—sorry, Baltimore has the highest rate of incarceration in the state of Maryland. Could you connect that to the action that you took and to what happened to Freddie Gray?
DOMINIQUE STEVENSON: Yes. One, if you look at statistics, that particular neighborhood—Sandtown-Winchester is the neighborhood in Baltimore—has actually the highest incarceration rate in the state. And you cannot disconnect that rate of incarceration from the style of aggressive policing that takes place. We’ve talked to many young men. OK, of course, there’s crime in that community. There are no jobs in that community. There is no economic development happening in that community. But the other issue is the harassment of police, the unnecessary detainment of police. People don’t know what Freddie Gray’s history may have been with those folks that he saw and why making eye contact simply made him run. And so I think that we really need to take a look at how policing is done in Baltimore. It cannot be disconnected from our high incarceration rate. Black folks make up almost 80 percent of the total population in the Maryland prison system, yet we comprise about 28 percent of the population in the state.
AMY GOODMAN: Eddie Conway, you were interviewing people in the area. We just saw you talking to a witness. This issue of there being video of Freddie Gray in the takedown, when they are dragging him over to the—or trying to carry him over to the police van, it looks like he cannot move. Yesterday, the police union spokesperson—attorney, said, "Oh, you know, that’s what these perps do. They have to be dragged because they won’t walk." Can you respond to this, based on what you heard from witnesses?
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes, and I interviewed perhaps 30 people from that community that was in that area or either heard the incident or witnessed the incident. The incident actually occurred under one of the police cameras that has been operating for years in that community, and they have been using that camera to make numerous drug arrests over the years. And for some reason, that day, that camera did not work. It would have been directly over Freddie Gray’s head. It would have recorded everything that took place.
One of the things that people say, that one of the police dropped down on his back, on his neck with his knee, and from that point on, he was incapacitated. And later, they even took him back out of the van and shackled his legs and did something else to him and threw him back in the van. So, as far as all the witnesses can tell and all of them report, that he was already fatally injured when they put him in, in the first place. That video that we saw with them dragging him to the van, he was already incapacitated.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And has anyone, Eddie Conway, given an exclamation for why that camera didn’t work that day?
EDDIE CONWAY: No one knows why that camera didn’t work. Everybody in the community says that that camera has been used consistently over the years to lock people up, and used for evidence in drug arrests and other arrests. One of the things is, and I guess I want to raise this issue, when is it a crime for a man to run somewhere? People run throughout the city all the time. People are constantly running. So, you get executed because you run?
AMY GOODMAN: Now, can you clarify, for people who haven’t been following this case? The police union attorney yesterday said, in a high crime area, yes, you can arrest someone if they simply run. And no one alleges anything other than that Freddie Gray ran. What about this?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, it’s not a high-crime area. It is a "broken windows" police area in which people and residents in that area are arrested for sitting on their own steps. They are loitering in their own community, on their own steps, and they’re harassed constantly. And this had been the reports that I have received. The Real News and myself and Friend of a Friend, we have been going down in that area trying to establish a relationship with the people in that area. And one of the things that they said is that they’re not even allowed to sit out in the area on their steps, even though they live there. The police will come and harass them. That level of harassment causes verbal responses. It causes physical contact. It causes people to be arrested. And before you know it, they have an arrest record, even as—I’m talking 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-old juveniles. And they end up in the prison system. And that’s why that becomes the high-crime system—the high-crime area.
AMY GOODMAN: A statement—
EDDIE CONWAY: Go ahead. I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: A statement from the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, Baltimore’s police union, compared the protesters calling for justice in the death of Freddie Gray to a "lynch mob." During a news conference Wednesday, reporters questioned the union’s president about the comparison.
REPORTER 1: I just was reading the statement you all just handed out to us just now. And just reading it, the tone, I mean, it says that the images on TV look and sound much like a lynch mob. Are you—I mean, what do you—how do you expect that to be received?
MICHAEL DAVEY: I haven’t seen that. I haven’t—
GENE RYAN: I put that, because they’ve already tried and convicted the officers, and that’s just unfair. They still get their day in court. They did not give up their constitutional rights when they became a law enforcement officer. That’s what I was getting at with that. Some of the protesters and some of the stuff I’ve been watching on the news, they want them put in prison. Well, they haven’t been charged, number one. Number two, they still get their day in court. So how can they request that they be put in jail? We haven’t even got to that process yet. The investigation has to be completed before we move forward.
REPORTER 1: Right, but are you concerned with the tone of the statement at all?
GENE RYAN: No, because I was quite offended by some of the things that were being said yesterday. Me, personally. That’s coming from me. That didn’t come from Mike and the law firm. That’s coming—that’s—
REPORTER 2: But it says—this says it comes from the Fraternal Order of Police.
GENE RYAN: Yes. That’s—I’m the president.
REPORTER 2: So are you likening these citizens protesting in this rally to a lynch mob, specifically?
GENE RYAN: Well, let’s put it this way: If they’re tried, convicted, and they would have put them in jail, where’s the due process with that?
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Gene Ryan, the police union president. Dominique Stevenson, this likening to a lynch mob. Yesterday, you did get arrested. You went over the barrier. What is your reaction to the police union president?
DOMINIQUE STEVENSON: Well, actually, if you take a look at what happened to Freddie Gray, he was tried, convicted and executed. And so, I resent likening people who are simply protesting and demonstrating and responding to a situation that was extremely unjust in their community to a lynch mob. As a person of African descent and understanding the history of lynching in this country, I find that statement offensive. I think that people are very frustrated because this is not the first time that this situation has occurred in Baltimore. I think that people have spent years of seeing these situations occur. People have experienced police brutality on so many levels, whether it’s witnessing the mistreatment of loved ones or community members or experiencing it firsthand. There were so many people in the community yesterday who were willing to come up and talk about their experiences with the police, that this is something that has been so harmful to black communities across the country, but particularly here in Baltimore. So I think that it is—basically, it’s a statement designed to garner attention and to garner a response. I think that people have a right to protest. They should continue to do that. But along with that, we need to really begin to organize. We need to take control of how policing is done in our communities. And that will begin to resolve some of the problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Dominique Stevenson, we want to thank you for being with us.
EDDIE CONWAY: And—
AMY GOODMAN: Eddie, I’d like to ask you to wait for one moment, because you’ll be staying with us.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: Eddie Conway with the Baltimore-based Real News Network. We are also going to be joined by the former president of the Baltimore City Council. This is Democracy Now! Major protests planned for today in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray. He was taken down by police on April 12th. He died on April 19th. His family and lawyers say 80 percent of his—that 80 percent of his spine was severed. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guests are—well, Eddie Conway is continuing with us right now. Eddie Conway is an executive producer for The Real News Network, former prisoner. He was in prison for more than 40 years. Lawrence Bell is also with us now, former president of the Baltimore City Council. He represents West Baltimore, which is the area where Freddie Gray was arrested.
So we’re going through the facts as we know them. On April 12th, Freddie Gray was arrested by police. It is not clear why. His family, his attorney said he was arrested for running while black. No one contends anything other than he was running and they arrested him. They then drag him into the police van. The police union attorney said that could be because he was resisting. What the witnesses around him are saying is that he looked like he could not move. He could not use his legs, and he was yelling. He is put into this van. At least 30—or was it 40?—minutes before any kind of medical or medics were called. He would be in the hospital for a week. He died on April 19th, last Sunday. Five of the six police who were involved have given statements; one has refused to. They’ve all been put on leave with pay.
Lawrence Bell, how typical is this? What are you most concerned about right now as the former president of the Baltimore City Council?
LAWRENCE BELL: Well, first of all, I want to say it’s good to be here, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this subject. Unfortunately, Baltimore has had a long history, a very long history, of these kinds of incidents going on. And I think, really, what’s changed here in Baltimore, as well as around the country, is that we live in an age where there’s technology and people have cellphone smartphones, where they have cameras. Years ago, I remember, over 20 years ago, I was one of the people that led the struggle to try to get civilian review, strong civilian review, here in a city of Baltimore. And that’s something that has been resisted for many, many years. And I think it’s because there has been a camaraderie within the police department, kind of a "stop snitching" mentality among police.
AMY GOODMAN: Misconduct settlements involving Baltimore police officers have cost the city more than $6 million since 2011. One victim, Barbara Floyd, told The Baltimore Sun that a detective ground her face into the concrete in 2009.
BARBARA FLOYD: I stood by the tree outside of my door with my back facing the street. All of a sudden, I feel arms around my neck. So I was struggling, because I didn’t know who it was. Yeah, I was screaming, when I could, "Get off of me! Leave me alone! Why are you all doing this?" They never answered my questions. They don’t answer your questions. All they do is tell you to shut the hell up.
NARRATION: In March 2009, Barbara Floyd was watching a disturbance outside her home when, she said, a police officer grabbed her.
BARBARA FLOYD: He put another leg in the small of my back. He was grinding my face into the pavement. He kept telling me to lay down. I was already down.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Barbara Floyd. She received a settlement for $30,000. So you’re the former president of the Baltimore City Council, Lawrence Bell.
LAWRENCE BELL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: More than $6 million for police misconduct over the last few years. Now, you weren’t president during that time, but can you talk about this?
LAWRENCE BELL: Yeah, I mean, this has been going on for a number of years. And what’s interesting is that the problem in Baltimore, I believe, became exacerbated in the early 2000s, when former Mayor Martin O’Malley began the zero-tolerance policy. And what happened is that basically, you know, they’d been arresting people for petty nuisance crimes, petty things, more arrests, more arrests, and there’s been a devaluation of black life. And so, these things have happened. Now, one thing to note is that many of the settlements back over the several years occurred outside of the public meeting setting in the—at the Board of Estimates in Baltimore, so you didn’t have a great groundswell of talk about it, because a lot of it wasn’t really out in the public view as it is today. But this has been going on for a while.
And I think that it just speaks to the need for change. We need civilian review. We need a different attitude within the police department. We need a better attitude in the whole city. And I think, as I said earlier, we need to have jobs in these communities. You know, something that’s concerned me is that, not only in Baltimore, but around the country, even among a lot of the black leaders, we’ve heard them talk about the issue of police misconduct, but we haven’t talked about the ways that black lives are minimized when we are economically depressed and more money is going into prisons, building prisons, than has gone into jobs in places like Sandtown in Baltimore.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lawrence Bell, what is your response to the way that the mayor has responded to what’s happened? Both the mayor and the police commissioner in Baltimore are African-American, and some have pointed out that this means their response has been much better than what it was, for example, in Ferguson after what happened with Michael Brown.
LAWRENCE BELL: Well, I think the mayor is sincere. I think that there’s still a problem with a lot of leadership, even black leadership, being out of touch with the people on the ground. You know, there’s an emotion that people feel, and that has to be recognized. And I think the mayor and the commissioner, number one, they need to move a lot faster. I mean, we know that there was a certain number of people on the scene when this incident occurred. It shouldn’t be—take rocket science to determine something went wrong. And we need answers a lot faster, a lot quicker. And the length of time that this is taking is the thing that’s really inflaming the passions of the people in the community. So I think that the mayor should do a lot more, a lot faster.
I think that—again, as I said earlier, some years ago there was a video in Baltimore called Stop Snitchin’, and it talked about people in the drug arena snitching on one another. But here’s the thing. Police, apparently, have a mentality of "stop snitching" among themselves, not only in Baltimore, but around the country. And that’s what people are upset about, the whole idea that there’s cover-up and that we know these kinds of things have happened for years, years. And I think if you interview some police officers who are honest, maybe people who are retired, they’ll tell you that this goes on all the time. So, we need to have a whole change. We also need to recruit more African Americans on the police force, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Billy Murphy, the attorney for the Gray family, says police brutality is a pervasive problem in Baltimore.
LAWRENCE BELL: Absolutely.
BILLY MURPHY: And Baltimore has a sorry history of police brutality and an even sorrier history in terms of a governmental response to police brutality. Typically, the police deny, deny, deny, no matter what the facts are. And it is not unusual for them to promote the police officer, even after he’s been found guilty of brutality. We had one case—I handled this—where we got a $44 million verdict against a police officer who rammed my client into the brick wall at the back of his holding cell and paralyzed him from the neck down.
CNN HOST: Oh, my goodness.
BILLY MURPHY: That police officer was promoted to sergeant, after the verdict against him. And the city refused to pay and made us appeal at every level. So we had to go to the Court of Special Appeals, the Court of Appeals.
CNN HOST: Yeah.
BILLY MURPHY: We won in all of the appellate courts. And still they wouldn’t pay the verdict. So, it’s a sorry, sorry situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Family attorney Billy Murphy speaking on CNN. On Tuesday, Michigan Democratic Congressmember John Conyers reintroduced a bill to curb racial profiling and provide relief to profiling victims. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland introduced a companion bill in the Senate. During a news conference, Congressman Conyers cited the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
REP. JOHN CONYERS: All lives matter. All lives matter. And I’m thinking now of Sean Bell, Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and now, sadly, Freddie Gray. And so, all of these African-American young men were killed at the hands of local police officers. Ultimately, they are tragic examples of the risk of racial profiling and the use of excessive force.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Congressmember John Conyers after reintroducing a bill against racial profiling. Lawrence Bell, would you call stopping a man while he’s running is racial profiling? Again, the police union attorney said yesterday in the news conference that if they’re running in a high-crime area, that’s cause enough. Now, I was just watching on television Leonard Hamm, the former police chief of Baltimore, being interviewed, and he said, "No"—he was the former police chief. He said, "No, running is not enough." Lawrence Bell, your thoughts?
LAWRENCE BELL: Well, I think these people need to study the law, because there is a concept of probable cause that exists. And I think it’s absurd to say that somebody simply running, after they make eye contact with a police officer, is probable cause. So it makes you wonder, really, you know, where are these people being trained, and where do they get this mentality. And I’ll tell you something. Quite honestly, there is a question of how they perceive black men. The perception of black men and the value of black men is on display right now, when we see these kinds of incidents go on. So, I think that that’s something we need to deal with right away.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Eddie Conway, we’d like to get your comments on the clip that we played earlier of the police union president, Gene Ryan, likening the protesters to a lynch mob. Could you comment on that?
EDDIE CONWAY: You know, as a journalist and a reporter, I have to question the language. I mean, a lynching did occur: Freddie Gray was lynched. There was a lynch mob. There is a body. There was a death without a trial, without a jury, without a sentence. There was an execution. That’s lynching. So, for anybody to say that people that exercise their First Amendment right to protest, to demand justice, to demand an investigation, is a lynch mob, it’s 1984. It’s doublespeak. They are blaming the victims. They’re blaming people that suffered the lynching, for protesting about the lynching, about their behavior. And I think that is—I mean, they do not serve and protect the citizens of the community, the people that pay them, when they kill those citizens and then, in turn, accuse those citizens of acting out of order, and arresting those citizens for protesting the violence that they inflict upon the citizens. That’s absurd.
AMY GOODMAN: There is a big difference in the way North Charleston, South Carolina, dealt with the killing of Walter Scott and what’s happening today. A police officer was arrested. The mayor and the police chief went to see the family of the Scotts to give their condolences. Now, I understand the Baltimore mayor did call the family to visit them, and they said it wasn’t the time to do that. But on the issue—and I wanted to put this question to Lawrence Bell—of these six police officers, they have all been suspended with pay. Five have given statements; one has not. There’s been very little information released. There’s an internal investigation. There’s a Justice Department investigation. There are a few others, apparently. What do you feel—and I’ll put this question to both of you—needs to be done now? Apparently, the state will be releasing Freddie Gray’s body soon.
LAWRENCE BELL: Well, there needs to be some finality in terms of the investigation. It has to happen a lot faster. We do—you know, we even have—doctors here at Johns Hopkins University have already said that the kind of injury that Mr. Gray suffered had to occur from—well, it had to be a very strong contact that he had with somebody, it seems to say. And so, you know, we don’t—we’re not rocket scientists. We don’t need to study this forever to come up with certain conclusions. We need to have the statements that were made by the police officers released. We need to know everything that happened right away. We need to—we need speed here. We need to know what has happened. And we need to have some people charged. And I’ll tell you, when you have people who are suspended but are still getting paid, that’s the kind of thing that really inflames the passions of the people. And they feel that there’s a two-tiered justice system: There’s one for police; there’s a different one for just regular citizens.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally—
EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah, and I would add that if any other citizen or any other six citizens had been involved in the death of another citizen, they would all be in central booking. They would all be up for bail hearings. They would all be at least investigated in that kind of manner. They wouldn’t be receiving paid vacation. So there’s a double standard here in terms of the lives of citizens.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this. More than a thousand people are expected in protests today in Baltimore. Eddie Conway, executive producer of The Real News Network, a former prisoner for more than 40 years. Lawrence Bell, former Baltimore City Council president, represented West Baltimore, which is an area where Freddie Gray was arrested.