Freddie Gray Was a Victim of Our Criminal Justice Slaughterhouse System

Last week, Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby dropped charges against the final three officers awaiting trial for their role in the death of Freddie Gray, having determined there was no chance of successfully prosecuting them. “Gee, looks like NOBODY killed Freddie Gray,” writer Stephen King tweeted sarcastically in response to the first wave of acquittals. “Guess he just died of being black. Funny how that happens in this country.”


Gray did not commit suicide. The medical examiner determined that his death was not an accident, but a homicide. What, exactly, happened inside that van? How is it possible that Baltimore police officers could grab a 25-year-old man off the street, drive him around handcuffed and without a seatbelt, resulting in a spinal cord injury that would kill him a week later, and yet none of the six officers involved would bear any legal responsibility for his death? (In a final ironic twist, five of the six officers involved in the Freddie Gray case are now suing state’s attorney Mosby for various offenses, including false arrest.)

These and other police acquittals/dismissals/mistrials do not exist in isolation. They contribute to a pattern that casts the victims as regrettable yet necessary casualties of civilization. Deliriously, they inhabit the cultural logic of the slaughterhouse. Doomed creatures go in one end, and come out the other as headless carcasses. Along the way they expire—and yet, they are somehow never killed. Once inside the slaughterhouse system, as ethnographer Noëlie Vialles observed, livestock is stunned, but does not die; it is stuck, but does not die; it is bled, but does not die. Then it continues to move down the factory line to be scraped, scrubbed, skinned, gutted, split, hung in a freezer—and still it is not officially dead. At this point, however, it is also not “alive” in any usual sense of the word.

Somewhere after stunning and before splitting, the animal ceased to be a living being. But what was the exact moment? It’s impossible to demonstrate with scientific, medical or legal precision, always leaving room for doubt. (A stunned animal will regain its senses. A bled animal can be revived.) Crucially, however, the slaughterhouse is designed to suppress agency within its walls. The system itself—not any one individual working inside it—takes life. Hence the passive voice is used to describe the process: the animal is stunned, is stuck, is bled—not Worker Smith stuns the cows, Worker Brown sticks the pig, etc. This linguistic gymnastic implies it is the animal’s fault for being used in this way. The foolish beast did it to itself, it suggests. 

Transferred to the public sphere, this rationale has become distressingly familiar. To die at the hands of the police, as Tamir RiceEric GarnerMichael Brown, Alton Brown, Philando Castile and so many others did, is to die at the hands of the state. What is unusual about these particular victims is not that police killed them, but that we know their faces and names. In Texas, between 2005 and 2015, nearly 7,000 people died while in some form of police custody. The Texas Justice Initiative determined that 70 percent of these deaths “resulted from natural causes or illness, 11 percent from suicide, and 8 percent from ‘justifiable homicide.’” Out of this grim toll, only one name has generated national public outcry: Sandra Bland, whose death was officially designated a “suicide.” As far as popular awareness is concerned, the rest of these deaths fall under the category of anonymous statistics.

In the case of Freddie Gray, it is too simple—hypocritical, even—to point morally superior fingers at the six officers, or even the police in general. Gray was in many ways doomed from birth, a victim of the economic violence that disproportionately affects people of color, and which pushed him inexorably toward his fate. From early childhood, he manifested the effects of lead poisoning, which permanently affects cognition and behavior. 

It remains unclear why the police in Baltimore arrested Gray, since he wasn't a suspect in a crime. His initial offense seems to have been avoiding the cops—Gray took off running the instant he and cops made eye contact—but given the Baltimore police department’s long history of brutality against black residents, who could blame him for trying to get away before they brought the trouble to him? And therein lies the horror laid bare by Gray’s death. For civilians to engage with the police at any point is to become fully subject to the state’s authority, which allows no resistance, no escape. Correspondingly, judges have repeatedly concluded that various officers’ use of lethal force was inseparable from the requirements of their job, and juries have typically refused to convict police for shooting unarmed men for no particularly good reason.

The stark asymmetry of power amplified by (if not limited to) the anguished legacy of racism reveals the degree to which bourgeois norms tacitly condone violence against the less than—a relative condition, but typically encompassing the poor, the non-white, the disabled, the vulnerable—reflexively consigning them to the political, economic and geographic margins in order to sustain institutionalized hierarchies that profit from their exploitation. (See, for example, the town of Gretna, or the damning Ferguson report). 

There are now “two divergent Americas, one with money, and one without—and the one without is largely black,” writes Alvin Chang for Vox. “[T]he residents of that America are increasingly living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty… with high rates of crime, unemployment, and community health issues.” In the slaughterhouse of modern life, law and order serves the America with money. Justice has nothing to do with it. This is the lesson of Freddie Gray, thrice dead—from poisoning, a broken spine and depraved indifference. Yet nobody killed him.

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