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The Baltimore protests over Freddie Gray’s death, explained

Baltimore was roiled by weeks of tense protests after the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody. But the justice system ultimately punished no one for it.

The Baltimore protests erupted after Freddie Gray's mysterious death

Baltimore was roiled by weeks of tense protests after the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody.

Gray's death and the protests it inspired once again placed a national spotlight on issues of race, justice, police brutality, and the deep distrust between minority communities and their local governments.

The protests came about almost immediately following Gray's death, as demonstrators marched to demand answers for what happened to the 25-year-old and to protest police brutality, of which Baltimore has a troubling history.

Baltimore protests

Baltimore protests over the death of Freddie Gray. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The situation escalated as local authorities refused to release details in their investigation into Gray's death. Riots broke out on April 27, after Gray's funeral, drawing nationwide attention — and even comments from President Barack Obama — over the crumbling situation in the city.

But on May 1, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced criminal charges, including second-degree murder and manslaughter, against the six officers involved in Gray's arrest. The announcement calmed tensions in the city, as protesters felt that one of their main goals had been reached. (Ultimately, however, none of the charges stuck.)

Much of the anger during protests was focused on the lack of answers surrounding Gray's death, which persisted for weeks. As the investigation dragged on, many people felt that the local government and police were engaging in a cover-up to hide how Gray received the spinal cord injury that killed him and whether the officers that arrested him caused it.

But the protests and riots in Baltimore are also part of a much broader national debate about systemic problems that have existed for decades. The protests are specifically about one man in a very troubled neighborhood that gets a disproportionate amount of attention from police, but they also seek to bring attention to the police brutality that all too often afflicts black men in the US.

Freddie Gray died after he suffered a fatal neck injury in a police van

Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury on April 12 when he was tossed around the back of a police van. He was shackled by his hands and feet but unrestrained by a seatbelt, which meant he couldn't protect himself from the impact as he crashed into the interior of the vehicle. An autopsy report, which was obtained by the Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton, found Gray likely received the injury when the van suddenly decelerated. He died a week later, on April 19.

On May 1, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the death had been ruled a homicide by a medical examiner. Mosby announced 28 criminal charges, including second-degree murder and manslaughter, against the six officers involved in Gray's arrest. A grand jury on May 21 indicted all six officers for Gray's death. But none of the charges stuck in court.

Gray was arrested for allegedly possessing a switchblade, but Mosby said Gray's knife wasn't a switchblade and was therefore legal. According to a timeline provided by Mosby, Gray fled at the sight of police presence in an area of town known for drug dealing. Police pursued Gray, eventually catching up and restraining him on the ground. Officers then arrested Gray after they noticed a knife on him.

Video footage of the arrest showed officers dragging Gray, who is screaming in apparent pain, to a police van. Police don't use force in the video, but the recording started after the officers already had Gray in custody.

One of the people who recorded the arrest, Kevin Moore, described the scene to the Baltimore Sun's Catherine Rentz, claiming that police folded Gray like "origami," contradicting claims that officers peacefully restrained him. "The officer had their knee in his neck. And he was just screaming — screaming for life," Moore said. "He couldn't breathe. He needed an asthma pump, which he let them know… They ignored it."

Police transported Gray to the station in a van, in which he reportedly experienced a medical emergency as a result of his neck injury and was eventually transferred to trauma care. Gray wasn't wearing a seat belt while riding in the van, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts revealed in a press conference on April 24. "No excuses for that, period," he said.

At several points, Gray pleaded for medical care — including an inhaler for his asthma — but police ignored him. One of the officers thought Gray was faking his injury, according to the Baltimore Sun's Justin George. But Batts said at an April 20 press conference that there were multiple occasions when police should have called medics but didn't, and those failures have prompted a review of police policies to ensure detainees get medical care when they need it.

The police van reportedly stopped at least four times before Gray was sent to trauma care — once to place leg shackles on Gray, and later to pick up another detainee, who was separated from Gray by a metal barrier in the back of the van.

Combined, the details exposed by Mosby's investigation suggest that Gray shouldn't have been arrested, and the officers involved in Gray's arrest were, at best, negligent and, at worst, abusive.

Protests in Baltimore over Freddie Gray's death sometimes turned into riots

As police released few answers for weeks regarding Freddie Gray's death, tensions boiled over at times into heated protests and riots.

On April 25, after hours of large, peaceful demonstrations, some protesters began smashing car and business windows and looting stores. At one point, police briefly closed off the Camden Yards baseball stadium, keeping people at the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox game stuck inside until police gave the all-clear.

Violence broke out on April 27, when demonstrators looted, burned 144 vehicles and 15 buildings, and threw bricks, bottles, and other objects at police, injuring at least 20 officers. Police responded by trying to contain the crowds with tear gas, pepper spray, and other nonlethal weapons. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also imposed a citywide, 10 pm curfew for less than one week, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan temporarily enlisted the state's National Guard to contain the violence.

Baltimore protester throws rock

Protesters clash with police in Baltimore. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The protests calmed and dissipated after May 1, when Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced criminal charges, including second-degree murder and manslaughter, against the officers involved in Gray's arrest — meeting one of the main demands of the protesters. But none of the officers were ultimately convicted in court.

It's common for the public and leaders to dismiss these types of violent outbursts as senseless. President Barack Obama, for example, described the rioters as "criminals and thugs" who were taking advantage of the tense situation in Baltimore. "They're destroying and undermining opportunities and businesses in their own communities," he said.

But historians and experts say these types of outbursts are rooted in legitimate anger toward a system that in many ways has failed them. "People participate in this type of event for a real reason," Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor who has studied the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, said. "It's not just people taking advantage. It's not just anger and frustration at the immediate or proximate cause. It's always some underlying issues."

In Baltimore, the anger was aimed not just at the questions surrounding Gray's death and a police department that has been subject to allegations of brutality in the past, but at widespread economic disparities that have left neighborhoods, such as Freddie Gray's, with populations in which more than half the residents don't have jobs. Residents aren't lashing out in violence just to take advantage of the situation — they're unleashing anger that's long existed in these communities.

"I was one of the ones who started the peaceful protests … the first seven days [after Gray's death], when it was fine and dandy," William Stewart, a West Baltimore resident who didn't participate in the riots, told Vox's Jenée Desmond-Harris. "I walked about 101 miles in peace. But if you protest peacefully, they don't give a shit."

Baltimore has a troubled history with police brutality

The outrage surrounding Freddie Gray's death is rooted in concerns about how cops handle themselves in the city. Not only have police allegedly abused other detainees in their custody, but they have hurt people by placing them in vans without seat belts — similar to what Gray went through, suffering some sort of medical emergency in a police van while not buckled in, then being rushed to the hospital.

The Baltimore Police Department has long been subject to allegations of brutality. A September 2014 report by the Baltimore Sun's Mark Puente found that the city had paid about $5.7 million since 2011 to more than 100 people — most of whom were black — who claimed that officers had beaten them. Some of the allegations are truly deplorable, as Vox's Ezra Klein explained:

Before Freddie Gray, there was Starr Brown, who was pregnant and walking up the front steps of her home when two girls were attacked on the street. By the time the cops came, the attackers were gone — but Brown, inside her home, could hear the police berating the women who had been attacked.

Brown, angry, demanded the cops chase down the attackers rather than yelling at the victims. An argument began, and the police tried to arrest Brown. She grabbed a nearby railing, screaming that she was pregnant. "They slammed me down on my face," Brown later said. "The skin was gone on my face." The city paid Brown $125,000.

Police didn't admit fault in the cases, instead paying for the settlements, the local police union said, to avoid the higher costs of full-blown lawsuits. But the high number of cases and payouts has fed a perception that police officers in Baltimore are corrupt and violent — and these 100 cases likely cover a small fraction of the overall complaints in the city.

Baltimore police have also been accused of taking people in "rough rides" in which handcuffed detainees are driven in a reckless manner while they're not wearing seat belts — all to purposely cause injuries. The Baltimore Sun's Puente and Doug Donovan documented several cases in which people were injured in police vans, some of whom won lawsuits against the city. One of them, a 27-year-old assistant librarian who was arrested following a noise complaint, described the experience: "They were braking really short so that I would slam against the wall, and they were taking really wide, fast turns. I couldn't brace myself. I was terrified."

Leadership in the Baltimore Police Department has vowed to prevent this kind of behavior. "We will not let officers get away with any wrongdoing," Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who joined the agency in January 2013 to lead the new Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau, told the Baltimore Sun. "It will not be tolerated."

But many residents and protesters in Baltimore feel the reform and accountability processes have been slow-moving, feeding into the anger that eventually culminated in protests and riots following Gray's death.

Life expectancy in different Baltimore neighborhoods can vary by decades

Baltimore suffers from vast economic disparities that have left many of the city's residents without jobs and with even shorter lifespans.

"Only six miles separate the Baltimore neighborhoods of Roland Park and Hollins Market," John Hopkins University's Jonathan Bagger explained, "but there is a 20-year difference in the average life expectancy."

Take the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park area, which Freddie Gray called home. A February 2015 report by the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative found that more than half the residents of the Baltimore neighborhood at the center of ongoing unrest didn't have jobs between 2008 and 2012, and nearly one-third of the residential properties in the area were vacant or abandoned in 2012.

Freddie Gray neighborhood

(Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative)

The report also found the neighborhood had a median household income level ($24,006) that's far lower than the median in Baltimore ($40,803), and a violent crime rate (23 per 1,000 residents) that tops the city average (14.1 per 1,000 residents).

These numbers speak to problems in Baltimore that run far deeper than the police treatment of Gray. They expose a city and neighborhoods that have been failed not just by the police, but also by local, state, and federal governments at large.

At the center of the Baltimore protests: racial disparities in the criminal justice system

The protests over Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore were part of the "Black Lives Matter" movement that has become prominent since the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Missouri. Since Brown's death, the rallying call of Black Lives Matter has been pushed in protests over several other police killings — of Eric Garner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. These deaths and others have fed into the idea in black communities that their own — even their own sons — could be the next victims of police brutality.

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind found that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete because it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.

police shooting by race Joe Posner/Vox

Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica's Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."

Some researchers have suggested that subconscious racial biases are behind the disparities. Studies show officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor, who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

The racial disparities in the criminal justice system go beyond police use of force. Black people are much more likely to be arrested for drugs, even though they're not more likely to use drugs or sell them. And black inmates make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population.

drug use and arrests Joe Posner/Vox

The disparities have driven many in minority communities to distrust and fear law enforcement — out of concern that they or their sons could be the next victims. For them, the only way to speak out against these perceived injustices is protest — and, for those who feel truly desperate, violence.

Police officers are rarely tried and convicted for use of force

Ultimately, none of the police officers charged in Gray's death were convicted.

In retrospect, this isn't too surprising. Legal observers had long warned that the charges against police would be very hard to prove in court. But compounding that problem is the fact that it's notoriously difficult to prosecute police officers in America.

Police are very rarely prosecuted for killings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.

In the Gray case, there was no video of Gray's experience in the police van or the many times he was stopped — only video of his initial arrest. So even though the evidencesuggests that Gray wasn't wearing a seat belt in a moving vehicle, cried for medical care, and former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts admitted that officers wrongly ignored Gray's cries for help, the lack of video evidence makes it all the more difficult to prove that an individual police officer or six of them were culpable for the death.

“There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility,” David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Amanda Taub for Vox. “And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction.”

This fits a pattern in Maryland, where Baltimore resides. An analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland found that police were charged in less than 2 percent of police-involved killings between 2010 and 2014. In these killings, 69 percent of the victims were black, even though they make up 29 percent of Maryland's population. About 41 percent of the victims were unarmed.

If police are charged, they're very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of those officers ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those figures are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

The result is a justice system that many believe lets police officers act recklessly and even maliciously and get away with it. For Black Lives Matter activists in particular, it suggests that police officers can nearly indiscriminately kill black people — evidence, they think, that black lives don't matter.

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