In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business.
In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored. In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was considerable discussion about the criminality of the victim, as if by diminishing his human worth and highlighting his failings, a police-wagon death was somehow deserved.
Robert Eugene Privett, 29, died in Baltimore police custody in March 1992. There was no uprising and no riot. Coverage of the death produced no civic outrage. And a Baltimore State’s Attorney also took the matter to a grand jury and emerged with no indictments — not for depraved-heart second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Not even for reckless endangerment.
It was death that just slipped quietly below the waves.
A police reporter for nearly a decade by then, I was certain it would. I knew it once I heard prosecutors and union lawyers both mitigating the outcome with talk of the victim’s enlarged spleen, his drug use, his HIV status, effectively constructing a legal hole so large that a truck could be run through the center of the case.
The greater truth is that Freddy Gray is in no way unique or remarkable. Not in Baltimore, and not anywhere else in urban America. He comes to us amid a policing culture debased by thirty years of open warfare on the city poor — a conflict that has allowed, if not actually required, officers to see a large share of the men, women and children they are policing as the enemy, as arrest stats, as very much less than human.
Mr. Privett was white, by the way. The desire to construct the Freddy Gray narrative along purely racial lines is understandable — Baltimore is a majority black city, and further, people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, who are the specific, targeted cohort in the drug war — but it is nonetheless not an entirely honest construction.
Anyone who has watched drug prohibition applied in my city’s poor white or mixed neighborhoods — in O’Donnell Heights or Morrell Park, Pigtown or pre-gentrifying Remington — understands fully that the battle claimed against dangerous narcotics long ago morphed into a full-blown war on our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, regardless of race. I recently happened to find myself the only white fellow on a New Yorker festival panel on race and I tried to make this point gently — to acknowledge that while people of color suffer police violence disproportionately, they are not alone. And that class warfare, as much as racism, now underlies our savage, repetitive reliance on law-and-order brutalities.
“Then how is it that we never hear about white people being victims?” asked a fellow panelist.
I told her I had covered cases in Baltimore, that I had seen the war on drugs play itself out against poor whites and blacks alike. She looked at me with disbelief and disappointment, as if I had obliviously blurted that all lives matter.
Make no mistake: racism is still good fuel for much of the brutality. Moreover, I understand the natural inclination to view the whole of the nightmare of institutionalized police violence through the prism of race. From that perspective, poor white victims are indeed less useful as martyrs for a movement that begins by affirming for black life. But America’s misuse of the drug war to overpolice and beat down its poor is simply bigger, and more complicated, than race alone. The hue of the six defendants in the Gray prosecutions suggests this. And the fact that the Robert Eugene Privetts of the world were going to their deaths in the back of Baltimore police wagons decades ago affirms as much.
I waited for a verdict in the first Freddy Gray prosecution before posting this. I didn’t want to add to pretrial foment or mangle the specifics of the present case with those of the distant past. But I’m writing now, in light of a jury’s inability to find any guilt whatsoever in the death of Mr. Gray in police custody.
Fair-minded people can argue about whether sufficient intent was proven to justify a manslaughter conviction, or whether this particular officer was more or less complicit in what happened to Mr. Gray. But if, over the ensuing trials, our justice system determines that a prone, unresponsive human being can be legally ignored for nearly an hour by the authorities who have taken custody of him, well then, what exactly is the law saying to us as citizens? In a civilized republic, a law officer, in taking custodial responsibility of a fellow citizen, must do all he or she can to transport that citizen safely and attentively. If the law in the Freddy Gray cases allows otherwise, without sanctioning those who so abjectly fail that test, then our police wagons and jail cells will continue to be bodied for another couple decades.
Baltimore failed Robert Privett entirely. Again, there were no indictments for reckless endangerment as he rolled around Southeast Baltimore for over an hour, pleading for medical help and dying of a ruptured spleen. The wagon man made his HIV-status into a bad joke. The state’s attorney then failed him and the city grand jury failed him. His fellow citizens failed him as well, in that in 1992, the hue and cry against overpolicing, the drug war and mass incarceration wasn’t yet on the horizon. A series of articles covered the case in The Sun, but produced little reaction from any quarter. Privett was The Other. Some dope fiend. With AIDS. Fuck him.
And now Mr. Gray.
If Baltimore today can’t figure out how to legally hold accountable the law officers who failed for nearly an hour to secure medical assistance for a man in their custodial care — at least to the point of declaring that they failed in their duty and recklessly endangered a fellow citizen — then we will have stayed the course. And twenty years from now, amid some other wagon or jail death, someone else will be posting old Freddy Gray stories and explaining that there is nothing new under the sun.