Where was the humanity? Because you can’t get much worse than this image:
Freddie Gray tied up like an animal, wrists and ankles bound, left to helplessly bounce around the back of a moving police van, his head vulnerable to being battered about like a pumpkin.
None of that grim scene should have happened, according to the proscutor. Baltimore police never had the probable cause to arrest Gray, to put him into the van in the first place. The knife Gray was arrested for possessing was not a switchblade and was legal.
These are the allegations. This time, they aren’t coming from grieving family members or inner city Baltimore residents primed and jaded to distrust their police department through years of questionable encounters.
These are the findings of the lead state prosecutor. The medical examiner determined that Gray’s death was a homicide. The news Friday that six Baltimore officers had been charged is not something to sing praises about. The charges range from a second-degree murder charge, to assault, to manslaughter and misconduct. State prosecutor Marilyn J. Mosby alleges that despite having multiple opportunities to give Gray medical attention, the officers did not. He died from a spinal cord injury a week after being found unresponsive inside the police van.
For those who reacted gleefully earlier this week to leaked impressions that Gray was trying to injure himself in the back of the van, these new allegations ought to give pause. Is it more comfortable to believe that he caused his own death, as opposed to acknowledging that the conduct and possible outright lack of humanity by police might have ended the 25-year-old’s life?
The question gets to the heart of being able to see Gray not solely as a man with a record of drug crimes, as someone who ran from police — but also as a person who deserved to be treated in a way that cared for his well-being in police custody.
The national conversation on police/community relations that began in earnest with Michael Brown’s death and wound through Eric Garner’s and so many others, may have found a more convincing victim in Gray for those who have failed to grasp this as the crux of the issue.
It’s respect. Strong police-community relations have always swiveled around respect. It’s a two-way exchange of officers approaching citizens with it and gaining the same in return. When that breaks down, as it has in so many African-American and Latino communities, the outrage that fueled the protests this week is sure to erupt.
As Maryland U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings so aptly put it Friday morning during televised interviews, “Did they see him as a human being?”
The so-called rough ride has been raised here, although the prosecutor did not mention it as a part of her charges. It’s the abhorrent idea that police would subject a person in custody to a beating not by an officer’s fists or with a department-issued baton, but by the weight of their own body as they tumble around in a moving police van. Police in Baltimore have already indicated their protocol was broken because Gray was not secured with the van’s seat belt.
Cummings wisely stressed calm and called for the legal process to play out. These are merely charges at this point.
It is also important to remember the many pertinent issues raised about police misconduct in recent months. The list is long: diversity of police departments, the lack of strong national data on the frequency of instances when people die while in police custody, the need for special independent prosecutors, the use of body cameras, the training and supervision of officers and the safety concerns for police as they patrol neighborhoods with high crime rates.
All are important. But they are details. Ultimately, nothing substantial will happen without attention to the point that the alleged circumstances of Gray’s death are now calling to the forefront.
Respect for human life, lest you maliciously or inadvertently, snuff it out.
To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @msanchezcolumn.