By David Muhammad, New America Media Commentary
Speaking at the funeral for Freddie Gray last April, to a Baltimore church overflowing with mourners, the family’s attorney said, “many of us are here not because we knew Freddie Gray personally, but because we know hundreds of Freddie Grays.”
Almost a year later, as the trial for the second police officer charged with Gray’s murder is set to begin, the country continues to be plagued with the challenges of egregious police shootings, broken trust between law enforcement and Black communities, and the related gross income inequality that many feel fuels the mistreatment by officers.
Freddie Gray’s life of poverty, dropping out of school, brushes with the law, and being brutally arrested by police is the story line of many Black men throughout the country. But having his spine severed in the back of a police van was the rare and tragic event that made his story a national sensation.
Freddie was raised in one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest cities in America. He lived in a small row house with his disabled mother and two siblings. Freddie suffered lead poising while growing up. Exposure to the lead paint in the house caused Freddie to have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities. Baltimore’s public school system, among the very worst in the country, was ill equipped to deal with Freddie’s and so many other children’s learning disabilities. With little support, Gray struggled in school. He eventually dropped out in the 10th grade.
The Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (now known as the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative), a national advocacy group headquartered in Baltimore, estimates that up to 30,000 children suffered from lead poisoning in Baltimore alone when Freddie was growing up. The effects of lead poisoning can be devastating.
“A child who was poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” the Coalition’s executive director told the Washington Post. Flint, Michigan is currently reeling from the effects of lead in the water supply, with reports that all children under 12 years old in the predominately Black and impoverished city have been poisoned.
For Freddie, a Black male, high school dropout from Baltimore with a learning disability had little to no chance of landing a job. So he turned to the underground economy.
On April 12, 2015, 25 year old Freddie Gray was standing on the side walk and was approached by two Baltimore police officers on bicycles. For reasons that remain unclear, Gray ran from the officers. Community members report that negative confrontations between police and Black men in the neighborhood Gray was stopped are common place. Congressman Elijah Cummings who represents Baltimore, told CNN that he thinks “Freddie just wanted to have good day,” and that’s why he ran from the police on that day. He just didn’t want to go to jail, “but he wound up dead.”
The bicycle officers chased him, caught him, and then possibly roughed him up, according to witnesses and some video footage. And though cell phone video makes it clear Freddie was injured by the arrest, it was the ride to detention that killed him.
Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore State’s Attorney, charged six police officers with Gray’s murder. Three of the officers are Black and three are White. She was heralded as a hero – a rare time the community celebrates the local prosecutor for charging Black men with a crime. After a hung jury caused a mistrial to be declared in the first officer’s trial, the second officer’s trial was recently postponed as the court considers the legalities of compelling the officer in the first trial to testify against the officer in the coming second trial.
Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson writes in his seminal book, Just Mercy, that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice.” Far too often, poverty comes along with toxins in the environment, substandard schools, harsh relations with law enforcement, few job opportunities, and the proliferation of drugs and alcohol.
This is why many people know hundreds of Freddie Grays, as his family’s attorney exclaimed at the funeral. And this is why there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of Freddie Grays in America – young Black men who grew up in poverty, who attended low performing schools, who lived in contaminated communities, and who now have a hard time finding employment, have had run-ins with the criminal justice system, and are harassed by law enforcement.
The Freddie Gray effect and the cry that Black Lives Matter is about more than improved police-community relations. It is the fight and the need in countless Black neighborhoods for income equality, access to quality education, environmental justice and criminal justice reform.
David Muhammad is the National Justice Partner at Impact Justice and provides consultation on criminal and juvenile justice systems nationally. He is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County, CA, and the former Deputy Commissioner of Probation in New York City.