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Baltimore – how poverty and police racism ignited a city

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When cops in Baltimore arrested Freddie Gray and threw him screaming in pain into the back of their van, they thought no one would question their actions. When Freddie died in that same truck, they thought they’d get away with it. Not this time, writes Ken Olende
Issue 2452
poverty in baltimore
Decades of government neglect means 16,000 properties across Baltimore are vacant or abandoned (Pic: SocialJusticeSeeker812)

“Revolution begins when there’s no resolution to a problem. When a person is beaten back into a corner and they’ve come to the conclusion that nobody cares about them,” writer Ray L Brown told Socialist Worker. 

“They can’t call the police. They have been getting away with the way they treat people of colour for years.”

Ray L Brown

Ray L Brown

Ray lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where Freddie Gray died last month (see below). Police pre-empted the damning report into Freddie’s death that led to officers being charged, with a leak that suggested he injured himself.

Black Lives Matter protests sprang up in the city, linking the death to those of other black men who have died in police custody. Freddie’s death is just the latest episode.

“They’re saying he broke his own back and crushed his own larynx. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” says Ray. “I don’t condone looting and burning, but I see a people who have just got tired of how they are treated. This isn’t a black thing or a white thing. It’s a police thing. 

“They showed clips of kids throwing rocks at the police officers, but they didn’t show the police officers had thrown rocks at the kids when they got off their school buses. When the kids retaliated now all of a sudden they’re thugs. 

“They didn’t show the peaceful demonstrations or the people standing in front of stores to stop them being looted. So now all of a sudden Baltimore is under siege.” 


Freddie Gray

Freddie Gray

Before the news of Freddie’s death the big news in Baltimore was about water being cut off. About 150 households a day are having their water cut off in Baltimore for being as little as £165 behind in payments. Commercial properties that fall behind with payments have not been cut off.

The city is blighted by poverty. The collapse of industry and the docks left many people unemployed.

Baltimore was once the second port on the US’s east coast. It was an industrial city. From a peak of nearly a million in 1950 its population has declined to about 620,000. The black population grew from 24 percent in 1960 to 64 percent in 2000. 

The authorities have cracked down on the poor. The police have introduced curfews to stop the protests.

But a curfew on young people has been in place since 2014. It prohibits anyone under 14 being out after 9pm and anyone under 16 being out after 10pm on weekdays, or 11pm during the summer. Parents can be fined £330 if their children break curfew.

In a poor area like Sandtown where Freddie lived, 34 percent of residential property is vacant or abandoned. That’s 16,000 buildings across the city—almost all in poor black neighbourhoods. The old docks have been renovated and are luxury, largely white, areas now.

Ray said, “All too often redevelopment has meant levelling poor neighbourhoods and replacing them with showpiece projects. 

“They kicked those people out. Downtown Baltimore has been built up and has new stadiums. They want you to go there to see how grand the city is. But you drive past that and see there are areas that are not as grand. They left people no way to support themselves. What are they going to do? 

“There is a shroud draped over the real problems in our communities. Any time there’s a problem they hope that things will blow over and come back to normal. But after a period of abuse the person being attacked will reach a point when they are not prepared to be abused any more.”


Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (Pic: US Navy)

Racism is a central issue here, but there is more to it. Baltimore is a majority black town with a black mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a black police chief, Anthony Batts. 

In the US, law enforcement is headed by the attorney general, which has been recently taken over by a black woman, Loretta Lynch.

“Being black doesn’t mean that when you get into high office you understand,” Ray said. 

“People forget that they were ever part of that community. As mayor or police chief or even the president you spend all your time worrying about how to present yourself. But right is right and wrong is wrong.”

Jean Cushman is an activist in Baltimore. She told Socialist Worker, “Kids in Baltimore are very badly disenfranchised. Resources are so tight in the US. It is clamping down on spending for schools and education. 

“People have suspicion of the police. Even though the mayor is black and so are a good majority of the police they’re still suspicious. They experience police abuse all the time.”

Kristiana Rae Colón, activist from the Let Us Breathe Collective, told Socialist Worker how that mistrust of the police was reflected in debates amongst protesters and activists.

She said, “Some activists want to see police punished and brought to justice for their excessive use of force in the short term.

“Others want police reform in the mid term—and many are calling for the abolition of police as we know them in the long term.”

Ray is torn about how to respond to the police. He is outraged at their behaviour but believes there are good officers who are attempting to defend the community. Some police officers are fine. I know a few,” he said.

The black mayor has referred to protesters as “thugs”. This angers Ray. “As if a small group of thugs is responsible for the disorder,” he said. 

“We were told that two gangs said they’d come together and call a truce to go start killing cops. But in fact the gangs called a truce to try and quell the situation. So they try to deflect the blame. 

“The police chief appeared on national television saying how proud he was to meet officers who were injured when protesters threw rocks. 

“Yet he said nothing about the fact that the guy his police arrested had his spine severed. They’re quick to defend the boys in blue but not to defend the community.”


Jean said, “This is a city where all the good jobs in manufacturing have gone away. That decimated Baltimore. The jobs aren’t there and people don’t have anything to do. There’s a lot of reliance on drugs. It’s a means of employment.

“People who have protested about the different killings are communicating. It’s becoming a much bigger deal. Some people feel frightened by it, but they’re mostly people from the suburbs. They don’t really have a relationship with black people. Baltimore is so segregated that you wouldn’t believe it.” 

Kristiana believes that the different protests of the past few months are developing into a new movement. She said, “The killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the sustained energy created by the protests have indeed sparked the new Black Lives Matter movement.

“Contemporary activists in the struggle to end racial injustice understand police brutality in the long trajectory of slavery, post Civil War Reconstruction, and Jim Crow.”

Ray said, “To go forward we have to go back. When Rosa Parks said she would not sit in the back of the bus they listened to her because the campaign shut the buses down. They’re dependent on you and you can take that away.”

He believes that “If people want change they need to take control of the money. Build your own communities and businesses, don’t let the city take it away.

“There are no leaders in the African American community like Martin Luther King that this generation respects. They see what’s going on but they don’t see the pattern and if you don’t understand the pattern you can’t fix it. 

“We need to educate ourselves. But I think that it will get worse before it gets better.”

Ray L Brown is producing a film 83 Days about the false conviction and execution of black teenager George Stinney Jnr in 1944

Unity on streets is key to victory

Solidarity with Baltimore protest in Minneapolis

Solidarity with Baltimore protest in Minneapolis (Pic: Fibonacci Blue)

Freddie Gray, a 25 year old black man, died of spinal injuries a week after being arrested by Baltimore police on 12 April. He was cuffed on his hands and ankles but did not have a seatbelt on. 

The first official investigation into the killing condemned the behaviour of the arresting officers. All six have been charged over his death.

Among the issues to be explained are why it took 40 minutes after Freddie’s arrest to drive him to the police station and why the van stopped five times along the short route. Freddie had a spinal cord injury and a crushed larynx. He lapsed into a coma and died after a week. 

The civil unrest broke out on the day of Freddie’s funeral. As schools finished in the afternoon police in full riot gear in the Mondawmin neighbourhood closed the subway station and would not allow school students to board buses and disperse.

One parent said, “The kids stood across from the police and looked like they were asking them ‘why can’t we get on the buses’ but the police were just gazing.”

Police said that the trapped people began to throw missiles at officers. This was when the disturbances began. Black Lawyers for Justice president Malik Zulu Shabazz told the press that the police were responsible for the violence. He said, “I really think tonight if they weren’t here, no crowd would be here. 

“You know how Ferguson was. The more armoured police show up, the more people want to stay out and challenge them.” 

One local said of the burning down of a pharmacy during the rioting, “It was wrong, but it was right. They can rebuild that, but they can’t bring that mother’s son back.”

Protests continued daily. More than 200 people were arrested in the disturbances on Monday of last week. Police bail for people arrested in the unrest was set at levels many could not hope to pay, such as £330,200. 

The habeus corpus law in the state of Maryland says that no one can be detained without charge for more than 24 hours. But Republican governor Larry Hogan effectively suspended this.

Hogan also brought in 1,500 National Guard troops and a nightly 10pm curfew for a week, though this was suspended after the officers were charged.

As more than 1,000 protesters marched through the city on Wednesday, municipal employees came out of their offices to show support. 

One of them told journalists, “To see this unity…it portrays to the world that what you see on TV is not what Baltimore is about.” 


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