Without a public declaration of guilty or not guilty, without a resolution for a city in so much pain, how can Baltimore begin to heal?
A small crowd of protesters pinballed around town Wednesday night when they were served the unsatisfying outcome – a mistrial – in the first of six police officer trials in the death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old suffered a severe spinal injury in a police van in April and died a week later, touching off riots.
After the jury could not reach a consensus on the charges, including involuntary manslaughter, against Officer William G. Porter, the protesters yelled outside the courthouse. Then they yelled some more at City Hall. To the Inner Harbor! Never mind. To the jail? Nothing to be done there. They seemed pretty aimless. Hungry for an outcome that even the verdict they want probably wouldn’t provide.
“A lot more needs to be done in Baltimore. It goes way beyond a word. We need more than ‘guilty,’” said Sherelle Witherspoon, 38. “Don’t get me wrong. That’s the beginning. The killing has to stop. Police have to stop the killing. But that’s just the beginning.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Witherspoon, a minister, accountant, homeowner and mother born and raised in Baltimore, wants a guilty verdict. But she also wants jobs in the city. And decent housing. And she wants her 6-year-old to be able to go to school without toilet paper in his backpack because the public school of her dreams will have toilet paper for the children.
“The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” she shouted.
At the epicenter of the riots, the corner of West North and Pennsylvania avenues, where a neighborhood means a payday loan place, a liquor store and a 24-hour tobacco shop, she stood with the People’s Power Assembly and held a yellow-and-black sign that read: “A Livable Wage! Not Police Terror.”
“We want grocery stores here, not just corner stores,” Witherspoon said. “It’s like a third-world country, parts of the city. A lot more needs to be done besides a trial.”
Trials do offer hope. They hold out the possibility not only for accountability in Gray’s death, but for validation of long-standing grievances: racism, police brutality, unemployment, neglect.
After Gray was arrested for next to nothing, he was tossed into a van with his hands and legs shackled, unrestrained by a seat belt. Medical experts on both sides of the case compared his injury to what happens when someone dives headfirst into too-shallow water.
His family pleaded for calm Wednesday night. Police and protesters were ready to follow a carefully crafted script: trial, acquittal, violence.
But a mistrial? There’s no script for that. And no easy answers for what happens next. Porter will be tried again, with the outcome just as uncertain. Five other trials loom as well.
“Justice for our community won’t come from just a verdict, but from changing the policies and practices that allowed his wrongful death to happen in the first place,” said Ray Kelly, an organizer with the No Boundaries coalition, an organization in West Baltimore.
Reform doesn’t happen overnight. A verdict is not a magic wand. The process is slow and complex, but it all comes back to change.
When Gray died, the city was in agony. The marginalized people of West Baltimore were tired of the way police treat them. The teens who looted Mondawmin Mall and smashed windows around town were tired of living in a place that looks like a war zone. Activists who held peaceful protests were tired of black men dying at the hands of police in city after city.
In Sandtown-Winchester, the desperately poor neighborhood where Gray was arrested, the few porch-sitters outside knew little about a trial.
“Won’t matter. Nothing’s going to change,” one man said in a place where optimism is hard to come by.
At the courthouse and at city hall, the protesters asked: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
Now isn’t in the cards for Baltimore, which must endure months of Freddie Gray trials and months of uncertainty. And the things this city truly needs will never be found inside a courtroom.
The Washington Post