What Happened To Freddie Gray?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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During our bloggingheads discussion the other day, Bill Scher asked me why the reaction to the Baltimore riots was different than the initial reaction to Ferguson, where conservatives (including yours truly) were more inclined to question police behavior.

My suspicion is that this is at least partly because of the power of first impressions. The first impression most of us got in Ferguson was of witnesses, who (it turns out, wrongly) alleged that Michael Brown had his hands up. Only later were we shown footage of Brown robbing a local store, and only later did the coverage street violence begin to overshadow the motivating factor of Brown’s death.

But the Baltimore story began in media res. Most people (this is my perception) learned about Freddie Gray after — or, more likely (and this is the argument for rioting, I suppose) because of — the unrest.

This meant that information about Freddie Gray’s death was consumed as a backstory — while we were simultaneously watching horrific images of fires and looting — and rocks and bottles and bricks being hurled at police — and fire hoses being cut. It was pretty clear to most of us who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.

When the National Guard was called out, I made the choice to write about it through the prism of being the son of a national guardsmen and a prison guard from Western, Maryland. This, I hope, served to provide context in terms of what it might be like to be a police officer who is forced to endure the abuse of a violent mob. But while that experience is valid, it’s only half the story. If you read my perspective, you should also read the take of someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates — who grew up in West Baltimore. We have different perspectives, based on our different backgrounds. Understanding both, I think, enriches our understanding.

So where do we go from here? It would be a mistake to condone the violence and destruction we saw on the streets of Baltimore, but it would also be a mistake to ignore what life is like for someone growing up in a hopeless environment. And it would be a mistake to allow this to derail appropriate criminal justice reform, or to let the bad behavior of the mob to in any way dissuade us from aggressively insisting that Baltimore authorities get to the bottom of exactly what happened to Freddie Gray in the back of that police van.

Why was a man who had committed no crime taken into custody, in the first place? And if, in fact, Gray sustained his spinal injury in police custody because of a so-called “rough ride” — or by some other intentional means — then the person responsible belongs in jail.

Matt K. Lewis