Trigger Warning: police violence, racism, suicide mentions
The fundamental danger of an acquittal is not more riots, it is more George ZImmermans.
— jay smooth (@jsmooth995) July 13, 2013
More than two years later and the wisdom in this tweet has only been further demonstrated. We are currently in the middle of an epidemic of deaths of people of color (and particularly Black people) while in police custody, which has been promoted by us focusing on anything other than the needlessness of those deaths.
Freddie Gray, a twenty-five year old Black resident of Baltimore was arrested the night of April 12, 2015. He was charged with possessing an illegal blade (which is now disputed as having been outside of legal size ranges) and according to various eye witnesses was subject to some form of police violence, corroborated by a cell phone video that shows him being dragged to a police vehicle. Some have theorized that his spine may have been damaged before he even entered that car. Regardless, the “rough ride” he was then subjected to apparently caused significant neurological damage, which led near immediately to a coma and his death within a week.
Although several police officers present at the scene of his arrest have been indicted and charged with manslaughter (with a pending acquittal or conviction), the current public discussion of responsibility of Gray’s death is alarming. A Fox News reporter already openly approached the Baltimore police with the pitch that he would cover them positively, while others have clearly attempted to frame the response protests to Gray’s death as the actual problem. The Baltimore police appear to have encouraged this closing of public discussion of their culpability, allegedly having prevented Rihanna from holding a combined protest and concert in the city. Heading into the trial, efforts appear to have been made by the Baltimore police and others to downplay Gray’s death.
The cost of shutting down that conversation is already mounting. Eleven people – overwhelmingly people of color – have died in police custody in the past month. Most publicly discussed has been the case of Sandra Bland, an activist who was arrested for failing to use her turn signal while being pulled over by the police (and subsequently resisting arrest – meaning challenging police conduct that violated standards). According to the police, she committed suicide in a holding cell. Bland, who was six feet tall, supposedly hung herself in a rather low ceiling part of her cell. Her death came not long after she allegedly made a phone call in which she discussed feeling unsafe in police custody.
Many aspects of Bland’s death are becoming recurring in the most recent cases, with many activists in communities of color being targeted for arrests and their and others’ deaths being presented as suicides. Choctaw activist Rexdale Henry died in police custody earlier this month as well, and so far the police have refused to release autopsy reports, compounding critical questions about his mysterious death. The lingering unwillingness to condemn what was done to Freddie Gray has seemingly encouraged cavalier attitudes at best and malicious violence at worst, now specifically targeted at not only fairly randomly selected people of color, but activists organizing (among other reasons) to reduce and stop the deaths in their communities at the hands of the police.
Some have pointed out that even the police’s treatment of Freddie Gray didn’t happen in a vacuum. Many other apprehended people of color were given “rough rides” before him. As Jay Smooth’s tweet can remind us was done in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin and countless other acts of violence against people of color and particularly Black people in a policing context. These are ripples that don’t dissipate, they magnify each other.
How the upcoming trials for many of these cases – vitally those of the police charged with manslaughter against Freddie Gray but also a similar case in Cleveland – will affect the responses to this horrifying, new rush of deaths and to a degree whether there will be more deaths in the coming days. Currently, Baltimore is sounding as it has been forced into an uncomfortable silence and the Cleveland police union is auctioning off a weapon to raise funds for the police officer under legal scrutiny. Those are not the best of signs. It’s easy to hear that and think of rioting and other direct responses to these on-going patterns of violence, but the real danger is the same as it always was: more George Zimmermans.