Letter from Baltimore — From the July 2016 issue

The City That Bleeds

Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising

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Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.

The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.

A vacant lot in Sandtown, a neighborhood in West Baltimore. The lot is across the street from the Gilmor Homes, where, in April 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested by the police. All photographs © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

A vacant lot in Sandtown, a neighborhood in West Baltimore. The lot is across the street from the Gilmor Homes, where, in April 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested by the police. All photographs © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

During a break, I offered Freddie’s twin sister, Fredericka, a cup of water, which she refused, perhaps wary of the strangers now expressing concern, the same people who would have ignored her waiting for a bus in the rain on North Avenue. After court reconvened, Freddie’s mother, Gloria, balled up a tissue and dropped it on the floor, where it rolled under her seat. She didn’t know that in his morning testimony Officer Porter had presented himself as a light of reform, telling the jury how public littering was one of the few offenses for which he issued citations on his beat at the Gilmor Street public-housing buildings, where residents like the Grays regularly gathered to interrogate the police during arrests. When the prosecutor asked Porter whether he had protected public life, he said yes. Gray’s stepfather snorted sarcastically.

While court was in session, Freddie’s Uncle Odabe clambered over my knees into the pew behind the other family members. He wore a three-quarter-length black jacket, blue jeans, sneakers, black skullcap. A tall, lean man with close-cropped gray hair, he reminded me of the eighteenth-century Marylander Yarrow Mamout, a Muslim man born in West Africa. Odabe wore his facial hair in a style reminiscent of Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of Mamout, which now hangs in a museum in Pennsylvania — clean-shaven save for a thicket of hair underneath his bottom lip — though he was two shades darker than the figure in the painting.

Brother Odabe was slyly and amusedly animated. He announced his presence by touching the shoulders of his nieces and his sister. In lieu of a greeting, he began a kind of banter, but the response of his bunched kin suggested that they were warding off a blow; maybe there had been a recent disagreement or they were embarrassed by his presence. Talking in the courtroom was also prohibited. He introduced himself to me by repeating a rhetorical question: “It’s all right for a man to cry? It’s all right for a man to cry?” Odabe spoke in Baltimore’s vernacular, in a low, garbled register, as if his vocal chords were recovering from a shouting bout. He seemed not unaware of courtroom decorum and protocol, merely disinclined to submit to a force so similar to the one that had claimed his nephew. He picked up the balled tissue from the floor, and his pointed, guttural conversation quickened.

“Is it about the money?” he cried to his family, who had recently received a multimillion-dollar settlement from the city. He had seized a white-noise moment — Judge Barry Williams, who dominated the courtroom like a witty powerlifter, had the attorneys at his bench for a discussion, and the clerks had filled the courtroom with the sound of television snow. No matter. The sheriff’s deputies swiftly arrived at the pew. “No noise allowed, sir,” commanded the same officer who had earlier reprimanded me when I asked for directions to the courtroom for the “Freddie Gray trial,” the inaccurate handle that the television networks were using. The officer beckoned for Odabe, who refused to leave and asserted his right to be in the courtroom. The tension was eased by another deputy, bald-headed and bearded like most of the African-American men over thirty who were in the courtroom. He knew Odabe, and he touched his hand soothingly, assuring him that he would be all right. But a third officer, tall and powerfully built, reversed the redemptive gesture and commanded Odabe out. The deputy entered the pew and reached for his slumped prey. They were joined by the shift supervisor, a jacketed female sheriff; and the four officers yoked Odabe by the shoulders and feet as he argued his citizenship rights, folding his arms like a mummy, and cast him out.

The family seemed to respond to Odabe’s outburst with chagrin, but I was moved by his words and wondered whether he had not sacrificed himself to reveal a greater truth. Because it turned out that the powerful officer was Warren Smith, who had been my section leader in band during middle school. Another of the deputies, all of whom were African-American, had saved me from being beaten by a gang of older boys when we were in high school. His name was Troy Jackson. Both of the men had served part of their careers as uniformed patrol officers in the Western District, where Freddie Gray lived and died. In the back of the courtroom the next afternoon, I reunited with the men, who were togged out in brown shirts and ties and Glocks. We laughed at the chance meeting, the old times, and called our town Smalltimore. What united us was the same thing that tied us to Freddie, whom other friends of mine had coached in football, to Porter, who grew up in West Baltimore, down the street from my closest friend. Odabe’s symbolic theater embodied the point: a living tissue connecting the litter, the litterers, and the cleaners.

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