WASHINGTON – Freddie Gray’s death forced us to focus on the careless and cruel way in which police in Baltimore and elsewhere handle prisoners. The allegation that Gray died on account of injuries he suffered during a forty minute ride in a police van looks almost incredible. Indeed, how can this be?
Horrible police practices
Apparently the police officers who arrested Gray (without probable cause) handled him in the same way the handle other prisoners. He was thrown onto the floor of the police van. No standard (and mandatory) safety rules were followed. No seat belt.
He was just thrown onto the floor. And when the injured Gray asked for medical help, he got none. In fact the police made an additional stop to pick another prisoner. It was well after the van had arrived at the police station that officers checked on Gray and found him unresponsive. At that point, it was too late to save a life about to be ended by the injuries suffered during a bad ride in a police van. A bad ride that caused fatal wounds. Amazing but true. In America, in the 21st century, a ride while in police custody may kill you.
Insensitive and cruel behavior led to a death
So, there you have it. What emerges here is a grim picture of police officers doing the dirty work of scooping up suspects in poor, high crime neighborhoods. And this practice often makes them insensitive and cruel.
I am not suggesting that the officers who arrested Gray deliberately wished to harm him or kill him. I am suggesting that they could not care less about his well being while he was in their custody. They did not listen to his requests for help. May be they thought he was faking it. May be they thought that, whatever his problem was, it could wait. And this is the sad picture about shoddy police work in bad neighborhoods. In Gray’s case, shoddy turned into criminal. He ended up dead.
But this is only part of the story. If we dig deeper, it gets worse. Based on what we know, Freddie Gray was just a foot soldier in the vast underworld of petty crime afflicting Black neighborhoods in Baltimore and other US cities. By all accounts, Gray was not a dangerous criminal. True, he had been arrested many times. He had spent two years in jail. But he was not a violent gang leader ordering people killed.
Gray was the product and to a large extent the victim of a an urban Black subculture shaped by ignorance, illiteracy, drugs and chronic under achievement. To make things worse, as a child he was exposed to extremely high levels of lead poisoning due to lead paint used in his home. In fact there are thousands of “lead kids” in Baltimore and elsewhere. Like many others, Gray benefited from a settlement coming out of a law suit.
But the irreversible damage to his body was done when he was a toddler. According to most medical experts, high levels of lead poisoning impairs cognitive abilities, while it may be a factor in the onset of ADD. So here is Freddie Gray for you. An impaired young man whose mother is an illiterate former heroin addict. Gray never finished high school. He ended up in jail. He made a living selling drugs.
America’s culture is shaped by the principle of personal accountability premised on the assumption that all people, no matter their level of education or station in life, must know right from wrong. Therefore, if you are a criminal, it is because you chose crime. If you dropped out of school, this means that you do not value education and the opportunities that it can open up for you. Which is to say that whatever happens to you on account of your bad choices, this is ultimately what you deserved.
Well, in principle this is the correct approach. There has to be personal accountability. And yes, in most cases people know right from wrong.
A child does not have real choices
But what we see here is a child growing up poor, ignorant and physically damaged. This is not his fault.
Of course, one can always think of a different scenario. The boy from the ghetto one day sees the light. He understands there is a better way. He finds a mentor. He goes to school. Against all odds, he gets a diploma. Through other help, he even gets a scholarship to go to university. And there he really blossoms. With a good degree he can start a promising career. And so he does.
And, after many years, the former ghetto kid writes a book in which he describes his story whose meaning in that “everybody can make it America, if they only show fortitude and perseverance”. Look, these rags-to-riches stories do occur. And this is great. But they are rare.
Sadly, by far the the most common story is Freddie Gray. A young man trapped in semi-poverty by ignorance and lack of opportunity. A young man who could not see much beyond his life of petty crime –a life that eventually, in a twisted way, got him killed when he was arrested because he run away when he saw police officers coming.
In truth, did Gray have real choices? As someone who knew him well commented: “What did you expect him to become? A stockbroker? “. Indeed.
Fix the police, help the underclass
And so here we have two issues. Teaching police officers how to properly do their job, while difficult, is doable.
The real challenge for America is to find practical and constructive ways to help the underclass get out of an endless cycle of self-perpetuating poverty and join the main stream.
This is going to be hard. Really hard.