Will Rush to Judgment in Baltimore Lead to More Rioting?

sharpton rawlings-blakeIn Baltimore, the ashes have cooled; the curfew has ended; the National Guardsmen have left; and Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have gone home. But the apparent normalcy is misleading. For the orgy of looting, vandalism and arson last week following the death of a black petty criminal, Freddie Gray, may return with a vengeance if the six arrested local police officers, three white and three black, are not convicted. Gray died on April 19 of spinal injuries sustained a week earlier while in custody. Last Friday, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced arrests for one count of second-degree murder and several counts of manslaughter, assault and misconduct. Yet treating this case as a homicide, racially motivated or not, isn’t just premature. It’s also a capitulation and likely an incitement to mob rule.

It has become a familiar story over the past year. A white police officer or group of officers encounters a black individual behaving in a suspicious manner. The suspect, rather than cooperate, becomes unruly or outright violent. In response, the cop, seeing a need for self-defense as well as apprehension, reacts with force. And while the cop’s intent is not to kill, sometimes death is the result. It happened in Staten Island last July, Ferguson (Mo.) last August, North Charleston (S.C.) early this April, and now Baltimore. In each case, save for North Charleston, where local officials quickly made a white cop into a sacrificial lamb, the response by black “leaders” and their followers has been aggressive anti-police demonstrations which on occasion have degenerated into rioting. These civil rights paladins, unwilling to distinguish between cause and effect, have chosen to rationalize destruction and violence. As blacks presumably remain victims of an unjust white-dominated society, they argue, rioting is a way of expressing unaddressed grievances.

Baltimore was a riot waiting to happen. Blacks in 2010 constituted 63 percent of the city’s roughly 620,000 population. That’s up from 24 percent in 1950 and 46 percent in 1990. Not unrelated, serious crime, although declining during the last couple decades (as it has in most U.S. cities), remains a major problem. The city is filled with black neighborhoods which, to put it gently, have seen better days. Two popular television series, “Homicide: Life on the Street” (NBC) and “The Wire” (HBO), during their respective runs, depicted the travails of cops trying to keep order in Baltimore’s meaner precincts. Despite a burst of middle-class downtown residential as well as commercial development, many suburban Baltimore whites avoid entering the city, especially during evening hours. It’s little wonder. In recent years, dozens of documented black-on-white group attacks have occurred in the Inner Harbor area. Though four of the last five mayors have been black, as is 43 percent of the police force (including its chief), crime prevention in Baltimore is a round-the-clock job. Rioting in the wake of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King set the city down an all-too-familiar path. Despite native son William Donald Schaefer having accomplished much positive during his tenure as mayor (1971-87) before becoming Maryland governor and then the state comptroller, the breakdown of public order has been a fact of life. And the black underclass is driving that decline.

That brings us to another native son, Freddie Gray. His death, which occurred one week after alleged police brutality inside a paddy wagon, triggered rioting. The result was about 500 arrests, 200 destroyed businesses, and more than 100 police injuries. The following is a timeline synopsis of the events leading up to the riot, and the riot itself.

It was Sunday, April 12, around 8:40 A.M., in an area of Baltimore’s West Side known for drug dealing and violence. A police bicycle patrol officer working the area, Lt. Brian Rice, a white, spotted a black male, later identified as Freddie Gray, at the corner of North Avenue and Mount Street. Officer Rice approached Gray, and the two established eye contact. Gray at that point fled on foot. Rice and two other bike patrol cops, Garrett Miller and Edward Nero, each also white, chased Gray for two blocks and eventually caught up with him. In the process of making the arrest, the cops discovered a knife in Gray’s possession, possibly a switchblade, clipped to the inside of his pants. One of the officers radioed a dispatcher to request a transport van. Shortly after the van arrived, a bystander made a homemade video showing two officers on top of Gray, placing their knees on his back, and then dragging his body to the van.

Bigger problems soon would occur on the way to the Western District precinct station. There would be a reported four stops on top of the one where Gray had been picked up, although an initial report indicated only three. Gray was not a happy camper during the roughly half-hour trip. The driver of the van described him as “irate.” A search warrant application indicated that he “continued to be combative in the police wagon.” After the second stop, the driver asked an accompanying officer to check up on Gray. The suspect was on the floor, though conscious. Police put him back in the seat, minus restraints, as required by the recently revised police procedure manual. His wrists and ankles reportedly were shackled, but he was not belted in, a condition making him more vulnerable to an unsupportable fall. On the final stop, the police picked up a second arrestee. Upon arrival at the station, police opened the door and found Gray in the van, unconscious. They immediately called emergency medical technicians to the scene. As of 9:37 A.M., noted the medics, Gray was not breathing and was in cardiac arrest. He was rushed to University of Maryland Hospital shock trauma unit. But it was too late. On April 16, Gray went into a coma. Three days later, on April 19, he died.

Funeral services tend to be emotional affairs, especially when racial politics enter the picture. This particular service, a two-hour event held on Monday, April 27 at the 2,500-capacity New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore, was no exception. Among the many persons in attendance were Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., former Maryland Congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, and Jesse Jackson. Reverend Jackson was seated behind the presiding pastor, Reverend Jamal Bryant. In his eulogy, Bryant, like Jackson, proved a consummate politician. “Freddie’s death is not in vain,” declared Bryant. “After this day, we’re going to keep on marching. After this day, we’re going to keep demanding justice.”

While most attendees came simply to mourn, some came to avenge. Police reported that they had received a “credible threat” that three notorious gangs – the Crips, the Bloods and the Black Guerrilla Family – were working in tandem to “take out” law enforcement officers. Credible or not, it was undeniable that many local thugs were ready to rumble. A number of them decamped to the nearby Mondawmin Mall, proceeding to loot clothing and other retail stores. About three dozen officers were summoned to the area, firing pellets and rubber bullets. Many rioters communicated with friends via cell phone: It was payback time. Crowds formed throughout the city. While many participants were content to march and chant, others took the opportunity to vandalize and steal, setting fire to what remained. The warning signs were already present two days earlier, on Saturday, April 25, when dozens of blacks, fresh from a Freddie Gray memorial rally, arrived at the area immediately outside Camden Yards baseball stadium and attempted to terrorize white pedestrians and bar patrons prior to a Baltimore Orioles home game.

Rep. Cummings, a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus, led a Monday night march with about 200 other persons through a freshly-trashed neighborhood to protest Gray’s death. Having approached a police line in tight formation, they dropped to their knees, and then got back up on their feet and went face-to-face with the cops. Cummings, at 64, might have seemed an unlikely candidate for a confrontation with police, but he wasn’t about to let his age, any more than his position, get in the way.

Baltimore Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (in photo), who is black, at least talked a good game. She stated: “Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs, who in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for, tearing down businesses, tearing down and destroying property, things that we know will impact our community for years.” Yet the mayor couldn’t bring herself to take the necessary steps to preserve order. According to an anonymous source, on Monday she gave police a “stand down” order, effectively denying them the authority to use force. The mandate, confirmed by the sheriff of Wicomico County, Md., emboldened the rioters, many of whom pelted police with rocks and debris, injuring dozens of cops. Looting and arson escalated, with CVS drug stores, liquor stores, any Korean-owned business and vacant police cars being the preferred targets. On Tuesday, April, 28, Mayor Rawlings-Blake imposed a 10 P.M.-5 A.M. citywide curfew, which wound up in effect for five days. The curfew should not disguise her true sympathies, which are not with law enforcement. This past Wednesday, May 6, she requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate whether Baltimore police have engaged in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force. She explained: “We all know that Baltimore continues to have a fractured relationship between the police and the community. I needed to look for any and all resources I could bring to my city to get this right for my community.”

The riot, by then, had been over for about a week. A combination of 3,000 National Guardsmen and 1,000 police officers from other jurisdictions had restored order. Arrests would continue, but mainly for violations of the curfew, which was lifted after five days. “The National Guard represents the last resort in restoring order,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, explaining his decision to call out Guard units. “I have not made this decision lightly.”

Meanwhile, the wheels of criminal justice, or what passed for it, were turning. Maryland District Attorney Marilyn Mosby, black like Rawlings-Blake, requested a crime report from police. She received it on Thursday, April 30. Just one day later, she announced that her office, following an investigation, had filed criminal charges against six police officers. The charges consisted of one count of “second-degree depraved heart murder” (against a black officer, Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the van) and several counts of involuntary manslaughter, assault and misconduct in office. All the cops were arrested. As the expression goes: That was quick! The response across town to the news was joy – cheering, yelling, fist-pumping, horn-honking joy. That Mosby’s actions were at once hasty and ill-advised didn’t matter to them. Some bad cops, probably racist, now were in custody. As one satisfied bystander noted, “There’s no need to go tear up the city no more.” Rep. Elijah Cummings was exultant. “This is a great day, and I think we need to realize that,” he said. “I think a message has been sent by our state’s attorney that she treasures every life, that she values every person.”

The Obama administration also weighed in. Last Tuesday, April 28, during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Barack Obama digressed for several minutes to give his views about the ongoing mass lawlessness. “There is no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday,” the president said. “It is counterproductive. They’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They are stealing.” That sounded reasonable enough. But then Obama shifted the focus to the protestors’ “legitimate” complaints. He admonished: “One burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and the thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way have been lost in the discussion.” The president, in other words, had no problem with visiting retribution upon potentially innocent police even as he rebuked the rioters. In his mind, the rioters had the right idea but promoted it the wrong way.

The day before, April 27, was the first day on the job for U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who had been nominated by Obama more than a half-year earlier. Like her predecessor, Eric Holder, she saw the main problem as a denial of civil rights, not a city plunged into violent anarchy. In a prepared statement, she announced that she would send a number of Department of Justice officials, including civil rights chief Vanita Gupta, to Baltimore within several days. Several days before the riot, in fact, the DOJ had announced that its Civil Rights Division and the FBI launched a probe into possible violations of Freddie Gray’s civil rights.

What made this a true civil rights pile-on was the appearance of the Obama White House’s unofficial emissary to black America, Reverend Al Sharpton. He’s no stranger to urban violence, having fomented or justified it for decades. I explained this in detail in my new book, “Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise,” published by National Legal and Policy Center. The difference between the “new” and the “old” Al Sharpton is that the new version no longer has to be a rabble-rouser to get a desired outcome, not that he can’t revert back to old ways when the need calls for it. Well-connected to the highest levels of power, he knows, at least during the Obama years, that working through official channels delivers maximum results.

Even before traveling to Baltimore, in fact, on April 27, Sharpton announced tentative plans for a two-day people’s march from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., set for sometime in May. The purpose of the march, he emphasized, would be to pressure Congress and the Obama administration into taking steps to combat racial bias in policing. In a press release, Sharpton said: “The march will bring the case of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Eric Harris to the new Attorney General, Loretta Lynch. Ms. Lynch, in her new role that we all supported, must look and intervene in these cases. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

While in Baltimore, Reverend Al made his presence known. Upon his arrival at a civil rights summit at New Shiloh Baptist Church on April 30, three days after Gray’s funeral, he and his bodyguards provided security for Mayor Rawlings-Blake. When Fox News Channel reporter Leland Vittert tried to ask the mayor some questions about her reported “stand down” order, Sharpton stepped in and physically blocked Vittert. Whether or not this qualified as a scuffle, the mayor remained silent and continued to walk with Sharpton. The Rev said that he and the mayor would be available to answer such questions at a press conference. Needless to say, the press conference never happened. But he did state at the summit: “Don’t blame the mayor for what the last 50 years of mayors and governors didn’t do.”

But Sharpton has a far more ambitious agenda than marches and discussions. In a television interview, Sharpton called for nationalizing local police departments across the U.S. Here’s how the Reverend put it:

We need the Justice Department to step in and take over policing in this country. In the 20th century, we had to fight states’ rights to get the right to vote, and we got to fight states’ rights in terms of closing down police cases. Police must be held accountable. I don’t think all police are bad. I don’t even think most are bad. But those that are need to be held accountable.

The idea of federalizing all local police forces, ought to strike one as impractical, unconstitutional and tyrannical. Moreover, in the context of black demands, it is an invitation to a breakdown in public order. Effective policing would be made far more difficult, if not impossible, in any encounter involving a white cop and a black suspect.

Sharpton wasn’t quite done yet. On Saturday, May 2, having returned to National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, Reverend Al, joined by family members of the late Eric Garner, the career petty criminal who died following an arrest by police in Staten Island, held a “rally of thanksgiving” for the charges brought forth against the six Baltimore police officers. He said that the decision by a local grand jury not to indict any of the cops in the Garner case proved that the system isn’t functioning. “We cannot continue this random ‘let’s see what a prosecutor and a county and politics is going to do,’” he said. Sharpton called for the appointment of special prosecutors in every police brutality case nationwide (at least the ones where the suspect is black) and for enactment of federal law requiring body cameras on all law enforcement officers.

Egregious as Sharpton was, he appeared almost benign compared to Maryland State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. Speaking at a news conference, Ms. Mosby announced: “I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.’ However, your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of Freddie Gray.” These words sound like those of a partial politician, not an impartial prosecutor. The phrase “No justice, no peace,” in fact, is the tag line of Rev. Sharpton’s nonprofit group, National Action Network. She could not have expressed her true loyalties more plainly.

Few have paid notice to the fact that Ms. Mosby’s husband, Nick Mosby, is a politician, a member of the Baltimore City Council (his district, in fact, encompasses the West Baltimore neighborhood where the Freddie Gray incident took place). His explanation for the rioting, as expressed in an interview on Fox News Channel, came pretty close to an outright justification:

This is about the social economics of poor urban America. These young guys are frustrated, they’re upset and unfortunately they’re displaying it in a very destructive manner. When folks are undereducated, unfortunately they don’t have the same intellectual voice to express it the way other people do, and that’s what we see through the violence today.

When the interviewer, the aforementioned Leland Vittert, tried to swing the discussion toward the destructive behavior of the rioters, Mosby reiterated his ill-informed and poorly-articulated view:

The violence is wrong. That’s never acceptable…There’s a symptom of something’s that’s going on here, and what I’m trying to articulate to you is that when you look at communities like this in urban America, it’s lack of education. Lack of commercial development. Lack of opportunities. It’s the socioeconomics of it. It has nothing to do with West Baltimore or this particular corner in Baltimore. This could erupt anywhere in socially-economically deprived America.

This is nonsense. About that “lack of education” – according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Baltimore public school system in fiscal year 2011 spent an average of $15,483 per pupil. This was the second-highest figure among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S. that year; only New York City, which spent $19,770 per pupil, ranked higher. Yet only 44 percent of Baltimore students scored “basic or above” in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Trial Urban District Assessment Program. In other words, 56 percent of Baltimore students surveyed were functionally illiterate. How much more money is needed to fix the problem, Councilman? As for “lack of commercial development,” the city still has plenty of that, but during the past week it has been running a little short. Rioters managed to damage or destroy about 300 businesses. Mosby has a cause-and-effect reasoning problem. The rioters weren’t responding to urban despair; they were creating it.

Moral enablers of the riot argue that the death of Freddie Gray requires aggressive prosecution. To not file charges would be an injustice in itself and an inducement to further rioting. To “heal” the rift between cops and community, their argument goes, it is necessary to punish the cops, with or without sufficient evidence. The widespread celebration over the arrests, in this view, was fully warranted. Yet to sensible people, there wasn’t much to celebrate. If anything, the whole case strongly suggests a rush to judgment driven by political zealotry. Principled adherence to rule of law seems to have been an afterthought. In addition, the prosecution appears to have engaged in the familiar tactic of overcharging in the hopes of inducing quick guilty pleas. Several considerations, taken together, should raise a giant red flag.

Freddie Gray, though only 25, had established himself as a career criminal. If ever a person served as a walking advertisement for the term “revolving door justice,” Gray would fit the bill. According to the Maryland Department of Justice, he had been arrested 18 times since July 2007, mainly for drug-related offenses, not including his fateful arrest of April 12. Several of the drug arrests were for intent to distribute, not just simple possession. Eight of the 18 total apprehensions took place in 2014 or 2015. Of the four occurring this year, one had been for fourth-degree burglary/trespassing and another was for malicious destruction of property/second-degree assault. While the arrests didn’t necessarily result in convictions, in cases where they did, Gray often would plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the prosecution dropping other, more serious charges. He was an embodiment of the euphemism, “known to police.”

The knife discovered by police in Gray’s pocket may have been illegal. Prosecutor Mosby claims that the six Baltimore police officers had falsely arrested Gray because the knife he was carrying was legal under Maryland law. Yet in fact there is a distinct possibility that the knife was illegal. If that is the case, the charges of false imprisonment, misconduct in office, and second-degree assault would have to be dropped. Lawyers for one of the arrested cops, Officer Edward Nero, who was charged with a misdemeanor, filed a motion this past Monday arguing that the knife indeed was illegal. The knife in Gray’s pocket was described in the charging documents as “a spring-assisted, one-hand operated knife.” But Gray was charged under the city ordinance, which has a different definition than the state as to what constitutes a switchblade. The ordinance states that any knife with an automatic spring or other device to open or close the blade is illegal.

Freddie Gray’s spinal cord injury could have been self-inflicted. According to a police document, an unidentified arrestee in the paddy wagon carrying Gray to the precinct station, later identified as Donta Allen, stated for the record that Gray “was intentionally trying to injure himself.” The two arrestees, though separated by a metal partition and thus unable to observe each other during their six-block ride together, were able to listen to each other’s words and actions. And what Allen, 22, heard from Freddie Gray was a commotion. Gray, he said, was “banging against the walls.” A lawyer for Gray’s family, Jason Downs, says that the family disagrees “with any implication that Freddie Gray severed his own spinal cord.” Allen later changed his story. Yet nobody thus far has been able to verify how Gray sustained his injuries. Police officers have asserted that Gray turned highly unruly inside the van – so unruly, in fact, that they had to put him in leg irons. Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who is black, has stated that police on the scene may have ignored Gray’s pleas for medical help and neglected to buckle him up. But that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that Gray’s wounds were self-inflicted.

Outside legal experts have criticized the prosecutions. Harvard law professor, appellate attorney and popular book author Alan Dershowitz, one of the sharpest legal minds in the country, puts it this way: “There’s no plausible, hypothetical, conceivable case for murder under the facts as we now know them.” He predicted that the prosecutions would not yield any guilty pleas, and if they did, they would be overturned on appeal. Andy Alperstein, a Baltimore attorney who has represented police officers in the past but is not involved in this case, focusing on Gray’s knife, said: “If the facts were that the knife was illegal, then the Gray arrest would be justified. Even if it wasn’t illegal and the officers acted in good faith, it would be the same result. All charges fail.”

Marilyn Mosby may be seriously compromised in her loyalties. Baltimore’s police union is accusing Ms. Mosby of having a “close relationship” with Gray family attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy. As reported in various media outlets, Murphy contributed $5,000 to Mosby’s successful campaign for State’s Attorney last fall. He also was part of her transition team.  At the very least, this amounts to a potential conflict of interest. That’s not the only problem here. Mosby frequently touts her family’s roots in law enforcement, which go back several generations and whose lead character is her father, Alan James, a former Boston police officer. Back in August 1989, James, another Boston cop, and a third person were accused of robbing three young men in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood. While James would be acquitted of participating in the holdup, he was fired by Boston Police Commissioner Francis Roache for “conduct unbecoming.” It is entirely reasonable to suggest that Mosby’s anti-police animus is a form of revenge for the past.

So where does this leave us? It may well be that the defendants violated certain police handbook procedures. But discipline here should be a matter of administrative, not criminal action. And building a convincing case, especially against six persons, necessarily takes far longer than one day. The prosecution by Marilyn Mosby’s office is a fevered rush to judgment replete with overcharging. Her likely intent, under the guise of “justice,” was to placate violent mobs, all the while affirming their goal. Attorneys for the police, by contrast, are confident that this case will collapse. “These officers will be vindicated because they have done nothing wrong,” said Michael Davey, an attorney for one of the accused officers, at a May 1 news conference. “No officer injured Mr. Gray or caused harm to Mr. Gray, and they are truly saddened by his death.”

Peace, or at least the appearance of it, has returned to Baltimore. It’s even okay for hometown fans to attend Orioles games. (A regularly scheduled game was played on April 29, but fans were not allowed in the stadium for their own safety.) But this may be simply the calm before another storm. For if the officers prefer to take their chances with a trial, and win, the destroyers will be instantly primed for another riot. Even if the defendants are convicted, the street warriors will insist on severe sentences – or else. Moreover, if the case goes to trial, the venue is likely to be outside of the City of Baltimore in light of the prosecution’s apparent lack of objectivity. Recall that the 1992 trial of the four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating a fleeing black criminal suspect, Rodney King, took place in not in Los Angeles County, but in nearby Ventura County, for much the same reason. In South Central Los Angeles, immediately following the informed jury verdict of “not guilty,” black gangs and their supporters went on a days-long looting and arson rampage.

Hovering over the proceedings is Reverend Al Sharpton. He has made this case yet another cause célèbre to promote his selective and blinkered idea of “justice.” He’s too smart of a politician to openly advocate rioting, of course. To do so would be to end his wholly undeserved newfound public image as a peacemaker and bridge-builder. That said, he can be counted on to offer rationalizations for rioting, in the process making more likely additional rioting. Sharpton has a presidential administration, and various state and local officials, on his side. If his planned Baltimore-to-Washington march materializes, things could get ugly long before any trial.


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