Weary of protest, Baltimore activists seek change elsewhere

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BALTIMORE >> Under the beating summer sun, retired steelworker Arthur B. Johnson Jr. stood outside the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse in Baltimore, clutching the fraying wooden handle of a homemade sign.

"Justice for Freddie Gray," it read. Inside, a fourth officer was about to be cleared of criminal charges in Gray's death last April, a week after Gray's neck was broken while he was handcuffed and shackled but left unrestrained in the back of a police van. Johnson has shown up for every trial, in pouring rain and sweltering heat.

Thousands took to the streets last spring. The refrain of "No justice, no peace" rang through corridors on the city's east and west sides for more than a week; after a riot broke out, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a 10 p.m. curfew. The National Guard rolled into town to restore order.

But these days, Johnson and his sign typically stand alone.

The most recent acquittal, for Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking officer charged in Gray's death, was rapidly preceded by two others, including Officer Caesar Goodson, who drove the wagon in which Gray's spine was snapped.

Still, where once the streets exploded in fire and fury, the sidewalks are calm; the flames extinguished and the palpable rage dissipated.

Some activists say the anger many citizens feel is simply manifesting itself in different ways, and that the focus has shifted from the streets of Baltimore to the state's capital: due to increasing pressure, this year lawmakers enacted reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights for the first time since its inception nearly 40 years ago. Others say the feverish momentum of last spring was simply unsustainable.

But all agree on one thing: although initially emboldened by the criminal charges brought against the officers by a fresh-faced state's attorney eager to make her mark, the procession of acquittals has left nearly hopeless the residents most familiar with the problematic police practices that landed the city under federal review in the first place.

"There were hopes and expectations that these officers wouldn't just be indicted, but convicted," said Tawanda Jones, a well-known Baltimore activist whose brother died three years ago after an encounter with Baltimore police.

"People felt hopeful, because this is the first time we've ever seen officers get prosecuted. But watching them one by one walk away, there's mournful disappointment," Jones said. "They've lost hope."

Days after the riot last spring State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced criminal charges against six police officers in Gray's death, the most serious being second-degree "depraved-heart" murder against Goodson. Under Mosby's scenario, the officers loaded Gray — who had run from police after making eye contact with a bike patrol officer — into the back of a transport wagon as a healthy and physically able 25-year-old man, and carried him out with a spinal injury that quickly killed him.

But after four unsuccessful prosecutions, and several admonishments from the presiding judge for prosecutorial violations including withholding evidence from defense attorneys, the case has all but fallen apart, leaving those most vocal about police reforms weary, and ready to focus their energy elsewhere.

Adam Jackson, co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an advocacy organization focused on policy changes, said police brutality toward the black community is so commonplace that people "just expect it," and that residents had braced themselves for not-guilty verdicts even before the trials began.

"From the beginning, they knew these officers would get off. People are worn out from protesting and less concerned with the spectacle than what we can do to change the structures," Jackson said.

Gray's death and the unrest that followed did yield some tangible results in Baltimore. Then-commissioner Anthony Batts was abruptly fired for his handling of the unrest. The mayor halted her re-election campaign. The department's use of force policy was overhauled. All officers will soon be equipped with body-worn cameras.

But those reforms don't address the poverty and inequity that dog the communities at risk for volatile police encounters. Those vulnerable neighborhoods also are home to much of the city's vacant housing, including roughly 17,000 abandoned buildings, places known to perpetuate neglect, and breed drugs and lawlessness.

Racial politics, too, is particularly complicated in Baltimore, a majority black city with a police force that's 48 percent African-American. Unlike Ferguson, Missouri, where the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a white officer set off civil unrest that brought attention to the city and its police department's deep racial divides, Baltimore's mayor, top prosecutor, and until recently its police commissioner, are black.

But having African-Americans in seats of political power in Baltimore doesn't necessarily solve the problem, Jackson said, and instead serves to mask it.

"Residents see black people and they think, 'well, if there are black people in office they're representing us,'" Jackson said. "But if you have black people upholding problematic laws, structural racism is still in place."

Duane "Shorty" Davis — a highly recognizable figure on Baltimore's activist circuit — attributed the lack of protest to the $6.4 million civil settlement the city made with Gray's family before the criminal prosecutions began.

"If the family won't fight for it anymore, why will the people fight?" he said. "Is the community still supposed to fight? The city knew what they were doing: defusing the situation."

The next officer to stand trial is Garrett Miller, who faces misdemeanor assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office charges. His trial is scheduled to begin Thursday.


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