Baltimore police union's 'lynch mob' comment exacerbates Freddie Gray protests

The sharpening rhetorical divide between protesters and police supporters in Baltimore – fueled by a police union comment that likened demonstrators to a ‘lynch mob’ – reflects Americans’ stumbling efforts to see eye to eye on the issue of race.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Protesters stand outside the Baltimore Police Department's Western District police station at the end of a march for Freddie Gray on Tuesday in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van.

It’s hard to imagine a more unfortunate choice of words.

A police union chief’s decision to call those protesting the death of Freddie Gray a “lynch mob” was awkward, to say the least, given the death of Mr. Gray while in the custody of six police officers, as well as the fact that it’s only been 50 years since America’s extrajudicial lynch mob era ended in the South.

Not surprisingly, Fraternal Order of Police President Gene Ryan’s written statement – “The images seen on television look and sound much like a lynch mob ...” – has only exacerbated tensions over Gray’s mysterious death.

Under pressure to defend the city’s police officers in the face of criticism, Mr. Ryan tried to walk back the comment, saying, “Maybe I should reword that.” But without apology, he further buckled down on his point: “When you're trying to put somebody in jail before all the facts [are presented] and the investigation hasn't been completed, that's wrong.”

As the embattled city braces for more unrest, Ryan’s apparent failure to understand how deeply those words sting underscores what historians call the crux of America’s stubborn racial divide: Deeply profound human misunderstandings that continue to trip up America’s long journey toward redemption for slavery.

“These kind of statements, where lawful protesters are viewed as a lynch mob, raises the question: How do police see us?” says Guy-Uriel Charles, the founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics, in Durham, N.C. “What if what they see is the worst, and what they imagine is the worst, and what they fear is the worst? They look at you as predators and criminals – a lynch mob – and then look what ends up happening: some guy in custody ends up dying in circumstances that are unfathomable.”

Gray died on Sunday, after receiving a serious spine injury on April 12 while in the custody of Baltimore police. Police say since officers were patrolling a known drug-trafficking area, they were fully within their rights to pursue Gray, saying he fled upon making eye contact. When captured, Gray was charged only with carrying what police say is an illegal knife. While cell phone video shows Gray screaming in pain as he’s loaded into a police transport, it’s not clear how he sustained injury. What is clear is that police failed to immediately get medical care for the wounded man, who died a week later in a hospital.

Six police officers have been suspended with pay as the US Department of Justice investigates whether Gray’s civil rights were violated by officers representing a department already under the microscope for a series of police brutality allegations.

Reactions in Baltimore have been deep, immediate, and highly polarized, much like the aftermath of other recent incidents where black men died at the hands of police officers, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and John Crawford. Chants of “black lives matter” that began in Ferguson, Mo., after the death of Mr. Brown are now being heard in Baltimore.

For some in the city, Gray’s decision to run and his subsequent death underscored the depth of the community’s fear of police. “It’s getting charged out here because people are really getting tired, “ demonstrator Mark Hill told Fox News. “There’s a fear in the community of what police might do to you.”

A majority black city with a black mayor and a black police commissioner, Baltimore has an unusual vantage point on the complaints. Indeed, the current administration in 2010 publicly broke with a long-running “zero-tolerance” policing strategy that in 2005 put 1 in 6 of the city’s residents in jail.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pushed back at the mass arrest strategy championed by former Mayor Martin O'Malley, who came to office in the late 1990s on a get-tough-on-crime strategy aimed at curbing a murder rate that regularly exceeded 300 per year. The height of the O'Malley era saw more than 100,000 arrests per year, which critics say created lingering resentments between police and residents, even as the violent crime rate plummeted. In 2010, after being sued by the ACLU, the city agreed to employ an outside inspector to monitor such "quality of life arrests." Arrests are now down to around 30,000 a year, and the city's murder rate slipped to under 200 for the first time since the 1970s in 2011, a year after Ms. Rawlings-Blake took over. The rate has since slowly climbed, and the number of non-fatal shootings last year began to rise after staying essentially flat for six years.

“Where we thought we were doing God's work – where we're going out, trying to make the community safer – we've made mass arrests,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told CBS News about the mass arrests. “We've locked people up, we've taken people to jail in numbers, and we've obliterated this community. And so, we have to own that.”

Given the charged atmosphere after the incidents in New York, Ferguson, and Cleveland, the city’s black leadership has aggressively demanded answers and sympathized with Gray’s family, friends, and community.

Ryan’s comment has an especially unfortunate resonance in a part of the country where most people still live segregated by race, experts say.

“I think people who work or live in integrated communities assume that there’s an interrelatedness and an understanding [between blacks and whites], but these types of events demonstrate that people largely don’t understand each other across race, class, and policing divides,” says Mr. Charles at Duke. “And for the people of Baltimore, these are the kinds of comments that resonate most, because it is reflective of the types of experiences that citizens of the city have had, and it explains the situation in which they find themselves today.”

But even as emotions continued to run high over Gray’s mysterious death, at least one small sign emerged that racial and cultural misunderstandings between police and residents in Baltimore and elsewhere are hardly intractable.

On Wednesday, a phalanx of police officers blocked an attempt by protesters to halt highway traffic. As demonstrators eventually broke up and left the area, one of them, Carron Morgan, walked up to the officers – not to castigate them, but to shake their hands.

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