Freddie Gray protests show how much America has changed

The protesters rallying for Freddie Gray, the young black man who died in Baltimore police custody, say they want police reforms. But the protests themselves hint at a deeper societal change.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Demonstrators protest in the streets as they march for Freddie Gray to Baltimore's City Hall Saturday. Mr. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van.

Eight months ago, the future of the civil rights movement that convulsed Ferguson, Mo., remained an open question. The daily protests had captured the nation's attention and spread to cities nationwide, but how would a leaderless and spontaneous outpouring of outrage survive?

Could anything actually change?

The protests in Baltimore this weekend are the latest proof that something has already changed.

In the end, it seems, it has not mattered that the groups that came together in Ferguson have not been able to spawn an organized national movement of the scope that Martin Luther King Jr. did in the 1960s. What has mattered most is that several quintessentially 21st-century tools – social media, smartphones, and 24-hour news channels – have combined explosively with a longstanding trend of police violence that seems increasingly dissonant amid improving race relations and declining crime.

This past week, that trend has added the name Freddie Gray to the list of black men whose deaths have recently brought attention to the issue of police violence. He died a week after sustaining a major spinal injury while in Baltimore police custody and protests have been going on ever since.

Those protests hint at how a leaderless movement has survived and evolved. It has adapted.

Police shootings, of course, are nothing new. Neither are tensions between the black community and police. But "Black Lives Matter" has become the crucible to address these fundamental issues so long pushed into the shadows. The pastors and activists who have led Black Lives Matter rallies from Ferguson to Baltimore have been adamant that this conversation must happen peacefully, if not always lawfully. But they are just as determined that the conversation must take place, however wrenching it might be.

"All night, all day; we're gonna fight for Freddie Gray," has been the mantra in Baltimore.

"What we are seeing with Black Lives Matter is a combination of highly localized issues," said Manuel Pastor, a sociologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, to Mother Jones. "And there is no shortage of police community tension around the country that people can be part of. So people have local handles but they are really seen as part of a broader national challenge."

Each protest has been its own ecosystem – flexible enough to be as potent in Madison, Wis., (6 percent black) as it is in Baltimore (65 percent black). It is civil rights, outsourced to the camera-toting masses and repackaged for the new century.

In Ferguson, Black Lives Matter spoke to the sense of impotence that came with the black community's own self-disenfranchisement; local elections since have seen a rise in black participation and could hold the seeds of change.

In New York, it spoke to a city that had swung so far toward get-tough law-and-order policies that many minorities and liberals said common sense and humanity had been lost.

In Madison, it laid bare the roots of inequality in a progressive college town.

For Baltimore, Black Lives Matters has meant squaring the image of "Next Baltimore" – a city on the rise among Millennials – with the racial tensions of the past. Indeed, the general outlines of Mr. Gray's story are not unfamiliar. The Baltimore Sun recently ran a list of other men who had sustained traumatic injuries in similar circumstances – riding in the back of a Baltimore Police Department van, cuffed and unbuckled.

But like the others, Baltimore has also had elements of the universal in its recent strife. In Madison and North Charleston, both men fled rather than risk being arrested for relatively minor infractions. In New York's Staten Island, Eric Garner resisted arrest because he was frustrated at the number of times he felt he had been unnecessarily harassed by police.

Gray had a knife in his pocket, but he, too, fled simply when he "made eye contact" with police according to reports.

Danielle Hall, a friend of Gray's, told the Associated Press that there is so much mistrust of law enforcement in the rough West Baltimore neighborhood she comes from that many residents believe it's safer to run from police. "People run every day from the police. Why wouldn't you run when every time you turn, you're getting harassed?" Ms. Hall said. "Why stop when you already know what they'll do to you? Rough you up, throw you on the ground?"

Some residents say Baltimore's recent get-tough-on-crime era – which helped launch the city's new renaissance – also strained relations with law enforcement. Bishop Douglas Miles, a community leader, told The Washington Post that that time "set the tone for how the police department in Baltimore has reacted to poor and African American communities since then."

The same could be said nationwide. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky likened the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that emerged in the get-tough-on-crime 1990s to Jim Crow, noting that 1 of 3 African-American males cannot vote because of them. On one hand, violent crime has dropped consistently, reaching levels not seen since the 1970s. But Senator Paul's shift signals that, to many, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. A 2014 poll by Reason magazine found that 77 percent of Americans favor ending mandatory minimum sentencing.

That general trend suggests an openness to the message behind Black Lives Matters. But can a protest movement that pulses into life with police shootings but then goes dormant in the interim actually get what leaders say they want – police reform?

So far, no, says Delman Coates, senior pastor at Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md.

"The Democrat-led Maryland General Assembly did not allow any of the 17 police accountability measures that were introduced during this legislative session to even come up for a vote," he writes in the Baltimore Sun. "The people who marched, testified and called their legislators were asking only for accountability, transparency and for their voices to matter."

But others who participated in the protests last week suggest that change comes precisely in these ways.

"Justice is not just convicting the officers or getting a settlement for Brother Gray’s family or anything like that," Ray Kelley, a member of a community group No Boundaries, told WJZ-TV. "Justice is changing the policies and creating the legislation so we don’t have to go through this every time there is this type of situation.”

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