For Baltimore, 'justice for Freddie Gray' is bigger than one trial

The trial of William Porter, which ended in a hung jury, marked the first time a police officer faced charges for one of a series of high-profile deaths of black men nationwide.

Bryan Woolston/Reuters
Protesters march at city hall in Baltimore, Dec. 16. A mistrial was declared on Wednesday in the case of Baltimore police Officer William Porter, who was charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a black man whose killing sparked riots in April.

Like they did last April, when looting and fires broke out across Baltimore, Freddie Gray’s family called for calm yesterday. Against the odds, they got it.

Wednesday afternoon, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge declared a mistrial in the case of William Porter, the first of six officers to be tried in connection with Mr. Gray’s death from injuries while in police custody last spring. The trial marks the first time an officer has been prosecuted for one of a growing list of police-involved deaths across the nation whose victims have become household names: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice.

In a year when the slogan “Justice for Freddie Gray” has resounded from Baltimore’s roughest blocks to the far reaches of the Internet, the trial highlights the question: What would that justice actually look like? What result would satisfy a community that has vowed to fight in that young man’s name “all night, all day” – and a nation that’s watching?

There’s some satisfaction just in seeing the judicial process at work, and the fact that jurors must have had strong convictions and stood by them, says J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore defense attorney who’s attended parts of the Porter trial – and represents two young men facing serious charges that stem from the unrest.

“That takes courage in and of itself. [A]s a lawyer, I really appreciate that,” said Mr. Gordon, who stopped by the protest. But at the same time, as a black man who grew up in Baltimore, he says, “it’s sort of anticlimactic, because we didn’t get anything.”

As the evening grew colder, roughly two dozen protesters struck off on a march through downtown, carrying signs that read, “Stop killer cops” and “Stop the war on black America.” When they circled back to City Hall, their numbers had swelled to close to 100.  

Davon Neverdon, a lifelong Baltimorean and community activist known as PFK Boom, said that, while he wasn’t satisfied with the result of the trial, he wasn’t surprised.

“This is what you get. Our judicial system is not nowhere near perfect … so you can expect to have the results you had today,” he says. “The concern that we have is that the whole world know that our city is dealing with a very serious social ill right now:  police department, economics, houselessness.”

Donna Brown, another longtime local activist who also works as a chaplain with the police department, arrived and hugged Boom. For her, she said, the question of justice for Freddie Gray is bigger than a single trial, or even six of them.

“Because how can you be an enforcer of the law, and then you not be held to the same standard of the law as I as a citizen? It’s really about accountability within the system,” she says. “Even if the desired outcome comes, it’s not justice until it becomes consistent.”

As jury deliberations in Mr. Porter’s trial entered their third day yesterday morning, city officials were bracing for a repeat of the destruction, looting, and arson that dotted the city last April, following Gray's death. Law enforcement officers from surrounding counties massed in city parks with riot gear. When word came mid-afternoon that the jury was hung on all four charges, traffic backed up as people hurried to get out of downtown. Outside the courthouse, sheriff’s deputies pushed back young demonstrators, and arrested two. Large groups of cops patrolled key intersections. The mood was tense.  

 But as evening wore on, protests stayed peaceful outside the courthouse and City Hall, as well as at Pennsylvania and North Avenues, the West Baltimore intersection that became synonymous with April’s violence.  

That’s not to say that everyone was satisfied with the outcome.

 “I don’t think that [expletive] was right. You mean to tell me out of all those charges, they couldn’t find him guilty on nothing? If it would’ve been me or anybody else out here, we would have been found guilty,” says Michael Berry, a horticulturist with Baltimore City Department of Parks and Recreation who was out at Penn North with friends. “I just feel like if you’re a black man living in the city, you ain’t got nothing coming when it comes to the law.”

As dusk fell, members of the Penn North Recovery Center and others came outside, linking arms and urging calm. Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, chief of the police department's Community Collaboration Division, grinned and flashed peace signs at the crowd. Peaceful demonstrators cheered and prayed.

Further downtown, outside Baltimore City Circuit Court, two people were arrested. One was Darius Kwame Rosebaugh, known as Kwame Rose, a local activist who landed in the national spotlight last spring after he confronted Geraldo Rivera about his coverage of Baltimore. Also arrested was a 16-year-old boy, identified by fellow protesters as Melvin. Both young men had been vocally protesting near sheriff’s deputies, but videos and witness accounts did not reveal the basis for either arrest.

“What I’m clear about is that a mistrial ain’t worth people putting their lives on the line,” said activist J.C. Faulk, founder of the nonprofit An End to Ignorance, scanning the line of police officers guarding City Hall and the growing crowd of demonstrators. “I’m not going to do that. If they want to go to jail they can, but I’ll see ‘em from the other side of the bars. You know? Not today. Today ain’t the day for that.”

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