Freddie Gray was arrested in a poor neighbourhood in Baltimore on April 12. He was known to police. He had been charged before, mostly for drug-related offences but also for second-degree assault. His crime, in this instance, seems to have been running from officers.
According to Baltimore deputy police commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, the 25-year-old “gave up without the use of force”. After he was arrested, a small knife was found in his pocket. He was dragged screaming into the back of a police van.
By the time he was taken from the back of that same police van, he was unresponsive. His spinal cord was almost severed. Seven days later, and still in police custody, he was dead.
There is footage of Gray’s arrest, but it is incomplete. At time of press, police were refusing to release a report into the circumstances of his death. Protests in Baltimore had become violent skirmishes. “Riot,” as begins the week’s much-quoted Martin Luther King line, “is the language of the unheard.”
Before Gray was dead, he was three things: young, poor and black. He was of course much else besides, but these three things made him one of America’s more appalling statistics. On conservative numbers, a black American is killed by police every three days. One estimate puts it at a death every 28 hours. This is before considering the over-representation of African-Americans in prison or on death row.
“What I’d say is this has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time,” United States president Barack Obama said in an impromptu speech this week. “This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.”
Obama was keen to condemn the riots in Baltimore. Looting was not a form of protest, he said; it was theft. Torching a building was not dissent; it was arson. But he also talked with remarkable honesty about the root causes of those riots.
These were communities stripped of opportunity. Communities where manufacturing disappeared and drugs replaced it. Communities without prospect, where children were more likely to end up in prison than in higher education. Communities without fathers, without guidance, without hope.
“If we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could,” he said. “It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant – and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS [pharmacy] burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they’re important. And they shouldn’t be living in poverty and violence.
“That’s how I feel. I think there are a lot of good-meaning people around the country that feel that way. But that kind of political mobilisation I think we haven’t seen in quite some time. And what I’ve tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a difference. But I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it’s easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law-and-order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.”
This is not something America’s first black president could tackle in his first term. But it is something that, at the end of his second, could become his legacy. And it is something politicians of all stripe should consider as they contemplate the duelling issue of disadvantage and dysfunction. There are corners of inequality in this country little different to the corner on which Freddie Gray was arrested.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Other crimes". Subscribe here.