Far From Freddie Gray: On police brutality and being away from home during the Baltimore Uprising

City Paper
On police brutality and being away from home during the #BaltimoreUprising

I watched Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" as a child and missed the biggest theme in the movie. What happens internally when a problem festers and there seems to be no outright solution? What if there are too many possible methods to induce change? What's the best thing to do? What are the positive and negative outcomes? When we speak of social justice, what we choose to believe in or do is both a freedom and a burden.

It seems when an issue comes to a head in the black community, we derive resolutions based on historical figures and the dialogical self. It seems like you have to choose between Garvey's black-nationalist and separatist ideals, DuBois' elitist "talented tenth" and assimilative ideals, and Booker T. Washington's bootstrap reasoning. At some point sociological issues intersect with your blackness. You have to believe in something and you have to do something, even though the consequences may be indeterminate and up for debate.

In 2009 as a sophomore at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute the story of Oscar Grant's murder was thrust into my consciousness. From there I backtracked and learned about Sean Bell's story. After debating with my friends about police brutality and the victim-blaming approach, I decided to save myself the headache and just write down how I felt in a journal. A year or so later I found out Aiyana Jones' murder was documented by the show "The First 48." The more instances of police brutality and injustice I learned about, the more dejected I became. Troy Davis spent 22 years on death row for a murder charge that had no physical evidence linking him to the crime. During my first semester at Norfolk State, I sat in the 10th-floor stairwell of my dorm and cried after hearing that his final appeal was denied. Months later I caught wind of Rekia Boyd's murder. As the years went on and more high-profile cases emerged, I couldn't help but think about those whose stories didn't get the necessary attention they deserved.

When I was younger, I couldn't wait to go to a historically black college/university like Norfolk State University. I just knew I would be around a bunch of people who had similar ideas and feelings about society as I did. I just knew I wouldn't be alone. I just knew it would be a culmination of all the black films I grew up loving as a child. I just knew I was going to be around people like Buggin' Out, Mister Señor Love Daddy, Da Mayor, Jade, and even the Vitos and Pinos in the Virginia Beach area. Once I arrived I started to realize that wasn't the case. I was in a small town experiencing the same vitriol from budding respectability-politics pundits as I did in the halls at Poly. I felt alone still, and in haste I decided to transfer home to Morgan State for the spring semester of 2012. After almost two semesters worth of classes and 40-hour work weeks making gluten-free noodles, I was able to return to Norfolk on scholarship.

When the protests surrounding the murder of Mike Brown started in Baltimore, those feelings were magnified. I saw people back home going out and doing something. Maybe I wasn't in the right circles, but the most I saw on my campus was a few panel discussions. I regretted transferring back to Norfolk State. I questioned what my peers valued. I questioned where my university stood. While I was afforded the opportunity to concentrate on my mental health in a small city and school in southeastern Virginia, it seemed like I missed how bigger cities come together over cultural issues to get things done. I saw Morgan State students organizing back home, and I even left school a few days earlier than I had originally planned to be with them.

This spring, a case involving police brutality came to Norfolk State's front porch when student London Colvin was attacked by a police canine after refusing to give any information about a fight she had no involvement in. She missed class for months as her friends seemed to struggle for steadfast support from the student body. Again, there were panel discussions and forums. We briefly discussed it in class and there were a fair share of posts about it on social media. Her friends organized a march but it was overshadowed, ironically enough, by a forum featuring attorneys Benjamin L. Crump, Natalie A. Jackson, and Daryl D. Parks, who represented Trayvon Martin's family after he was killed. I wished I had more of a voice on campus and I realized more and more that being reclusive isn't a good thing. As the semester went on and I thought about how things played out at my university, the pessimist in me knew something major was going to happen back home; I just didn't know when.

On April 15 I found out about Freddie Gray, who was in a coma after being manhandled by the police. I knew that things were going to escalate back home. Under the guise of being ready to be finished with finals, I walked around campus with a stone face. The world seemed to be mocking me. The sun was shining. The birds were chirping and people were savoring the last weeks of the semester. My final papers, no matter what classes they were for, included references to Freddie Gray and police brutality.

A young black police officer from the city of Chesapeake came to our criminal justice class and basically asked us how we should keep from being brutalized by the police as London Colvin sat in the third row holding back tears. I tried to ask the officer questions to appeal to his humanity and his blackness, but became frustrated as I realized he was an automaton who could not step out of his training. I was disappointed in my classmates for letting him impose dumb jock stereotypes on the athletes in the class, violent black male stereotypes to those who had dreadlocks, and sapphire and jezebel narratives to the women. There were only a handful of us who mustered up enough courage to confront him to the point where we were asked to calm down after class, as if the topic wasn't serious.

As the protests went on back home, the conversations in my dorm became more spirited. CNN was the only thing on in the lobby. "They're burning down their own communities," "What does this solve?" "This is not how you get justice," and "they look like savages," rhetoric flowed through the lobby. I got into arguments about what was happening back home. People were more concerned about a CVS burning down. People internalized the "what about black-on-black crime" rhetoric. People were more concerned with how "they" were looking at "us." It seemed as if everyone around me sought solace in validating their own oppression.

People gave me looks of disapproval after learning I was from Baltimore. People didn't understand that a community is characterized in part by economic proprietorship. People thought the boarded-up homes happened in one week. People were posting "funny" memes on Instagram, and making a mockery of black rage in response to a history of oppression that is as American as baseball and apple pie. Freddie Gray was murdered. This is as much about Freddie as it is about those who could have been Freddie. This is how the forsaken school-to-state-of-the-art-prison industrial complex looks. This is how the lack of job opportunities looks. This is how discriminatory housing and policing looks. Baltimore's neglected children saw to it that they were heard one way or another.

It occurred to me that my favorite childhood movie was playing out back home, scored by Future's 'March Madness' and Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power.' I couldn't help but think about Radio Raheem being choked out by officer Long. I couldn't help but think about Smiley trying to sell the pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., as they have come to symbolize violent and nonviolent protest, respectively. Most important, I couldn't help but think about how Mookie came to symbolize black people having to choose between either swingin' or singin' and the subjectivity of what "the right thing" is. I wanted to do something; but being 249 miles away from family and friends with no money, I couldn't do anything. I could only sit back and think. •

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