Grieving for a Nation: Reflection, hope, and dismay at the funeral of Freddie Gray

City Paper

Dick Gregory came to Freddie Gray’s funeral.

He was one of thousands, and his presence went unremarked until the end. And even then, the comedian and civil rights icon, the “drum major for justice” who looks something like Frederick Douglass and who got 1.5 million votes as a write-in candidate in the 1968 presidential election, did not get the largest crowd response. Neither did Jesse Jackson, who sat on the stage and spoke briefly. That honor went to former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who left office under a cloud in 2010 as criminal charges of theft mounted.

“We love you, Sheila!” someone yelled as Gray’s funeral finished up on the afternoon of April 27 at the New Shiloh Baptist Church at 2100 N. Monroe St.

Freddie Gray died at age 25 after being arrested in West Baltimore. His spine was severed. The police are investigating the circumstances. Gray’s family has called for peaceful protest and justice for their dead son, their second dead son.

Freddie Gray had five sisters and one brother, Raymond Lee Gordon. Gordon was Baltimore murder victim No. 210 in November 2013. He died in southeast Baltimore, shot through the body by someone. The police have not charged anyone with his murder.

There were no mass protests for Freddie Gray’s brother. For Freddie Gray, there are protests and, hours after he is buried, there will be riots. The people in this enormous church tell each other not to succumb. The speakers, one by one, extol Freddie Gray’s life, preach hope for his family and his neighborhood, and admonish the media, arrayed like a giant centipede of glass lenses along the balcony above the service, not to focus on the “half of a percent” of people who have smashed windows in Gray’s memory.

They tell the mourners that Gray was more than Gray. He is a symbol of all the young men cut down in the drug war. A person in Baltimore could attend four funerals a week for young men like Freddie Gray. But thousands don’t do that. Dick Gregory doesn’t do that. Jesse Jackson doesn’t do that. Michael Eric Dyson, CNN, Fox News, and the rest don’t do that. Not even City Paper does that.

“Most of us are not here because we knew Freddie Gray,” attorney William Murphy, who represents the Gray family, told the crowd. “But we are all here because we know lots of Freddie Grays. Too many! We’re not here because we’re grieving for Baltimore, although we do grieve for Baltimore. We’re here to grieve for a nation.”

The nation is watching Baltimore, Murphy said. “It wants to know if we have the right stuff. The nation wants to know if we can act as one people instead of a community divided by the superficialities of race. They want to know if we have a true commitment to the blindfolded lady called justice. They want to know if the police department is going to be reformed. They want to know: Will the blue wall come down? The one that says, ‘right or wrong, we’ll cover for ya.’”

Murphy called for the six police officers who were involved in Gray’s arrest to “come forward and tell all, just like we tell our citizens to do.”

In the crowd, someone yelled, “That’s right! That’s right!”

Murphy praised video cameras, without which, he said, “we would not be here today,” but instead there would be cover-up after cover-up. “Now we see the truth, and it’s not a pretty picture.”

Murphy implored those dignitaries present to “step up to the plate as giants, not as political midgets.”

Present were Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Congressman John Sarbanes, and a member of President Barack Obama’s staff, among many others. Three hours later, as stores and cars burned, they would not be visible.

Congressman Elijah Cummings came to the pulpit next. “Ain’t seen this many cameras in a long time,” he said.

He tells Gray’s story, in its outline. Born 25 years ago. His parents played with him and watched him grow. On the day he first read they bragged about it.

“Did you see him” in the church choir?

Did you see him play football with the Sandtown Wolverines?

“It is often said that our children are living messages we send to a future that we will never see,” Cummings said. “But now our children are sending us to a future that we will never see. There is something wrong with that! Four years ago I sent a young nephew to the grave. He was blasted away and we still don’t know who did it.”

Cummings quoted Amos 5: “‘I want justice, oceans of it. I want fairness. Rivers of it. That’s all I want.’ That’s all Freddie wanted. We will not rest until we address this and see justice served.”

Bishop Walter S. Thomas of the New Psalmist Baptist Church said something prescient. “Freddie’s death is going to light a match of awesome change,” he told the congregants. “Protest around his death serves as a defibrillator to start the heart of change.”

Within three hours those words—which no doubt the looters never heard—were made literal as school children threw rocks at police. Soon cars were burning, then stores. Groups moved south and east toward downtown, looting stores, smashing windows, and attacking an NBC media truck.

Police all week had expressed concerns, mostly privately, that the city’s most powerful gangs—Crips, Bloods, and Black Guerrilla Family—had made a truce in order to attack the police department.

“There was sentiment I heard that for every one that we kill, they plan on killing two of us,” one police officer, who asked not to be named, told City Paper on Sunday. “I don’t know if that’s just rhetoric, but” the department “will be working to prevent that.”

By late Monday morning police said they had gotten a “credible threat” that gang violence was targeting the department. The riots began about 3 p.m. CNN anchors were yelling for mayoral and other leadership, and it did not come to their microphones.

“We come here not to rally but to glorify God,” Rev. Frank Reid III said at Gray’s funeral. “God strategically places men and women at the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff.” 

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