‘All Night, All Day, We Will Fight for Freddie Gray’: What’s Driving Protests in Baltimore

Unanswered questions about Gray’s death in police custody continue to incite protests.
Demonstrators take to the streets in front of Baltimore's City Hall. (Photo: Sait Serkan/Reuters)
Apr 27, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Seven officers have been reported injured and a patrol car went up in flames during protests in Baltimore, where outrage is growing over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a fatal spinal injury in police custody and was buried Monday morning. The funeral is unlikely to offer closure for the grieving Baltimore residents who have taken to the streets to protest since his April 19 death, because questions linger about why Gray was arrested and how he died. Preliminary autopsy results showed that 80 percent of his spine had been severed, a fatal injury that has raised serious questions about his treatment in custody. On Saturday night, peaceful protests grew violent as police officers in riot gear confronted demonstrators who smashed windows of police cars and local businesses.

Here’s why protesters in Baltimore and across the country continue to gather in the streets to protest this latest fatal encounter between a black man and the police.

Who Was Freddie Gray, and How Did He End Up in a Police Van?

Family members gathered to remember Gray at a wake held Sunday, a week after he died at the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center. In addition to his parents, he left behind a fiancée and her daughter. “He had a good heart. He was a good person. He wasn’t a violent person," Gray’s cousin Tykira Jones told the Sun. Hundreds of strangers also visited his casket on Sunday to pay their respects.

On the morning of April 12, city officials said Gray locked eyes with a police officer and took off on foot. The police pursued Gray by bike and on foot for reasons that remain unclear but may be related to a switchblade found in his pocket. Though he was familiar to police, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman has since noted carrying a knife “is not necessarily probable cause to chase or arrest someone.”

Bystander Kevin Moore’s video shows Gray being dragged into a police van, apparently unable to walk. What happened in the van remains a mystery, but Gray's severed spinal cord offers a disturbing clue about his treatment in police custody before he was taken from the precinct to the hospital. Forty minutes after Gray was dragged into the van, he was unable to breathe or talk, according to The New York Times.

Why Is His Death So Mysterious?

The six officers involved in Gray’s apprehension and arrest said in court documents that he was arrested “without force or incident” and that his injury occurred during transport. When recounting Gray’s autopsy report to reporters, Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez described “a very tragic injury to his spinal cord, which resulted in his death,” according to The Washington Post.

At a news conference last Monday, Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Gray asked for medical care repeatedly during his arrest, including for access to an inhaler to treat his asthma, but was denied care until they arrived at the precinct and an ambulance was called. Since there wasn’t a camera in the van, what happened between the time he was dragged into it and the time he first received medical attention is unclear, though the van apparently made two stops, one to put leg irons on Gray and another to pick up a second suspect.

Who Serves in the Baltimore Police Department?

Twenty-eight percent of Baltimore’s population is white, but 46 percent of the city’s police officers are white, according to census data gathered by The Washington Post. The disparity in representation is less stark than in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, and North Charleston, South Carolina, where other black men have been killed by white police officers, The Atlantic notes. In Ferguson, while more than 67 percent of the city’s residents are black, just three of the local police department’s 53 officers are. All of the officers seen in the video of Gray’s arrest appear to be white. Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts is black.

What Have City Officials Said About Gray’s Death?

“We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times,” Commissioner Batts told reporters on Friday, CNN reported.

At the same press conference, Mayor Rawlings-Blake expressed frustration but called on the public for patience.

“Our community is very clear. They demand answers, and so do I,” she said, according to CNN. “I still want to know why the policies and procedures for transport were not followed. I realize there is frustration over this investigation, but I want to be clear: There is a process, but we have to respect that process.”

Last Friday, Deputy Commissioner Rodriguez conceded that many questions lingered and connected the unanswered questions to the van ride.

“I’ll tell you what I do know, and right now there’s still a lot of questions I don’t know. I know that when Mr. Gray was placed inside that van, he was able to talk. He was upset. And when Mr. Gray was taken out of that van, he could not talk, and he could not breathe,” Rodriguez said, according to CNN.

How Does Baltimore Reflect Ferguson?

As with the police shooting death of Michael Brown, protests continue to swell in Baltimore, drawing support from near and far. Race has played a central role in the discussions and demonstrations sparked by the deaths of both Brown and Gray: Both instances appear to involve deadly use of force by white police officers against young black men, and both have garnered support from the Black Lives Matter movement.

The U.S. Department of Justice has also launched a civil rights investigation into the events surrounding Gray’s death, as they did in Ferguson after Brown’s death and in the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston. The damning results of the Ferguson inquiry left the Ferguson Police Department under sharp scrutiny, but the officer who shot Brown was not indicted.

What are the State and Federal Governments Doing?

The U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation is ongoing.

The Baltimore Police Department has said it will reveal the results of its internal task force investigations into Gray’s death on May 1. One investigation will look into whether or not the officers broke the law, and another will look into Gray’s death. Rawlings-Blake said details will be released as the investigations continue.

Gray’s family has hired an independent third-party investigator to look into his death, according to The New York Times.

“We’re going to keep having these rallies until we get answers,” organizer Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice, told the crowd on Saturday, according to The Baltimore Sun. Another mass rally was planned for the following Saturday, he added.

UPDATED April 27—2:18 p.m.

CNN reports police injuries and damage to police vehicle during protest.