West Baltimore, the site of most of the unrest that’s erupted in this city in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, has all the staples of a forgotten, neglected urban neighborhood: liquor stores, storefront churches, check-cashing joints and vacant buildings. Lots of vacant buildings. In fact, riding into Baltimore’s Penn Station, the first sight for Amtrak passengers is row after row of vacant houses.
“Those vacant houses almost represent our lost dreams,” said Kianda Miller, 33. Miller is a single mother of four children who lives near the Gilmor Homes public housing project, in the area in which Gray was detained by police before struggling in a police van and dying as a result of spinal injuries. “People are kinda lost,” Miller added. “No jobs, no money, no hope, nothing.”
In order to understand the events that followed Gray’s killing — the fires, the looting, the clashes with police that occurred Saturday and Tuesday — one must first understand the relationship between the police and the poor, mostly black residents of this section of the city. In her book, The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State, author Patricia Fernandez-Kelly wrote about “how growing up poor in the richest nation in the world involves daily interactions with agents of the state, an experience that differs significantly from that of more affluent populations.” When Kianda Miller said that her neighbors didn’t have money, she was right. One entity, however, has plenty of resources: the police department. Last summer, The Baltimore Sun reported that “police departments in Maryland have received more than $12 million in excess equipment from the U.S. military through a federal program that has come under bipartisan scrutiny.”
The Baltimore PD has enough of an outsized bank account to rank as the eighth largest department in the country — in a city that’s only the nation’s 27th largest. The bulked up department has developed a reputation for brutal treatment of black residents. Since 2011 alone, the city has paid nearly $6 million to settle police brutality cases.
One man was beaten bloody because he refused to sit down in the grass when a plainclothes officer approached him after he bought some fried chicken for dinner. The Sun cataloged the attacks:
Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.
We approached a number of younger protesters at the the intersection of Pennsylvania and West North avenues for interviews in West Baltimore on Tuesday. The vast majority of them declined. “I don’t want to answer y’all questions. We don’t trust y’all either,” one demonstrator said.
As often happens within social movements, a generational divide has opened up. The youth who rebelled didn’t “have any home training,” local resident Lorraine Hall said in an interview. “All police aren’t bad. There’s the good and there’s the bad. Deal with it and get out there and protest peacefully.”
A younger resident, who identified himself as Naz Gibson, 22, and who lives in the Gilmor Homes, said, “The old heads don’t understand, we’re not going to take a back seat anymore. We don’t wanna live like them. Look around! We’re going to do better!”
A blighted neighborhood in an impoverished city
The poisoned relationship between police and residents in West Baltimore has unfolded against the backdrop of economic devastation. Baltimore is ranked the sixth poorest city in the country. The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where the Gilmor Homes are located, is one of the poorest in the city. More than half of its residents aged 16 through 64 are unemployed. The median household income is only $24,000, and more than 60 percent of the population doesn’t have a high school diploma. Nearly 33 percent of the homes in Sandtown-Winchester sit vacant.
The economic situation has been exacerbated by institutionalized racism against black residents. In 2008, Baltimore officials alleged, in a suit supported by testimony from former Wells Fargo loan officers, that the national bank engaged in unscrupulous lending practices, while its staffers called black Baltimore residents “mud people” and referred to loans given out to black residents as “ghetto loans.” The city said the bank’s predatory lending ultimately exacerbated Baltimore’s problem with vacant buildings.
On top of its other problems, Sandtown-Winchester also suffers under one of the highest incarceration rates of any one community in the state.
A thoroughly militarized police force
Since 2006, Baltimore’s Police Department has bulked up its surveillance and military capacities. Some of the huge guns, riot gear, and armored vehicles currently being used to intimidate protestors in Baltimore may have come directly from the Department of Defense’s Excess Property program, left over from the American invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2006, The Baltimore Sun reported, the program gave over $12 million worth of excess military equipment to police departments across Maryland, including mine-resistant and armed combat vehicles. Since the program began, The City of Baltimore has received at least $553,000 worth of military equipment and the county received 283 rifles. (The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to The Intercept’s inquiry as to whether weapons used in response to the Freddie Gray protests were received from the Department of Defense.)
Since 2007, the Baltimore police have spent more than $250,000 on cell-phone tracking devices, which have been used to monitor thousands of Baltimore residents indiscriminately and without warrant. The department uses this technology with almost complete impunity, and has even publicly disclosed it is following directions from the FBI to block information on the program from judges and prosecutors. This fact is even more alarming when put in the national context. Over the past seven years, Baltimore’s police department has used stingray data collection 4,300 times, usage that goes far beyond many cities and even states across the country.
Indeed, the Baltimore PD’s surveillance capabilities are now a far cry from the bygone era of Lester Freamon’s dusty intelligence basement. Last year, the department unveiled its new “Watch Center,” a central intelligence hub equipped to collect, centralize, and comb through data across the entire city. As ABC News reported, inside the “Watch Center” police intelligence officials can view all city surveillance footage, track the location of social media posts in real time, and use this data to map social media movement across the city — an ominous sign for protestors and the horde of reporters tweeting after them.
Many black residents in West Baltimore say all this gear has been used to treat them like enemies on the battlefield. Betty Smith, a young person from the Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray once lived, said she’s never been able to walk around without being stopped and harassed by police. “I grew up with him [Gray], he was a fun loving guy … Once the police hopped on me, my daughter, and my two nephews and made us sit down at gun point. We’re kids! They’re one and two!” says Smith. “The police are bullies with badges. They harass us all day long and we can’t even walk down the street. They lock us up for jay-walking. We can’t do nothing.”
James Drummond, a 29-year-old protester from West Baltimore, said the police’s surveillance technologies are being used inappropriately against protestors. “It’s fucked up out here,” he said. “My homeboy told me yesterday that they got intel van following them around.” The intelligence vans Drummond referred to sometimes include cell phone tracking devices that follow around targets of surveillance, indiscriminately swiping sensitive user, location, and communications information of anyone within a one-block radius of the van without a warrant.
Speaking with residents in West Baltimore, Baltimore’s most policed and predominantly African-American neighborhood, it seems clear that many view the police surveillance apparatus and Baltimore’s heavily armed guards as enemy forces, there to suppress rather than protect them. “Who’s policing the police? They’re their own gang, they stick together, help each other, and never tell on each other,” said Rob Gordon, a 48-year-old West Baltimore resident.
JUAN THOMPSON AND GEORGE JOSEPH, firstlook.org