State Attorney Marilyn Mosby stood up today and announced that the six officers involved in the homicide of Freddie Gray of Baltimore will be charged with this crime. Among the findings she revealed is the fact that an illegal “switchblade” that he reportedly carried was in fact a perfectly ordinary and perfectly legal knife, and was not found until after he was detained (thus cannot constitute probable cause for a search or arrest).
I’m seeing this fact and a few other key points being touted about the Twittersphere as an important aspect to the case, and I agree. It is important to document when officials charged with public safety and blessed with public trust lie to the public to protect themselves and each other. It is important to document deliberate falsehoods in this case as they indicate deliberation, if not premeditation for the crimes. It is important to document these lies because the truth is important.
But I worry.
I worry that the narrative will become—or perhaps in some corners is already becoming—“See? Freddie Gray did not deserve this treatment! This proves he died for no reason!”
No, in point of fact, it does not.
Because even if Freddie Gray had been carrying an illegal weapon, he did not deserve this treatment and he died for no reason.
He was arrested a mere five blocks from the precinct house. Less than half a mile. He was savagely beaten and then thrown into the back of a van with no padding, no safety restraints, no protection of any kind and taken on a forty minute joyride which served no other purpose except to slam him around inside the hard metal confines of the vehicle.
If his attackers did not intend to kill Mr. Gray, they certainly intended to injure him and they certainly displayed a gross disregard for his life.
In cases of police violence, we are told time and time again that we cannot judge officers for taking steps to protect themselves, for making life-and-death judgment calls in the heat of the moment. If we point out all the cases where suspects who fit one profile are taken in safely despite being heavily armed and belligerent versus the cases where suspects who fit another profile are shot repeatedly at the first sign—often imaginary—we’re told you’re not there, you can’t know what’s in their head.
Well, that hardly applies in this case. Half a dozen men against one man, broken, bleeding, and in handcuffs. Even laying aside the question of whether the force used to subdue him could be said to have been warranted (and forgive me for being dubious, given everything else we know), there is no “safety” or “in the moment judgment” that can excuse or justify what happened next.
So if we say that Freddie Gray didn’t deserve this brutal execution because he wasn’t carrying an illegal weapon, what we are saying is that people—at least certain people—do deserve this treatment for carrying an illegal weapon. That the actual rule of law, which prescribes that persons accused of a crime be detained, charged, and tried before punished, should not have been applied if Freddie had been breaking this law.
I’m going to say something that should not be controversial:
Beating people suspected of a crime into a pulp then throwing them into a metal box and slamming them around for upwards of half an hour to see what happens is not a legitimate function of a police department. It is not a legitimate function for a democratic state power to execute. It is not something that a nation that aspires to the loftier ideals espoused by the United States of America should be doing.
It doesn’t matter if the victim of a crime is also a criminal. The law does not and should not care. We should all be terrified of the idea that government agents can decide a person is a criminal and then decide that their rights are suspended on that basis.
Yet it happens.
It happens every day.
And a lot of us don’t notice, if only because our own knee-jerk judgments of who is and isn’t a criminal happens to match the determination being made by the police.
We have ways for determining criminality and processes for dealing with criminals. They are not perfect. They are not themselves perfectly free from brutality and bias at any level of their operation. But they are there, and they should not be ignored by people who are touting the concept of “rule of law”.
Freddie Gray didn’t deserve what happened to him, and he was killed for no reason.
This is true not because he was innocent, but because he was a human being and endowed with certain rights.