In Baltimore, a city of violence and history, there aren’t many Trump supporters,
BALTIMORE, MD.— Freddie Gray was a black man whose life — and death — mattered.
Out of the 344 homicides recorded in this city last year, it symbolically mattered most of all: A seconddegree “depraved heart” murder, in the almost poetic legal language of Maryland, as the indictment read, meaning extreme or wanton indifference to a person’s life. It allows for an individual to be charged with second-degree murder without the prosecution having to prove that death was intended.
On a sunny day in the blighted black northwest neighbourhood of Sandtown-Winchester — Sunday morning coming down — try to talk about the upcoming presidential election with residents and the conversation inevitably curls around to “Freddie.” “What does Donald Trump know about how we live here?” asks Monique Mitchell, hoisting a bag of groceries in one of the few area corner stores that haven’t been boarded up or shut down, especially since the fire and fury that followed Gray’s death. “Not saying that Hillary Clinton understands it either. But I know Trump don’t care.
“If Trump becomes president, there’s gonna be more Freddie Grays across this country and more police who think they can get away with it.”
The day before, at a rally in North Carolina, the Republican candidate had put his hands together to applaud supporters waving signs that read: Blacks For Trump.
There are no such signs in Sandtown-Winchester, a notorious neighbourhood of derelict housing and chronic violence that had a starring role in the critically acclaimed TV series The Wire. And nobody, from among two dozen people interviewed Sunday by the Star, has any truck with Trump.
A grand jury indicated half a dozen Baltimore cops mere weeks after Gray died in April 2015, never emerging from the coma into which he had fallen while in police custody, while being transported in a police van from the Gilmor Homes projects, following his arrest for . . . what? Making suspicious eye contact with one of the officers who clocked him early that morning, then running away, being chased, caught, which was when an officer noticed a knife clipped inside Gray’s pocket. A spring-assisted knife, violation of a city code, and Gray would have been charged had he not so inconsiderately suffered severe injuries to his neck and spinal column while bouncing around, unsecured, in the back of that van.
Unbuckled, allegedly deliberately, for 11 minutes of erratic driving, then placed in leg irons — motionless at that point, as caught by cellphone video. About 20 minutes later, paramedics were summoned. Despite emergency surgery for three fractured vertebrae, a crushed voice box, his spine 80-per-cent severed from his neck, Gray never regained consciousness.
Riots erupted in the streets of Sandtown-Winchester. The fury was directed at law enforcement, but black-on-black crime spiked in subsequent months as police were fearful of entering the district. Killings across the city skyrocketed, topping 30 or 40 a month, gun violence up more than 75 per cent, upward of 900 people shot by the time 2015 staggered off the calendar.
More than 90 per cent of the victims were male, men and boys, and more than 90 per cent were black. More than half were between the ages of 18 and 30. Nearly two dozen were children, including toddlers, the innocent collateral damage of urban warfare, struck by bullets intended for others. Fifty-five murders for every 100,000 residents, making it the highest per-capita murder rate in the city’s history. Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., are America’s murder capitals.
Baltimore: Where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-to-1. They haven’t seen much of stumping Trump in these parts, though he did drop into a local diner some months back.
Baltimore: Where Mary Pickersgill stitched together the original Stars and Stripes (now in the Smithsonian) that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner”; now a metropolis of decaying and dying neighbourhoods and dying civilians.
They don’t feel disenfranchised necessarily — anticipation about Tuesday’s outcome is as keen here as anywhere else in the country — but they don’t feel abandoned and leery of how much further they’ll slide into misery under a Trump administration. The hopefulness that blossomed with the election of a black man into the Oval Office has faded, though few in these projects blame Barack Obama for promises unrealized.
“Honestly, if I had a choice I would vote Obama back in, but I can’t,” says Shewan Owens, 40, sitting on the steps of her projects townhouse. “But I definitely don’t want Trump, so Clinton it is.
“Trump is a businessman and I’m not taking that away from him. But I don’t like a lot of things that he says, especially about my people, black people, and about Latinos. We all make up the country, all races, colours and creeds. So someone who has that much power needs to love everybody, not just the rich people, not just white America.”
Owens has a 26-year-old son who’s a musician and training as a mortician — one profession that hasn’t seen a downturn in Baltimore. “I fear for him. I worry about him every time he walks out the door, because he’s a young black man in America. Even though he’s not ‘in the streets,’ you know? Innocent bystanders get killed, too. It’s from our young black men being targeted, not just by police but by each other as well. (I) fear for him.”
Owens lives just around the corner from where Gray was chased down by police that fateful day. She witnessed the riots that happened almost on her doorstep. “It was so unnecessary but at the same time necessary. Unnecessary because of the fires and all the damages, the businesses that are irreplaceable. A lot of our stores have not reopened. But necessary because people finally opened their eyes.’’
Across the street, Eric Jones is on his way to the Baltimore RavensPittsburgh Steelers NFL game but halts for a bit of a gab. He’s 54, a navy veteran who worked for 12 years as a plumber after his honourable discharge. But he hasn’t worked since, he says, after police pounded the crap out of him just a few weeks before the Gray incident, causing a brain injury.
“Mistaken identity, they charged me with possession and intent. But I had no drugs on me. I was getting off work, just walking home.”
He was charged with resisting arrest but was acquitted at trial. The drug charges were dropped.
“Trump keeps talking about this New America. Where is that? I live in Old America and in Old America, because of my brain injury, I need health insurance.”
It’s the most crucial issue of this election, to Jones. “In Trump’s New America, he says he’s going to get rid of Obamacare right off the top. How is that good for America, putting people off health insurance?”
Obamacare is arguably the greatest achievement of this administration and Trump has vowed to dismantle it, which could return 20 million Americans to the ranks of the unin- sured. In Baltimore, about 62,000 people are on Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income or are enrolled in the Temporary Disability Assistance Program.
Denise Walker has lived hereabouts all of her 50 years. She believes the “Freddie riots” galvanized this community. “We are sticking together more than ever.”
Her vote is going to Clinton, contemptuous as she is of Trump. “The orangutan — that’s what I call him, orange-TAN. He all for himself. Now, Hillary ain’t no Godsend either, something real shifty about her. But compared to Trump? There is no comparison.
“Here’s something else I can’t stand about him. Trump said Hillary had to call in Jay-Z and Beyoncé to help her with the black vote. Well what about him? He called in the Ku Klux Klan!”
On his front stoop, Derrod Ramseur inhales deeply on a joint. He’s 28 years old, wonders where his life is going. “I was caught up with a bad crowd when I was younger. Wrong turns man, too many wrong turns. If I knew then what I know now, I’d probably be in college instead of sitting on this stupid stoop.”
Out of all the Star interviews Sunday, only Ramseur admitted he won’t be voting at all come Tuesday.
“What for? Makes no difference here on Fulton Street. This is my reality.”
Postscript: Early this year, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed off on a $700-million revitalization program for Baltimore, which will see the city demolish about 4,000 derelict properties, converting them into green spaces for developers to build new homes and businesses.
Six officers were indicted in the death of Freddie Gray on charges ranging from second-degree murder, manslaughter, reckless endangerment, illegal arrest and misconduct. Three were acquitted in court, a mistrial was declared for another due to a deadlocked jury. This past June, all remaining charges were dropped.
Nobody will be held criminally responsible. Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
The Baltimore black community’s hopefulness after Barack Obama’s two victories has faded.