Freddie Gray died in the hospital a week after he was arrested by Baltimore police.
“His spine was 80 percent severed at his neck,” his family’s attorney said.
In the days after Freddie Gray’s death, protestors gathered outside the Western District Police Station in Sandtown-Winchester to call for both the firing of the six officers involved in the incident, and, more broadly, a change in the policing of poor, black neighborhoods in Baltimore, one of the most segregated cities in America. On Saturday, April 25, thousands marched three miles from Western District station to Baltimore City Hall.
That same day, I checked out what was happening at a horse race in Baltimore County.
The Maryland Hunt Cup is a timber race. Amateur equestrians run their horses through a four-mile course, jumping over 22 timber fences. Held annually on the last Saturday in April, this year marked the 119th running. The race takes place at Worthington Farms, a private estate nestled in rolling green hills, just a thirty-minute drive from Sandtown-Winchester.
Hunt Cup isn’t really about the horse racing. Many people do go because they love horses, because they have horses themselves and compete at the local fox-hunting clubs and in dressage shows. But mainly, Hunt Cup is an occasion for Baltimore’s upper class to dress up in pastel jackets and Lilly Pulitzer dresses and get drunk in public.
It’s a gathering that brings together Baltimore’s furtive network of white elites, which is spread over a network of a dozen prep schools and half a dozen country clubs, which is employed by Johns Hopkins and T. Rowe Price and Legg Mason (all headquartered here in Baltimore). Hunt Cup means that spring is here. Hunt Cup means that you can eat canapes out of the back of your car. Hunt Cup means that men will hold porta-potty doors. Hunt Cup means that you can smoke pot in front of the cops.
The divide between Baltimore’s rich whites and Baltimore’s poor blacks is more than a city-county divide. There is rural horse country in Baltimore County, where you see horses and cattle and sometimes get stuck driving behind a tractor. This area skews affluent, but also includes plenty of country boys and girls driving souped-up Chevys and getting jobs on poultry farms straight out of high school. Most of the county is suburban, and ranges from poor and working class black areas like Woodlawn, afflicted by similar issues as Freddie Gray’s neighborhood in the city, to rich white ones like Ruxton, home to L’hirondelle country club, a gourmet supermarket, and snaking, leafy roads dotted with stately brick homes.
In Baltimore City, there are upper-class enclaves, mostly in the north-central section near the county border. The neighborhood of Homewood, which cradles the Johns Hopkins University campus, is just a ten-minute drive from Freddie Gray’s of Sandtown-Winchester, and is full of palatial gilded-age colonials and tudors. Nearby Roland Park is home to sprawling Victorian homes, as well as the prep schools Gilman, Boys’ Latin, Bryn Mawr, and Roland Park Country Day School, where a year’s tuition costs between $20,000 and $30,000.
Roland Park was designed in the 1890s by Frederick Law Olmsted for the city’s elite. Until 1948, racially restrictive covenants prohibited blacks, Jews, Greeks, and Italians from living there. In time, Jews, Greeks, and Italians were allowed, reluctantly, into the warm embrace of whiteness. But even today, black residents of Roland Park are few and far between.
On Friday night, I drove from Ruxton, where I live, to the Western District Police Station. Sandtown-Winchester is the kind of neighborhood where whole blocks of rowhouses are boarded up. The block with the police station was barricaded between Riggs Avenue and Mosher Street, and two officers kept watch in the floodlights.
There were no protesters. But it was a mild evening, which meant people in the neighborhood were out to enjoy it. A group of a dozen people congregated around a stoop: black men and women in their 20s and 30s, and children, too, everyone talking and eating chicken and relaxing. A parked car with its doors and windows open provided the soundtrack. A little girl wheeled by me on a scooter.
“You here for the protests?” asked a woman standing on the sidewalk. A woman next to her tossed a chicken bone to the ground. “They all went home. They’re saving their energy for tomorrow. There’s gonna be 10,000 people. We’re marching from here all the way to City Hall. You gonna be here?”
“Yes,” I lied, not wanting to explain that I had already committed to spending the day at a horse race for rich people.
On Saturday morning, it was chilly and overcast. Even so, the leaves on the trees had just emerged, neon green and translucent. Lawns were freshly trimmed and flower beds were nicely mulched. The magnolias, redbuds and forsythia were in bloom, dotting the newly green landscape with bursts of pink, purple, and yellow.
A line of cars was queuing down Tufton Avenue, outside the grounds of the Hunt Cup. It moved quickly, guided by Baltimore County Police officers. I surrendered my ticket to the parking attendant. The parking attendants wore orange vests and practical clothes, and most of them were black.
It was little after one in the afternoon, and the vibe was sedate. People had only been drinking for an hour or two, and on top of that it was unseasonably cold. The crowd skewed young. Even though the tickets read “it is UNLAWFUL for any person under 21 years to have in his or her possession any alcoholic beverage of any kind,” the vast majority of the people here were high school or college kids: girls in punch-colored sundresses and Jack Rogers sandals or Hunter wellington boots, boys in bowties, pants and blazers in pastel shades of pink, mint green, yellow and blue. They tailgated in small groups, sipping cans of National Bohemian and Bud Light and leisurely playing cornhole and ladder toss.
“All the prep school kids come out of the woodwork,” said a woman with a Scalamandré scarf tied around her neck.
Families and older couples in tweed dined on elaborate spreads of cheese, strawberries, and finger sandwiches, adorned with glass vases of fresh flowers. One woman removed cellophane from a plate of bacon-wrapped asparagus spears.
It was nearing three and the lot was beginning to fill up. People were getting rowdier. The music was getting louder. As if on cue, the sun broke through the clouds.
“Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete, what up? What up?” screamed a girl in an aqua Lilly Pulitzer shift, stumbling as she ran across the lawn to embrace her friend.
This would not be the last time that I heard hip hop-inflected language at the Hunt Cup. In fact, as I walked up and down the rows of tailgaters, I noticed that the music bumping out of cars was overwhelmingly hip hop.
“I like your pants,” I said. “A lot of people tell me that,” he said.
I approached a group of high school kids tailgating between a BMW and an Acura SUV. A girl in a white shift dress sat in her boyfriend’s lap. They compared class rings. Hers was a gold signet from Roland Park Country School, his was silver with a blue stone from Loyola Blakefield. I asked if I could take their picture. A girl in a lace-trimmed fuchsia Lilly dress organized the six of them. A seventh posed on the trunk of the BMW at the last minute.
“Thank you!” they yelled collectively. “Enjoy the race!”
As I made my way through the crowd, two girls in nearly identical white sundresses ran up to me. They were both 16 and lithe, with hair that was either dark blonde or light brown. They both wore subtle but immaculate makeup, and delicate chain necklaces, one with a tiny gold circle, the other with a tiny silver heart. Their names were Ziggy and Jenna.
“Are you taking everybody’s picture?” Ziggy asked.
I explained that I was writing a story for a website, and that I was taking pictures and doing interviews.
“It’s a good social scene,” Ziggy said. “In the olden days, boys used to ask girls out on dates. Now we just party.”
Behind me, a boy yelled “I’ll fuck you up, nigga!” He laughed.
“We get to dress up and look nice during the day,” Jenna said.
Someone called to them, and they ran off screaming.
I talked to two boys, both seniors at Loyola Blakefield. One had braces and dimples, and both sported the lacrosse flip, a shaggy hairstyle that is just short enough to evade prep school dress code restrictions. They stood next to a big new pickup truck with an American flag planted firmly in the back. The boy with the dimples made a sideways peace sign for my camera.
“Do you guys read the news?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” the boy with the dimples said.
“Do you know about what’s going on in Baltimore?”
“Yeah, the riot,” he said. “My dad wouldn’t let me go to the O’s game last night because of the riot. He was worried I might be in danger.”
He was referring to Friday night, the night I went to the police station to find no one but the neighbors hanging out and the two police on duty.
“Do you know why the riot is happening?” I asked, not correcting him.
“No,” he shook his head, half paying attention.
“Do you have any thoughts about that?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Enjoy the race.”
Nearby, a copper Land Rover bumped trap music, the bass on high. The smell of weed wafted through the air. The cops were close enough to smell it, but they kept directing traffic.
A little before four, everyone made their way over to the racecourse. We trudged across green lawns. Two girls behind me sang Jake Owen’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.” The crowd gathered on a green hill overlooking the racecourse. People lined up against a temporary PVC fence. Little girls with grosgrain bows in their hair sat on their fathers’ shoulders.
The race itself took about ten minutes. The steady narration of the announcer carried over the low din of the crowd.
The crowd clapped and cheered as the horses galloped to the finish line. The air filled with cigar smoke. Champagne was popped. A woman in a purple tweed skirt suit with immaculately styled gray hair sashayed across the lawn, making the social rounds. A teenage girl stumbled, clutching her boyfriend.
A competitor after the race.
I stopped a boy in yellow shorts and a pastel plaid shirt and a girl in a white dress.
“Do you know about the protest?” I asked.
“It’s kind of stupid,” the boy in the yellow shorts said. “I think it’s a racial thing. Just because one African-American man died, they all team up. But we’re all the same.”
I walked by a 30-something man puffing a cigar.
“No diggity, no doubt,” he laughed to his friend.
I chatted up two 50-something men standing leisurely by a cream-colored Jeep.
“You want to know what I think,” said the one in the Black Dog Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirt. “The cops have the hardest job in the world besides our troops in Afghanistan. You know, and I tell my kids this, if a cop tells you to stop, you stop. It’s sad what happened to this guy, but let the police do their job. I feel these people protesting, I really do. But if the police really did something wrong, it’s going to come out.”
“Baltimore is a shithole,” said the man with the cigar. He wore a navy blazer with a pocket square. His eyes were ice blue and close together.
“This guy,” said the man in the gray sweatshirt. “His spine was broken before the cops picked him up. I talked to doctors at Johns Hopkins. But his spine was already broken.”
The man in the sweatshirt talked for a while about high-crime neighborhoods.
“Best thing about here is no one’s going to steal your stuff,” he said. “My windows are open. I couldn’t do that at Pimlico.”
He talked about how during the riots of 1968, his great uncle was the chief of police in Baltimore, and his father was in the Maryland National Guard. He talked about William Donald Schaefer, a political colossus who served as both mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland.
“We have a black president, we have a black attorney general and we have a black mayor, and things are worse today than they were ten years ago,” he said.
A common complaint at Hunt Cup seemed to be that the protesters didn’t know Freddie Gray, that people from outside the community were using the opportunity of Gray’s death to disrupt the city.
“The media distorts,” he said. “Every time a black person dies, the media covers it. If it was a white person, we wouldn’t be out here talking about it. Al Sharpton comes in. Al Sharpton. He’s the reverend of what? What church does he get up in front of every week and preach God’s word?”
“Beautiful,” said the man with the pocket square as a well-kept antique car drives by.
“So you came to Hunt Cup to ask a bunch of lily-white people about what’s going on?” the man in the sweatshirt said.
“Well, yeah,” I said.
“Here’s a quote,” he said. “The police in this country are doing their job. What would it be like if we said let’s let all the cops have vacation for a week?”
I wrote that down and thanked him for his time.
“The white race is the dominant and superior race, and it will, of course, maintain its supremacy,” opined the Baltimore Sun in 1910. “The attitude of the Southern man and the attitude of an average Baltimorean toward colored people is one of helpfulness. He sees in them not simply wards of the nation but descendants of those whom he and his ancestors trusted and respected for their loyalty and affection.”
The loyalty and affection the Sun is referring to was enforced with a bullwhip. Maryland was a slave state, and though it didn’t secede from the Union, as many as 25,000 Marylanders fought for the Confederacy. The first blood of the Civil War was shed in Baltimore, when Confederate sympathizers clashed with Union militias heading to Washington.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, that loyalty and affection was enforced by gangs of white men who performed extrajudicial torture and execution of black men in public. These events provided entertainment for the whole community. White families showed up to watch as black men were burned alive for alleged criminal infractions. For souvenirs, they took home pieces of noose or photographs of themselves smiling and posing next to the remains.
Baltimore is the setting of Bob Dylan’s ballad “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The titular Hattie Carroll was a black bartender at a Baltimore society gala in 1963, who was assaulted by the wealthy tobacco farmer William Zantzinger and later died of her injuries. Zantzinger served six months in jail for manslaughter and paid a $625 fine. He was regarded as a gentleman.
In the 1960s, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, Baltimore’s steel and shipping industries began to dry up, part of the deindustrialization that occurred in cities around America. In April 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the city burned for two weeks. Six people died, hundreds were injured, and more than 1,000 businesses were smashed, looted or set ablaze. Known locally as simply “the riots,” they cast a long shadow on Baltimore that’s still there today.
I wonder if Nina Simone ever set foot in Roland Park.
The night of the Hunt Cup, violence fell upon my city—a preview of the chaos that would descend Monday evening, after Freddie Gray was laid to rest, resulting in a citywide curfew and a statewide state of emergency.
While the horses raced and the boy with the dimples talked about riots, thousands marched peacefully from Western District Police Station to City Hall, chanting “Black lives matter!” and “Hands up don’t shoot!” But as night fell, things changed. “Killers!” some yelled at phalanxes of police in riot gear. “You can’t get away with this!”
Some protesters snatched police hats to wear or burn in the streets. They smashed police car windows with traffic cones. They shattered windows at stores downtown, including a Subway, a 7-Eleven and a McDonald’s. For the second time that day I looked at a bunch of horses, only this time there were Baltimore City Police riding them.
At Camden Yards, fans at the Orioles-Red Sox game were told to remain in the stadium. At a press conference, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Freddie Gray’s twin sister Fredericka urged nonviolence. Police helicopters hovered above the protesters, ordering them to disperse. Police phalanxes advance on unarmed protesters, seeming to sweep them down the street as they yelled.
At night in the dark in Ruxton, ten miles north of Sandtown-Winchester, all I could hear was the shrill bark of a fox in the woods.
Photos by Colette Shade