According to those who knew him well, Freddie Gray was a funny, happy, outspoken, and well-liked guy whose life was cut short in the custody of the Baltimore Police last week.
Gray was known as a jokester. Among his favorite phrases was “No, you!”, a comeback deployed against both insults and friendly chitchat. If you hadn’t seen Freddie in a while, said Shana Pinkett, a 28-year-old friend, “He would come into the projects, and you’d be like ‘Where you been at?’ and he’d be like, ‘No, you!’” with a smile on his face. In other words: forget about me, where have you been?
“That’s how he would get under your skin,” added Pinkett, who grew up in Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood Gray called home, but now lives further north in Park Heights. She elaborated: “If you just moved [to the projects], you’d have to go through a bunch of guys and a bunch of females to get to really know them. You’ll be like, ‘Oh, I don’t like them’... because they joke. And most people can’t take a joke. But when you get to know them: ‘Oh, he cool. He cool like that.’ Freddie was one of them types.” If you wanted to be Freddie’s friend, you couldn’t take yourself too seriously.
Freddie liked to dance. He was always smiling. If the ice cream truck came through his neighborhood, he would make sure it stopped, and if he had the money he’d buy the local kids a treat, Pinkett said. When he wanted to emphasize a point he was making, according to another friend, “He would slap his little hip while he talked, like, ‘Yeah!’”
Eleven days after his death, unflattering particulars of Gray’s biography are well-worn. He was born to a mother who was addicted to heroin. Growing up in deeply impoverished Sandtown-Winchester, he was exposed to dangerous levels of lead paint; a lead-paint lawsuit was filed on his and his siblings’ behalf in 2008, and according to friends contacted by the Washington Post, he was able to live without a regular job thanks to monthly settlement checks from the suit.
He had the criminal history of a young man “who had frequent encounters with police as they carried out local operations in America’s longest war: the war on drugs,” the Baltimore Sun’s Dan Rodricks wrote in a column last week. He was arrested many times in his 25 years, mostly for possession of marijuana and other drugs, sometimes with intent to distribute, but also for having “gaming cards” and “dice.” An assault charge from this year—which did not lead to a conviction—is the only arrest that implies Gray was anything other than a “low-level, nonviolent offender,” Rodricks continued.
A rap sheet, no matter how long, should never condemn someone to a violent and unexplained death. “Whether if he had charges after charges after charges does not give no one the right to break his neck,” Pinkett said.
Details about what caused Freddie’s death remain disputed. On Wednesday, police leaked a document to the Washington Post containing a statement from another prisoner riding in the police transport van with Gray who said that he was “trying to injure himself” on the ride to the precinct, and Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Blatts implied a similar narrative early this week. Rightly or wrongly, West Baltimoreans do not give this idea much credence, as the area maintains an unshakeable distrust of the police. When I brought up the self-injury narrative with Pinkett, she asked incredulously, “How do you break your own neck?”
Donta Allen was the other person in the van with Gray. His account of the van ride contradicts the police line. He spoke to local news network WBAL on Thursday, telling reporter Jayne Miller that it was a “smooth ride” and that “all [he] heard was a little banging for about four seconds.” He also said that when he arrived at the police station, he overheard officers saying that they’d given Gray “a run for his money.” Miller’s report claims that the autopsy shows “no evidence that Gray hit his head against anything on his own,” and that his spinal injuries would have required an “amount of force and energy” corresponding to a car accident. According to a report from WJLA, another local network, Gray’s fatal injury came when his head slammed into the back of the van. A wound on Gray’s head reportedly matches a bolt on the vehicle’s interior.
Whether or not the last ride of Gray’s life was intentionally rough, the Baltimore Police Department has a disturbing history of causing injury to arrestees, apparently deliberately, in transport and otherwise. Between 2011 and 2014, the department paid out nearly $6 million in lawsuits alleging police beatings, chiefly to black plaintiffs.
Sandtown-Winchester is a neighborhood whose startling poverty offers few options for material advancement to young people beyond the drug trade. As of the 2010 census, the median household income there and in the adjacent neighborhood of Harlem Park was $23,974—only slightly more than a third of the statewide median. Baltimore’s already underfunded public school system suffered a $35 million cut from the state budget this year. Many residents I’ve met in the past several days have expressed anger at Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is perceived to spend time and money on largely white and tourist-serving areas like the Inner Harbor at the expense of poor black residential neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester.
“I respect the people who come here to visit and spend their money, but what about the people who actually live here?” A Baltimore man named Darren Spivey told me at Freddie Gray’s funeral on Monday. “Let’s go into some of these neighborhoods. You can go anywhere on the west side, and you can see a whole row of houses, for two blocks, empty, abandoned.”
Gray’s friends say that Bruce Court, a one-block section of Sandtown-Winchester’s Gilmor Homes housing project, served as the center of his life and community. It sits about half a block away from the site of the arrest that preceded his death, and is a short walk from the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues, a hotspot for demonstrations and rioting this week. “He loved this court,” said Kevon, a 20-year-old lifelong friend of Gray’s. “There wasn’t no other place it could have happened to him but this court.”
Bruce Court is a small concrete plaza surrounded by short-stack public housing buildings. On one evening this week, it was lively, with music playing over a small sound system, neighbors standing together and chatting in small groups, and many children running around. The following afternoon, it was subdued. Adjacent to the houses sits what might be charitably termed a basketball court: Of four “hoops,” none have rims and only one has a backboard; the remaining three are bare metal poles. Kevon told me that when he and Freddie were younger, they used to play basketball on Bruce Court, but at one point the backboards were taken down for “remodeling” and never replaced.
“We had our goals up, but now you see they took our goals down. We were playing basketball. The little kids over there [are playing] with a crate, when they’ve got an empty parking lot right here with basketballs and shit. They’re supposed to be remodeling, putting them back up, but now they’re saying that if they put them back up, they’re going to bring violence, basically,” he said.
(The stealthily racist idea that basketball courts—public spaces often used by young black people, especially young black men—might somehow encourage violence is not a new one. In New York in 2012, concerned residents of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan successfully argued for the removal of a “controversial” court in Ramon Aponte Park, arguing that it attracted “rowdy, troublemaking teens,” a DNAinfo reporter wrote at the time.)
Kevon said he remembers watching Freddie play Pop Warner football for the Sandtown Wolverines alongside his older brother. Aside from basketball and football, he said, Freddie liked “the latest fashions,” “the females,” and “the money.” He was on Instagram, and his favorite music included up-and-coming local Baltimore rappers like Lor Scoota, Lor Stackks, Lor Chris, and Shymoney. If Freddie were alive, “he’d be right here,” at Bruce Court, “dancing with his headphones in,” Kevon said. “Swear to God he would.”
Rashawn Fenner, a young Gilmor Homes resident, described Gray as his “right-hand man.” After showing me an Instagram photo of himself and Freddie posing together, he lamented his friend’s death and expressed solidarity with the protesters. “He was murdered by the police. There’s no way around it. He died. Just like it was him, it could have been anyone else, and we’d be out here doing the same thing,” he said.
“People knew these little riots and certain things were going to happen [eventually]. No justice, no peace. That’s what they’re standing for. You can’t blame ‘em.”
By Thursday night, the protests over Gray’s death had calmed down from Monday’s chaotic peak. It was still near-impossible to look upward in Baltimore without seeing at least one police helicopter buzzing overhead, and long lines of sand-colored Humvees remained on the city’s streets, but cars were no longer burning, and riot cops were no longer exchanging volleys of rocks with pissed-off teens. Demonstrations were large—Wednesday’s march from Penn Station to City Hall drew thousands of participants—but they were peaceful. The police gave their investigation report over to state prosecutors a day ahead of schedule. But accepted wisdom in the city says that if indictments against police officers aren’t handed down, anarchy will erupt to make Monday look tame.
On Bruce Court, outrage at the police and hope for reform in Freddie’s name mix with the hollow ache that comes with knowing that he’ll never come back, no matter the outcome of the protests. Kevon wears a dog tag emblazoned with a picture of himself, Freddie, and one other young man; he jokingly calls it his “thug chain.” He didn’t like the idea of putting a person on a T-shirt, because you can’t wear it all the time, and it gets dirtier and more threadbare each time you take it out. The necklace will be on his chest every day. “This is going to be with me always,” he said. “And when it gets faded, I’m gonna get another one.”
Photos via Getty/Wikipedia