In a West Baltimore neighborhood where police chased down an African American man who later died, black residents on Wednesday aimed the brunt of their outrage at the six officers involved in the incident.
But they also expressed anger toward the city’s mayor and police commissioner, whom they accuse of withholding key facts about the case.
That Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts also are black is of no apparent reassurance to an African American community that for generations has viewed the police with unceasing mistrust.
“It doesn’t matter who’s in the top positions — white, black, Asian,” said Earl Williams, 52, an African American, sitting on his front steps around the corner from where police took custody of Freddie Gray on April 12 before he was hospitalized and died. Police said a preliminary autopsy shows that Gray suffered a severe injury to his spine.
“Why should I feel different that a black woman is mayor and a black man is chief when they’re not doing anything?” he asked. “We’re tired of seeing our young black men getting beaten.”
Four days after Gray’s death, Baltimore officials strained to manage a crisis that has spurred four days of demonstrations and thrust the city into the vortex of a national debate over police conduct in minority neighborhoods.
As police probed the circumstances surrounding Gray’s arrest and death, Gene Ryan, head of the city’s police union, said the six officers who were suspended with pay “are upset because they feel they did their job.”
Police have not identified the race of the officers, but a video of the arrest that was widely distributed shows that three of them are white.
Ryan defended the officers’ actions when they first stopped Gray, saying they had reasonable suspicion because he was in a high-crime area, had a knife and ran from them. “If he didn’t have that knife on him, they would have questioned him and let him go,” Ryan said. “I’m upset with the protesters right now. Before any criminal charges have been filed, they want to put these cops in prison.”
Over the past year, the alleged police misconduct cases that have drawn national attention in Ferguson, Mo., New York and North Charleston, S.C., have involved local leaders who are white and victims who are African American, infusing the incidents with a raw racial undertone.
In Baltimore, a preponderance of the city’s leadership and population is black. But that has come as little comfort to African Americans who long ago surrendered any confidence in the police department.
Rawlings-Blake (D), 45, a Baltimore native who served on the City Council before becoming mayor in 2010, has expressed sadness over Gray’s death and frustration at the pace with which investigators have released details over what transpired.
“I’m angry that we are here again, that we have had to tell another mother that their child is dead,” she said earlier this week.
But her words are often deliberate and have not placated a black community that appears to have reached its own conclusion about what occurred.
“Her response has been remarkably subdued,” said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University professor emeritus who is writing a history of Baltimore. “Whether or not the mayor is African American doesn’t seem to make much difference in the minds of African American residents. They’re angry, they’re marching, and they’d probably be doing the same no matter what the race is.”
In particular, black leaders fault the mayor for remaining too quiet while Gray was in a coma for more than a week, only to take a more public position once he died and video surfaced that showed officers appearing to drag him to a police van.
“Blacks are saying, ‘You’re doing too little,’ ” said Carl Stokes, a Baltimore City Council member who is African American. “You need to be screaming about this. If we are calm, something is wrong with our psyche and our acceptance of this.”
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, a prominent Baltimore minister, co-hosted a town-hall meeting at his church with the mayor last month about “black-on-black” violence that has long plagued the city. But Bryant has become critical of the mayor in recent days and helped organize several demonstrations after Gray’s death.
“Where’s the accountability?” he asked in an interview. “We didn’t hear the outrage from her when the man was in a coma. We hear the sadness and disappointment upon his death. It felt like a politician was talking — that this is politically correct and I think that’s the sentiment in the street.”
At the same time, the minister acknowledged that the mayor’s position is complicated by her dual role — as the city’s leader responsible for the police force and as an African American who understands Baltimore’s racial history.
“She’s stuck in the Cirque du Soleil trying to do a balancing act,” he said. “She’s going to lose some political capital from the electorate. The good choice is to have six police officers arrested. There seems to be a cloak of protection extended to the police that’s not extended to the citizens.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake reiterated that Gray’s death has raised “serious questions that trouble me,” including the circumstances surrounding his arrest and why officers did not seek medical help when he asked.
Rawlings-Blake said she sought a meeting with Gray’s family but was turned down by their lawyer, William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr.
Responding to a question about black residents’ reaction to the case, the mayor suggested that she understands the depths of their mistrust and has sought reforms and improved communications between communities and the department.
Her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, served in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he was a well-known advocate for improving educational opportunities in minority neighborhoods.
“I can only view this work through the lens of an African American woman who grew up in Baltimore,” she said.
Referring to the recent drop in the city’s homicide rate, she said she was “very excited and optimistic, and when I went to community meetings I expected to experience that same optimism and excitement from many of the communities hit hardest by the violence.”
Instead, she said she heard people who were “mad as hell about the way they were being treated by the police department.”
Baltimore has long struggled with crime and poverty, combatting the image of an urban wasteland that often ranks among America’s deadliest cities in per-capita homicides.
The loss of blue-collar jobs at the once sprawling Bethlehem Steel plant and along the port helped drive out residents — the population fell from 950,000 in the 1950s to 622,000 today — leaving behind vacant rowhouses and open-air drug markets. Violence escalated, with homicides topping 300 for 10 consecutive years during the 1990s.
Martin O’Malley, then a brash, white councilman, won the 1999 mayoral campaign promising to bring crime rates down. By 2005, police arrests across the city soared — 108,447 in 2005 alone — and homicides dropped.
The arrests overcrowded the city’s jails, and judges began releasing detainees who had spent longer times incarcerated than the sentences of the crimes for which they were accused.
Although the city was safer, the police blitz drove mistrust within African American communities, a sentiment that was validated recently when the Baltimore Sun revealed that since 2011, the city had paid out $6 million settling cases of alleged police misconduct.
The history of police aggression, civic leaders say, extends through the administrations of both white and black mayors, giving residents little reason to believe that the race of their leaders is consequential.
“It transcends whether the mayor is black or not,” said Lawrence Brown, a Morgan State University professor and community activist. “Black people view policing as racist, and it doesn’t matter if the mayor is black, the police chief is black or the president is black. There’s a long history of brutal policing in black communities, so people don’t have any expectations.”
In Gray’s neighborhood, where the streets are defined by public housing and a mix of handsome and boarded-up rowhouses, residents say they expect more attention from their leaders.
The police commissioner stopped by Tuesday. But residents were wondering why the mayor hadn’t visited.
“She should be at the marches,” said Charles Barden, 63, as he rested on his front steps. “She needs to answer the questions. People need to be heard.”
Even if the mayor doesn’t know all the facts, he said, “it would show that she’s trying to help.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.