The death of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray is sparking demonstrations and riots in the city. Take a look at Gray's past and the video that shows his arrest just days before his death. (The Washington Post)

Who was Freddie Gray?

Freddie Gray, once the nation’s most prominent symbol of distrust in police, went by the nickname “Pepper.” Gray, 25, grew up in the impoverished neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester on Baltimore’s west side.

In 2008, a lead-paint lawsuit was filed on behalf of Gray and two of his sisters against the owners of the home in which they grew up. Court papers described his difficult upbringing: a disabled mother addicted to heroin who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read; walls and windowsills containing enough lead to poison the children and leave them incapable of leading functional lives; a young man who was four grade levels behind in reading.

Such lawsuits are so common in Gray’s neighborhood that the resulting settlement payments — which Gray lived off — are known as “lead checks.”

[How companies make millions off lead-poisoned, poor blacks]

Close friends of Gray, who was 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, described him as loyal and warm, humorous and happy. “Every time you saw him, you just smiled, because you knew you were going to have a good day,”  said Angela Gardner, 22, who had dated him off and on over the past two years.

But Gray also had frequent run-ins with the law.

Court records show he was arrested more than a dozen times, and had a handful of convictions, mostly on charges of selling or possessing heroin or marijuana. His longest stint behind bars was about two years.

Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.
Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.

How did he die? 

Gray died on April 19, 2015, days after suffering a severe spinal injury while riding in the back of a police van. He had been arrested by officers following a foot chase in his neighborhood. It wasn’t clear why he ran when he saw the police. The officers said they found a switchblade in his pocket.

Video shot by a civilian bystander shows officers dragging Gray, who appeared limp, after he was handcuffed. Officials say he was able to climb into the back of the van.

The driver of the van, Caesar Goodson Jr., made at least one stop on a 30-minute ride to a police station to put Gray in leg restraints, police officials said. Officials said Gray was angry and talking when he was first put in the van but was not breathing when he arrived at the police station.

[Baltimore officer acquitted of murder, other charges in Freddie Gray case]

Baltimore police have acknowledged significant errors in the moments that followed: Gray was not seat-belted after being placed in a transport van, a violation of department policy; Gray was not offered medical attention, despite several requests; and officers did not call for an ambulance when he was arrested, as they should have.

In May of last year, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced charges against six police officers involved in the arrest.

“To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I have heard your call of ‘No justice, no peace,’ ” Mosby declared in the wake of angry protests and violent riots that had gripped the city for days.

But two of the officers have already been acquitted of all charges, including the driver, who was accused of murder. In that case, Judge Barry G. Williams told the court that prosecutors had failed to present evidence that Goodson had given Gray a “rough ride” — a term meant to imply the driver intentionally inflicted harm on his passenger.

Why was there so much anger?

The violent, fiery riots that consumed Baltimore last year began as peaceful protests of what activists say is a much larger national issue: police mistreatment of black men.

Police-involved deaths over the year preceding Gray’s death include Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner on Staten Island and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.

Those tensions were only heightened in West Baltimore, where relations between residents and police have long been strained.

[Fear and fury in Freddie Gray’s Baltimore neighborhood as first of six officers goes on trial]

“People want justice,” said Adam Jordan, 27, who led one of the Baltimore protest groups. “They want the officers to go to jail. But most of all, they want reform — sweeping reform.”

As the city spiraled into chaos, protest organizers were quick to draw a distinction between themselves and the violent rioters who set cars ablaze, looted businesses and injured more than a dozen officers.


A protester rides his bike in front of a police line at North and Pennsylvania avenues on Monday. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)