Rest in peace to my step-cousin Korryn Gaines. I'm so sorry your baby girl & boy have to live w/o a mother. pic.twitter.com/l9T1EoPy4s
— Taylor Champ (@tchampp) August 2, 2016
The police killing of Korryn Gaines in Baltimore County on Monday has the potential to be America’s next explosive racial powder keg. Or it could be defused by viewing it through the race-neutral prism of mental illness and the tragedy of lead-paint poisoning.
Gaines’s reported aggressive behavior surrounding her arrest in March, an agitated visit she paid — and video-recorded — to a police station in April, and her refusal to put down her gun during five hours of cajoling from trained negotiators and her boyfriend on Monday are indicators of a possibly manic state. And Gaines herself provided a plausible explanation for why she might be that way: a 2012 lawsuit claiming she suffered from lead-paint poisoning.
It was just last year that The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy, in an award-winning piece about the life and lead-poisoning of Freddie Gray, reminded us how horrible lead poisoning was for the poor, almost entirely black families of Baltimore who lived in 1970s-era apartments and were exposed to it. “Advocates and studies say it can diminish cognitive function, increase aggression and ultimately exacerbate the cycle of poverty that is already exceedingly difficult to break,” McCoy wrote.
That’s not to say that Gaines didn’t have reasons to be angry, as a poor black woman in 21st-century America. Her Instagram and Facebook pages reflect a widely felt outrage in the black community that African Americans are disproportionately killed, by police and criminals. As activists and politicians such as the white governor of Minnesota have noted, armed black people seem at higher risk of being killed in encounters with police than armed white people.
Gaines was considered a strong role model for her family and her friends, her social media posts show. She followed the rapper David Banner, who released a video called “Black Fist” in which a police officer is tied up, beaten bloody and stabbed.
Gaines posted a video of herself loading her new pistol-grip shotgun. She posted a photo of a table full of guns, knives and ammunition with the headline, “Take a good look cause this is where you’re money should go this day forward! Get Ready Now!!” She posted in one discussion, “they train us to be submissive children nd adults so when the time came many of us won’t even have the desire to self defend.”
In another Instagram post: “They can try to come get it they gon leave with more Lead than they poisoned me wit.” She even posted two videos while she was in her showdown with the Baltimore County police, which the police say was conducted with Gaines holding the pistol-grip shotgun in one hand and her 5-year-old son in the other, or nearby.
The series of events that launched Gaines’s final downward spiral have all the markings of someone not fully in control. In March, after she claimed her license plates were stolen, she made up cardboard plates, one of which read, “Any Government official who compromises this pursuit to happiness and right to travel, will be criminally responsible and fined, as this is a natural right and freedom.”
She filmed herself during part of the traffic stop for not having proper license plates, advising her young son, “You see what they do to us, right? You fight them. They are not for us. They want to kill us, and you never, ever back down from them.”
A Baltimore County officer decided to impound her car, and Gaines refused to get out. The police said this led to a fight to get her and her children out of the car, leading to a resisting arrest charge in addition to the improper registration citation.
But the true indicator of Gaines’s uneven behavior is her 17-minute video shot in April, after she’s been released from custody on the resisting arrest charge. She asks officers at the district station for her missing court paperwork, and no one can find it. The officers are polite but don’t immediately have what she needs. Gaines gets increasingly angrier, and grandiose, as she talks about how she could be meeting with her lawyer right now to discuss the case. The officers are trying to help, but she keeps demanding a supervisor and getting no satisfaction. That video was posted by Heavy.com.
All that set the stage for Monday, when Baltimore County police doing routine warrant service probably figured they could nab two defendants at once: Gaines’s boyfriend for assault and Gaines for her misdemeanors. Gaines’s boyfriend soon came out, but Gaines reportedly picked up her shotgun and aimed it at the police. The officers withdrew, SWAT officers took their place, and negotiators tried to talk Gaines out until 3 p.m.
Police say she told the SWAT officers, “If you don’t leave, I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you.” And then the shooting started. Her son, Kodi, was wounded but will survive, though who can imagine the psychological trauma he will endure.
Starting four years ago, Gaines claimed that “a sea of lead” paint made her ill. A doctor who examined Gaines found that she continued to display “signs of neurocognitive impairment,” and “lost significant IQ points as a result of that exposure,” The Post found. After she was born in 1992, she tested high in lead levels from April 1993 to November 1994, court records show. She moved to another house that also tested high for lead levels. She lived there for four years, the lawsuit alleges.
The Baltimore Sun cited a report by a pediatrician in Gaines’s suit that said, “Korryn had a history of problems with anger and impulsive behavior and had several sessions with her school counselor.” It also noted Gaines had trouble concentrating in school and still has trouble concentrating. As a result of the exposure, The Sun reported, her attorneys argued that she suffered neurological impairments and lost IQ points. Gaines’s suit was still pending when she was killed.
McCoy, in investigating the effect of lead poisoning on Baltimore after Freddie Gray, spoke to Ruth Ann Norton, the executive director of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, formerly the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. He wrote:
“A child who was poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” Norton said. She called lead poisoning Baltimore’s “toxic legacy” — a still-unfolding tragedy with which she says the city has yet to come to terms. Those kids who were poisoned decades ago are now adults. And the trauma associated with lead poisoning “creates too much of a burden on a community,” she said.
Was Korryn Gaines one of those kids? It won’t make her death any less tragic, and it will still have a racial component to it, since black families were the overwhelming victims of lead poisoning in Baltimore. But it might reduce the temperature around this particular tragedy, if only for this particular moment.