From Every Corner of this City

As the story of Freddie Gray’s arrest and subsequent BaltCitybadgedeath continues to unfold, I find myself thinking about another young black man in Baltimore, with whom I crossed paths about a year and a half ago. I was a juror in his trial for multiple murder, drug, and gun charges.

You see, I live in Baltimore — in the city although in a corner that bears little resemblance to the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived. But Baltimore is called “Smalltimore” for many reasons, among them the fact that traveling just a few blocks in one direction or another connects these very different neighborhoods.  And nothing will bring residents together any more than sitting on a jury together.

Before I go into any more detail about my experience as a juror, let me be frank: as a whole, I don’t like the Baltimore City police. It’s true, I have had some positive experiences with a couple of officers when they have responded to neighborhood calls, but honestly for the most part they have been brutish and non communicative. All the more troubling, since I have a friend who worked with them on trying to improve Community Policing for many years — but among the reasons that didn’t work was former Mayor Martin O’Malley and his “Zero Tolerance policy,” which created an attitude of “arrest first, ask questions later.”  The calls in our neighborhood are usually for break-ins and the occasional drug dealing.  Two notable facts about my neighborhood and police: (1) they do not arrest the prostitutes because they like to keep them on the street so they can get info about the drug dealers who are also often their pimps (really shows you how much they value the lives of these women, eh?) — a fact relayed to me by a female police officer, and (2) because we are the “easy” district, we get the trainees and the newbies, so they get to practice their non-existent communication skills on me and my neighbors before they get shuttled off to the tougher districts such as the Western district where Freddie Gray lived.

So this is my background when I walk into the jury room at the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse with 13 other citizens of Baltimore. I gradually got to know my fellow jurors over the next week — we couldn’t talk about the case, so we talked about jobs, families, television shows. The final 12 who deliberated included a Psychology professor, a housekeeper from a local hospital, an accountant, a retiree, a college student, a hair dresser, and a driver. Our ages ranged from 21 to 61. There were four men and eight women. Ten black, and two white — myself and a middle aged man.

As the case was presented, I felt like I was reading a mystery novel. Two men were brutally shot and killed, and a young woman somehow survived being shot multiple times. The prosecution presented mountains of evidence about the killing — photos of the wounds in all their blood soaked gruesomeness, a ballistics expert spoke about the angle and the caliber. Witnesses were called. And the whole time I kept waiting to hear how the young man sitting before us was connected — because at that point all we had heard was about the arrest of two other young men in connection, one of whom was identified by a witness who saw him stick his head out the door after shots were fired and looking this way and that, and the other was caught moments after the shooting with one of the dead men’s cell phone in his pocket.

But nothing on this guy, until we heard that he had been identified from a photo array by the young woman who had survived the shooting. How did his photo happen to be shown to this woman int he first place, well we never heard that. She was full of pain killers, on a ventilator so she could not speak, and had not given a description to anyone of the men who committed the crime, so how did this guy’s end up in the photo array?

It seems, he was a young black man known to the police for previous drug dealing. Just like Freddie Gray.

You see, in the end, there was nothing connecting this particular man to the crime except for the word of a woman who pointed to his picture from her hospital bed under very sketchy circumstances, and who then recanted that identification on the witness stand. Was the truth when she picked him out? Or was it when she said — on the witness stand — that it was not in fact, him? Either way, it didn’t make her a reliable witness. Not reliable enough on which to send another young black man to jail, for good (based on his prior record, we knew that finding him guilty would put him away for a very, very long time.

When we arrived at the jury room to begin deliberations, it seemed like a no-brainer to me. So I was amazed when we took a straw poll and we came out 8 not guilty and 4 guilty. The breakdown of who voted how was interesting: the not guilty’s were 7 women and one man (the retiree), the guilty’s were 3 men and one woman (the college student). I was a not guilty, the white man was a guilty.

I cannot fully describe how heated the room became over the next several days. It got personal at times, not with me really, but I was very aware of who I was and what my life is like. Several of the women who voted not guilty told stories from their own lives to explain why they viewed the evidence as they did. The woman who left the Courthouse every day and went to her job cleaning hospital rooms talked about how drugs had destroyed members of her family — and how she was “not going to put another young black man into jail for life.”

I will always remember her resolve as she spoke those words. I will also remember the response of the only other white person on the jury, because after he spoke I wanted to become invisible, “I would rather put an innocent man in jail than let a murderer walk the streets. If he is not guilty, he can always appeal.” There was a silence in the room as those horrible words kind of hung out there, so I finally said “The appeals process does not work out real well for young black men. He will be in prison for years before he can get a new trial — and that will only be after he can show there was a problem with this case.”

Towards the end of Day Three of Deliberation (which came after 5 days of hearing evidence), we were down to 10 not guilty, and 2 guilty. The Psychology professor stepped up her game, and said to the two “It seems very unlikely at this point that 10 people are going to change their minds and find him guilty. What can we do for you to be able to change your votes and feel good about it?”  The white man talked himself through the lack of evidence connecting this man to the crime, and then decided that he could see where there could be doubt, so maybe yes, he could say based on that the young man was not guilty. The remaining juror, now standing alone with his guilty vote, said “Well, okay. If he’s voting not guilty, then I am too.”

Did the young man commit the crime? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I left feeling good about my vote, that justice had been done. But I also felt like I had just seen the nasty underbelly of the world in which many citizens of this city live. A city where, based on your past behavior, you can just be picked up and put in jail. A place where police have no answers for why they took certain actions or how they came upon certain evidence. Where the prosecutor responds to juror’s questions about why no one tested the coffee cup or the cigarette butts apparent in the crime photos for DNA, with a mocking “this is not like the movies, people.”

When I see the photos of Freddie Gray before his arrest, I see the face of the young man who stood and shook the hand of every juror as we passed by him on our way out of the courtroom after finding him not guilty.  I see a young man who daily faces impossible odds against a system stacked against him, unless his community comes together and says “No more.” His community, from every corner of this city. From the housekeeper who held his hand for an extra moment and said “Now you behave yourself,” to which he responded “Yes m’am,” before she left for her job. Declining my offer of a ride, she headed off to walk the 4 blocks to the hospital and I pointed my car north to my corner of the city, hoping he knew how much these people valued him and his life. From every corner of this city.

How not to treat your children

Where are the tea baggers now? They argue that offering a public option for health care to everyone is a government takeover. They call President Obama a fascist, a Nazi, a communist, and any other number of labels they clearly do not understand. They can’t possibly understand because if they did understand what some of the terms actually mean, the tea baggers should be more concerned about the increasingly strong-arm tactics being used by police against citizens:

Taser gun used on 10-year-old girl who ‘refused to take shower’

The officer had been called to the girl’s home in Ozark, Arkansas, by her mother because she was behaving in an unruly manner and refusing to take a shower.

In a report on the incident the officer, Dustin Bradshaw, said the mother gave him permission to use the Taser.

When he arrived, the girl was curled up on the floor, screaming, and resisting as her mother tried to get her in the shower before bed.

“Her mother told me to take her if I needed to,” the officer wrote.

The child was “violently kicking and verbally combative” when he tried to take her into custody and she kicked him in the groin.

He then delivered “a very brief drive stun to her back,” the report said.

It’s hard to even know where to start with this story. But what about a mother who calls police to deal with her child? How much would you wager that this same mother is screaming about taxes and “government takeover”?  According to the story, when the police arrived the girl was curled up on the floor — albeit “screaming and resisting taking a shower.” The girl was not “violently kicking and verbally combative” until the officer tried to “take her into custody.”

From reading the entire story, it sounds as if the girl perhaps does have a history of mental health issues. This can be serious, I know. I was a special education teacher in both middle and elementary school, and I have seen some really screwed up, really violent kids. It’s sad and it’s distressing and it’s frustrating. But really all you can do is make sure they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else. I cannot even begin to imagine coming at a kid who’s curled up on the floor screaming, with restraints. Of course that would escalate their behavior, and of course they would become violent and of course I would end up kicked.


The argument might be made that “Well Sue J., but you have a Masters of Arts in Teaching and you were a certified Special Education teacher. You were trained to deal with kids like this and the officer was not.”

And I would say, “Exactly.”

Again, the officer had no reason to be in the house confronting a girl who was throwing an extreme temper tantrum about taking a shower. He treated her like a adult, violent, street criminal because that’s what his training is for.

Perhaps this case will bring more national attention to the over-use of Tasers in this country. I have had the discussion with a former police officer – now Criminal Studies professor about Tasers, and he maintains that they are an important tool for police officers to have.  I will have to ask him about this case.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit, perhaps? And a little reassurance that someone cares about this little girl:

The girl’s father, Anthony Medlock, who is divorced from her mother, said the girl showed signs of emotional problems but did not deserve to be “treated like an animal”.

He said: “Ten years old and they shot electricity through her body, and I want to know how the heck in God’s green earth can they get away with this.

Life in the Big City ….

It’s never a dull moment here at the Jello Manse. Sunday night, Unnamed Partner and I went out to dinner with our friends around the corner. A lovely time was had by all, despite my efforts at being a stick in the mud because it was, after all, Sunday night.  We had a wonderful dinner of carryout Indian — mmmmm, chicken korma! Which was followed by several rounds of Rock Band.  I worked up such a thirst drumming on “Float On” (Modest Mouse)  that I had a third beer! Yes! On a school night!

We played one more song — I think it was something by Jane’s Addiction, I was talked into it — and then decided it was time to head home.

Well. It’s a 5-minute drive, at the most. Except, when we drove 2 blocks to the main road, we saw police cars with lights aflashing to the left and to the right. Uh oh. Unnamed Partner wondered if this was a sobriety checkpoint, but then we remembered that there are normally about 2 patrol cars in our district and no — there’s no way these guys are sitting here doing a checkpoint. As we drove up the main road I saw a yellow police tape across a side street and realized something must have gone down, like a shooting. Unfortunately not as unusual as it should be. We live in the city.

I was about to make the right turn onto our street when I saw a police van parked to block the street. Good thing I saw it — it didn’t have lights on and there was no one in or around it. So we drove on down to the next street.  No van there, so we turned right.

I don’t know if you can picture it, but as soon as we turned right, there is an alley that would connect us back to our street. Well, there was nothing blocking the alley, so I turned right. Of course, it was a sharp right so I had to stop, back up, turn the wheel — it was not a speedy process.  It was clunky enough to disturb a black cat which darted out in front and then turned around and stared at us. Unnamed Partner saying “Sue J, go on!” and me saying “This is not a good sign …”

Well, the cat took off so we proceeded to our street again. I parallel parked, we got out, Unnamed Partner  hustled on up to the porch, and I was just locking the car door when I heard a voice say “How did you get in here?”

I turned to see a police officer approaching me. It was dark, but I could see his uniform and the telltale sign of a radio antenna on his shoulder. He had a limp as he hurried toward me.

Now, here’s where Louis Gates and I differ. I immediately went into “Yes sir” mode. I explained how we came up the alley (all the while trying not breathe into his face, aware of the three beers I’d had). He seemed to accept that explanation, so I asked him what was going on. He was eager to tell me that there had been a shooting up the street, and that the gunman had apparently run down the alley across the street from our house.

At this point, I said “Well, we’ll go inside and lock our doors tight, then!”  And you might think he would be on his way. But you would be wrong. Because the next thing he said was, “Where do you work?”

I told him where I work, and agreed that yes, it is a long drive. The he tilted his head toward the porch where Unnamed Partner was sitting waiting for me and said, “Who’s that?”

In what seemed like an eon of time, I thought to myself, what do I say here? I don’t pretend to know what a black man in American society, feels but I know what a gay woman feels — and it ain’t always great. I have to say, though, I kind of surprised myself by deciding so quickly that the truth was the best answer, so I simply said “That’s my partner.”

Well, now. There’s six ways to Sunday that he might have responded to that statement of mine, but I sure never expected this one: “What’s she do?”

At this point, you might understandably think this was a pleasant exchange and what’s my problem. But I hasten to remind you: there’s an armed gunman running around the neighborhood! So I really was not in the mood for a chat about work! I know, I know. I have wondered whether he was tryiong to surmise whether the person on the proch was in fact the gunman and I was being held hostage or something. But then I think about the fact that he was wandering around our street in the dark, by himself, while all the other officers were up the street.

The name “Barney Fife” has occurred to me …

I guess this is life in the big city. It’s the payoff for having the library, the 7-11, the mechanic — all within walking distance.

But sometimes I wonder …

Spying on Pacifists, Environmentalists and Nuns

From Truthout:

Takoma Park, Maryland – To friends in the protest movement, Lucy was an eager 20-something who attended their events and sent encouraging e-mails to support their causes.

Only one thing seemed strange.

“At one demonstration, I remember her showing up with a laptop computer and typing away,” said Mike Stark, who helped lead the anti-death-penalty march in Baltimore that day. “We all thought that was odd.”

Not really. The woman was an undercover Maryland State Police trooper who between 2005 and 2007 infiltrated more than two dozen rallies and meetings of nonviolent groups….

Maryland officials now concede that, based on information gathered by “Lucy” and others, state police wrongly listed at least 53 Americans as terrorists in a criminal intelligence database – and shared some information about them with half a dozen state and federal agencies, including the National Security Agency.

Among those labeled as terrorists: two Catholic nuns, a former Democratic congressional candidate, a lifelong pacifist and a registered lobbyist. One suspect’s file warned that she was “involved in puppet making and allows anarchists to utilize her property for meetings.”

Beware the puppet-makers ….

Read the rest here.