Tre Johnson writes at Dearth of a Nation.
After the Latest Freddie Gray Acquittal, All I Feel Is Numb
What more can you write, post, scream, cry, cuss and pontificate about after a while? At some point, there’s a leaden numbness that creeps into the blood when these moments announce themselves. They’re like bizarro action movies; the whole narrative is reversed, and while we experience the same series of fake climaxes and plot twists, by the time of the denouement, you feel foolish, remembering and realizing that when you sat down to watch this play out, the outcome was never in question.
That’s what Freddie Gray’s death and court proceedings surrounding it feel like to me: the predictable outcome to a decidedly fucked-up action film. As the latest verdict was handed down involving Gray’s death, that old feeling came crawling back again. The initial incident literally set Baltimore ablaze, confounding many people inside and outside the city as to why so many blacks would feel inclined to protest so much, so angrily, so loudly and so violently. In that sense, that’s when the country feels the most unflatteringly colorblind; an entire nation, it seems, incapable of understanding what could be troubling people to act out in such a manner, taking to the streets in protest.
It can be hard to appreciate that those moments aren’t only about Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. It can be hard to understand that black people in this country are intimately familiar with injustice. These murders don’t represent mere incidents of injustice, of “he said, authority said” narratives; these represent a legacy in the country so old it makes these situations preordained. We’ve been here before is what I’m saying. The constant exoneration and adulation of law enforcement makes sense if it’s never been a cudgel used against you.
I remember being a child in elementary school, drawing and coloring policemen: the bright smiles, the shiny caps, the impeccable uniforms and the billy clubs that seemed more likely to be used to shoo away dogs or, at worst, winos. I remember a school field trip to a police station; donning one of those uniform caps, the adult-sized hat falling over my eyes and me playfully tilting it back so that I could see. Sitting in the passenger seat of a cruiser as an officer showed me how the radio dispatch worked; clapping and laughing with my classmates when the stationary cruiser’s sirens were turned on, blue-red-blue-red-blue-red-blue-red whipping across our faces.
But I can also remember years later being stopped in my neighborhood in Ewing, N.J., and being placed face-down on the hood of a cruiser and having my book bag and my intentions searched by two officers as a few residents stood on their porches or in their windows, watching. Then and now, I can still hear that scratchy dispatch box conversation between the officers and an operator discussing who I was (“black male. 13-14 years old. Book bag. Lives at…”).
Fast-forward to 2001 Houston, Texas, and being pulled over off a highway onto a feeder road. The driver, a Cuban woman who could have passed as white; myself (black) in the backseat and my roommate (black) up front in the passenger seat. This time, as we heard the cop ask our friend if she was being taken for a ride against her will, I stared straight ahead into an empty lot briefly illuminated by the racing red-blue-red-blue-red-blue siren lights that I first saw as a boy. When we finally pulled off, allowed to ride back into the city unadulterated, the cruiser followed us for about a mile before finally turning off the road. I was angry, relieved and terrified all at once.
That stays with you.
How is trust in the system eroded? When that system takes you and your people for a ride again and again and again. Each time, whether you’re Freddie or Tre, there’s the pervasive, perverse justification of what happens. A rationale that feels like it exists outside of the law and yet is supported by it. If you’re part of a group oblivious to or untouched by this, it can be tricky turf to navigate in your mind; as a black citizen, this sort of topography feels like being asked to navigate a mine field. Each death, each injustice shows you where things can go awry, can combust, but none of them actually show you where to step next. So you walk blind in a society that tells you that you’re the issue, the problem; that your body, your judgment, your character, your class, your dress, your habits, your tone, your children, your hairstyle, your car, your toys, your book bag, your hoodie, your lovers are all reasonable cause to be tossed into the grass with a cop’s knee in your back as you try to go to a pool, to be tossed into the back of a van, only to die later.
So you walk. And what more can you say? Freddie Gray had priors, was in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time (or the right neighborhood at the right time) and was maybe high, maybe wasn’t; maybe had something on him, maybe didn’t, but in the van he goes, rolling through a city, his city, unshackled and surrounded by officers and somehow, some way, his neck essentially becomes unhinged from his body. And when he finally arrives to the precinct he needs a toe-tag, not central booking. You can imagine Freddie, Eric, Sandra, Dejerria, Trayvon, Tymeir all being kids like me, on field trips to precincts, goofily wearing hats; wide-eyed learning about handcuffs, guns, receiving overviews of mechanically cited rules and laws. All of it fitting neatly in an orderly, sane fashion.
In each one of those situations, the officers involved eventually acquitted, dismissed or unpunished.
So you walk. And what more can you say? Nearly a year later, a different situation and trial wraps up as Brock Turner, a young white man who raped a woman on the ground behind a dumpster after a house party, gets taken in, peacefully, and faces a trial that feels more like a failed high school debate club contest. His punishment for a crime there is no question he committed, is a 6-month sentence determined on his potential greatness and what not being given a second chance might mean to his life. There are no stories of rough rides, mistreatment, negligence, abuse or brutality for anyone — save his victim who, between the attack and trial, was essentially assaulted twice. Turner will go back to a life marred — maybe — by inconvenience, but with a life nonetheless.
What more can you say with all this? They walk.