Comments about recent events in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray provide a glimpse at perhaps one of our greatest challenges — perception.
In this case, as in too many others involving police, perception seems to be black and white.
“I think that if you look at what’s happened over the course of the last year, you just got to scratch your head,” said House Speaker John Boehner on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” referring to the rash of fatal incidents involving police officers and African-American males.
“I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace,’” said Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to demonstrators in her city and around the country, as she announced the charges. To the youth of Baltimore, she declared, “Our time is now!” and urged peaceful demonstration.
Both comments made headlines. And both, though well intentioned, carried subliminal messages freighted with racial (not racist) undertones.
Boehner’s overly cautious remark was as starkly white as his OxiClean-ed, hand-pressed shirts. A man more accustomed to golf courses and marble hallways than to gritty urban streets, he was plainly trying to acknowledge that we have a police and race problem in America. But he sounded like he’d just landed on the planet.
Mosby’s remarks, jubilantly received by the Baltimore crowd, provoked high dudgeon elsewhere. Some of the words used to describe her performance have included “showboating,” “demagoguing” and “grandstanding.”
To some ears, Mosby sounded as though the cops’ convictions were a fait accompli. That she found the evidence convincing enough to justify the charges may ultimately also justify her bravura. Let’s do keep in mind that Gray’s offense was making eye contact with an officer and running away.
Gray’s voice box was crushed and his spine all but severed, according to his family. Anyone who watched the video could see that Gray was in terrible pain as he was led to the police van, where he was shackled and his pleas for help apparently ignored.
That his life ended in pain and horror is not in dispute. But no less a legal luminary than Alan Dershowitz has taken issue with the charges, saying, “There’s no plausible, hypothetical, conceivable case for murder under the facts as we now know them.”
Charges brought against the six officers included one count of second-degree murder, four counts of involuntary manslaughter, assault and misconduct in office.
In other words, Mosby threw everything she could against the six officers. Many have asked: For justice? Or to quell the passions of the streets? Perhaps both. Mosby surely calculated that announcing the charges as she did — with a microphone in a public place — would have a dramatic effect. (She declined to be interviewed for this column.)
Mosby also was speaking as a member of her community, long plagued with a history of police brutality, including last year’s fatal beating of Tyrone West. The medical examiner’s report concluded that West died of a prior heart condition that was exacerbated by dehydration, the July heat and his police encounter.
No charges were leveled against the police in that case. Thus, from the perspective of many among Baltimore’s protesters, the current charges are long overdue. Even so, one does worry that the six officers are paying not only for their role in Gray’s death, to whatever degree this is determined, but also for the cumulative sins of others.
To the officers, the cheering and horn-honking following Mosby’s words must have sounded like the Colosseum mob’s cry for blood. To an older generation of Americans, they were reminiscent of the reaction 20 years ago when a mostly black jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
Whites: He totally did it.
Blacks: It’s our turn, in so many words.
This past week, whites across America spoke softly about the Freddie Gray case: “Thank God three of the cops were black.”
President Obama, speaking after Mosby leveled her charges, called for truth. How, indeed, do we get to it? In a diverse nation, we'll never all see things exactly the same way, nor would we want to, but we might at least strive to recognize our own biases and judge our own perceptions as harshly as we do others’.