One of the many disturbing dimensions of Freddie Gray’s death after riding in a Baltimore Police van is how little the public knows about the circumstances. We have collectively been kept in the dark, even though several police officers were in the van with Gray and presumably know a great deal that the rest of us do not. No doubt this asymmetry is a source of anger to Baltimore residents.
We might have consoled ourselves with the usual bureaucratic platitude that officials do not comment on ongoing investigations, but even now, with the police investigation concluded, those officials are silent about the cause of death.
Well, almost silent. An anonymous source within the Baltimore Police Department has leaked to the Washington Post a document quoting an unnamed prisoner, also reputedly in the van, who testifies that Gray “was intentionally trying to injure himself.”
Thus the same police who are unwilling to share the facts they have known since the day they arrested Gray are very much willing to distribute exculpatory testimony of unknown provenance under a shroud of non-official disclosure. What exactly is going on here? If the testimony is true, why not announce it officially? If it is false, or one view among competing views, what is the purpose of the leak, except to gaslight the public? Or are we witnessing the early stages of a campaign to temper outrage in advance of a finding that police are not culpable, either because they are definitively innocent of wrongdoing or because there is insufficient evidence to sustain charges?
In this context, it is no surprise that the twenty-five-year-old Gray’s extensive arrest record is making the rounds on right-wing media, such as Fox News and the Daily Caller. As Reason’s Ed Krayewski explains, the rap sheet tells us nothing about how or why Gray died, only why he ran from police. But along with the selective leak and photos of the man’s scowling visage, the rap sheet is doing for Gray what pot-smoking allegations did for Trayvon Martin, stolen cigars did for Michael Brown, and accusations of illegal cigarette sales did for Eric Garner: damning the deceased with the taint of criminality and self-endangerment, the easier to justify his death.
That all this is happening amid great uncertainty about Gray’s demise is only fitting. At the risk of discounting individual lives lost and ruined, what matters most for the nation as a whole is the pattern, not the specifics of each instance. Those details of course matter from the perspective of the justice system, but the pattern provides the background against which those specific facts are interpreted in our wider politics.
Freddie Gray is another black man who was alive until a police encounter, and in response officials—talking when it suits them, keeping mum when it doesn’t—and ideological supporters of police are doing what they can to spin the story against the one witness who can’t speak whether he would want to or not. The dead man is once again forced to defend himself, while authorities manipulate public opinion from a position of greater knowledge.
Reflecting on the announcement of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in Brown’s killing, long-time Boston Review contributor Colin Dayan wrote at Al Jazeera America of “a carefully orchestrated performance” by Missouri prosecutor Robert McCulloch as he delivered the news. His was “the posture of casual but absolute power along with the recognition that it cannot be stemmed.” The performance of public officials in Baltimore has been more reactive, less practiced, but it is a performance nonetheless. We are witnessing a theatre of ideas, in which the categories—authority and citizen, cop and ghetto black, presumptively justified police action and inherently unjustifiable thug violence—that determine the larger trajectory of urban politics are distinguished and produced.
It may be that police did nothing to hurt Gray. But instead of saying so, they are maintaining a state of unrest fueled by doubt. Protestors understand that they are marching for more than Gray, and officials understand this too. Protestors are marching against unjust institutions of coercion and control. In response, those officials have turned to propaganda—sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, sometimes unspoken.