On Friday, May 1, Marilyn J. Mosby, the States Attorney for Baltimore City, announced she had found probable cause to prosecute six Baltimore police officers for the death of Freddie Gray. Gray died while in police custody on April 12.
Her act was electric, turning angry protests and riots into a celebration. For the African-American community, finally, the state had acted to enforce the law even against the police, making it clear that no one can be treated as if they were less than human. Mosby acted in 18 days, about one-fourth the time Missouri officials consumed before making their determination about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
In her clear statement, she described the “comprehensive, thorough and independent” investigation that had been undertaken by investors of the Police Integrity Unit, as well as by the state medical examiner and the Baltimore Police themselves.
‘A rough ride’
Gray, she concluded, had been arrested illegally, having committed no crime. He died in police custody from injuries suffered while under arrest. He was handcuffed and shackled and, against Baltimore police regulations, placed in a van with no seatbelts, and no way to protect himself when thrown about.
The van stopped repeatedly, with Gray asking for medical assistance. His request ignored, he was left shackled without a seatbelt. This was probably an instance of what is known as a “rough ride,” which police use to purposefully punish someone.
Mosby’s action was a courageous one. She is 35, and took her office only a few months ago. The head of the Police Union has already accused her of a “rush to judgment” and called for her to step aside for a special prosecutor. (Although a finding of probable cause only begins the process; all of these defendants can receive their day in court before judgment is rendered).
Given the facts, Mosby stood up. She is not an antagonist of the police. She comes from a long line of police officials. Her father, mother, grandfather and many aunts and uncles were all police officers.
In her announcement of the charges, she stated, “These accusations of these six officers are not an indictment of the entire force…The actions of these officers will not and should not, in any way, damage the important working relationships between police and prosecutors as we continue to fight together to reduce crime in Baltimore. Thank you for your courage, committee and sacrifice for the betterment of the community.”
Serve and protect
Throughout the Baltimore upheaval, she consistently praised the courage of those demonstrating peacefully for justice and the dedication and courage of the police for protecting the city “from those who want to destroy it.”
Mosby was criticized for speaking to the demonstrators in her statement: ““To the people of Baltimore and demonstrators across America, I heard your call for ‘No Justice, No peace,’” she said. “Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.” But a prosecutor speaking out to calm her city surely is doing the right thing. She was criticized for telling Freddie Gray’s family that “no one is above the law.”
But surely that is a principle that every prosecutor is sworn to uphold.
She will be under intense pressure from police and much of the public. The habit of deference to the police, the willingness to condone behavior so long as the “blue line” of police stays unified, exists in Baltimore as well as across the nation.
An impossible task
Baltimore’s Mayor as well as U.S. Representatives. Donna Edwards and Elijah Cummings defended her integrity and the process. She will need greater support as she moves forward with the case.
The riots in Baltimore, the demonstrations across the country, are sparked by police abuse. But the police are placed in an impossible task of trying to keep order in communities like Sandtown, scarred by desperate poverty and deep despair, with joblessness, boarded up homes, closed plants, crushed hopes leading to drugs and too often violence. “Black lives matter” is not simply a demand for equal treatment from police and the criminal justice system. It must be a call for jobs, for schools, for hope.
Marilyn Mosby can’t provide that. But her decisive action gives people in Baltimore some hope for justice, and officials and people across the country an example to emulate. Her act is not simply about this instance of police brutality. It symbolizes the progress towards “liberty and justice for all” that we desperately need.
Jesse Jackson Sr. is the president and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition.