One day after a grand jury in Charleston, South Carolina, indicted Michael Slager in the murder of Walter Scott — the Black man slain by the officer following a routine traffic stop in April, defense attorneys in a parallel case in Baltimore, Maryland — this one against six officers whose negligence led to the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray while in their custody, also in April — are calling for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to step down.
The cases, which seem so similar at first glance, are vastly different in almost every imaginable way.
In Charleston, once video evidence surfaced of Slager’s pursuit and execution of Scott, officials acted swiftly. Slager was arrested and charged with murder within hours of the Charleston Police Department’s review of the video.
As reported in a previous Diverse article, the surfacing of the video and swift action of officials were key in suppressing the violence that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.
“The Charleston Police Department and the local prosecutor, as well as the mayor of North Charleston, have done a very good job of receiving, respecting and responding to community concerns,” said Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. At the time, Stoughton added a caveat, “With that being said, we haven’t gotten an indictment yet; there’s still a lot of process that has yet to come.”
He also noted that the reason the arrest came swiftly was “because a bystander happened to be walking by and happened to have the presence of mind to turn on his cell phone camera.”
But now an indictment has come down and Charleston is on its way down the road of “process,” absent of much of the drama that has encircled Baltimore.
Stark differences in Baltimore
When evidence began to surface in the case of Freddie Gray, there was mass confusion, mixed messages from leadership and what many protesters considered egregiously delayed action toward justice in the case. There was an 11-day delay between the time the officers were suspended (with pay) and when they were charged for Gray’s death. The city broke out into violence: Riotous protests continued for over a week and a city-mandated curfew was implemented.
Attorneys for the officers, citing an email sent about three weeks prior to Gray’s death, Mosby had directed police to patrol the area where he was arrested more aggressively in response to community concerns about drug trafficking there. The defense wants Mosby to recuse herself from the case, saying she is now prosecuting those officers for following her directive.
Many wondered how the largest city in one of the nation’s wealthiest, most educated states could have gotten to this place.
Baltimore historian and University of Maryland University College professor Edwin Johnson said that, for residents of the area, it is not difficult to see how the tension that had been brewing in the city for decades finally came to a head around this issue.
“While Baltimore has its share of Maryland’s wealth, this wealth has always been concentrated. It isn’t difficult to travel through Baltimore and notice that many of the city’s wealthy residents live within blocks of some of the city’s poorest residents,” he said. “It is almost as if poverty and crime know that they are not permitted to cross certain intersections in a manner similar to the laws of the early 1900s. Everyone stays in their place.”
According to Johnson, Baltimore is one of the earliest cities to enact legal residential racial segregation. As early as the first decade of the 20th century, Baltimore City had statutes that restricted occupation of city blocks by race and ethnicity. Remnants of this practice are still evident in both the racial and socioeconomic contrast between the east and west sides of Baltimore City.
An April study out of Harvard University found that those in Baltimore City have the lowest rate of mobility out of poverty of any of the nation’s top 100 regions. Growing up, for every year spent in the city of Baltimore, there is a reduction of lifetime earnings by 0.86 percent per year of exposure, generating a total earnings penalty of approximately 17 percent for children who grow up there from birth, the authors found.
“It struck me that Maryland reportedly does so well in higher education and yet, the largest community ranks last in the country for people moving out of poverty,” said Connie K. Hayek, director of retention in the School of Health Professions at the Community College of Baltimore County.
“As research has shown, the best path out of poverty is education. And yet, apparently there is a problem in the Baltimore community with those living in poverty being able to access the higher education resources the state has to offer,” Hayek said.
Johnson said that the problem is in the reproductive nature of the racial lines drawn in the city for more than a century.
“In that schools like most other city resources are zoned to neighborhoods (zip codes), the neighborhoods regenerate with very few exceptions,” he said. Just as poverty and crime have been relegated to one side of the street, so have access to wealth and quality education in the city and surrounding county.
“The most significant factor that can be used to project or predict an individual’s future outcome is the condition of their parents. Accordingly, it is much easier for a college graduate to send their child to college than a parent who has not attended. Similarly, it is much easier for parents who have generated and managed wealth to teach their children to do the same,” continued Johnson. “Conversely, parents who have little exposure to education and educational opportunity are much more severely challenged at providing their children with the necessary information to have a better future.
“There are of course exceptions, but these are few and far between,” he added. “Without deliberate systematic intervention, most will sustain the condition of their parent(s) and pass it on to the next generation.”
In 1988, newly elected Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke declared Baltimore “the city that reads,” a moniker many say was inaccurate from its inception. A 2009 study by students at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, under the direction of professor Jean Lee Cole, reported that, “in a city of over 700,000, an estimated 200,000 adults were considered functionally illiterate.”
Said Johnson, “Baltimore was the self-proclaimed ‘City that Reads,’ while closing public libraries, and championing one of the nation’s highest illiteracy rates. Today, Baltimore has some of the nation’s most dilapidated school buildings and facilities, and the newest, most technologically advanced prison facilities.”
As in many cities, when the educational system failed many of the city’s youth, the correctional system was there to scoop them up.
“The underground economy readily received young African-American men who believed themselves to be out of options,” said Johnson. “The school system struggled to maintain relevance. All of the ills of a post-industrial city were prevalent in Baltimore. Violent crime, illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, single-parent families, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, addiction and distribution were all on a rise.”
It was in the midst of this set of circumstances that Freddie Gray was born to a mother who was addicted to heroin, one who admitted to being illiterate in court documents. The home in which he was raised contained toxic levels of lead in the paint on the walls, which his family alleged led to not only behavioral and medical problems, but educational problems as well.
“This is the toxic legacy of lead-based paint,” said Ruth Ann Norton, a founding member of the Maryland Lead Poisoning Prevention Commission, in a recent Baltimore Sun article. “Our kids are ill equipped to stay in the classroom, finish school. They’re very unlikely to go on to higher education. They’re less likely to be able to hold a job. … They’re less equipped to be able to overcome the poverty and other circumstances that pull them down.”
With Gray and many of his peers and those who have come behind, even once they made it to school, they are still met with many of the same challenges. Many are not performing at levels consistent with peers around the country on standardized tests — Gray himself was reportedly four grade levels behind in reading.
“Test scores have been below the state average for decades, and the high school dropout rate is more than twice the national average,” said Johnson. “Almost concurrent with election years is the discussion and threat of a state takeover of the Baltimore City [public school] system.”
Johnson said teachers in Baltimore are overstretched and underpaid, a narrative that has been repeated across the country, but one he said is particularly bad in Baltimore.
“Baltimore City teachers simultaneously [serve] as: social workers, psychologists, therapists and sociologists,” he said. “Before they [can] attempt to educate, they [have] to first address the countless issues that their students carried with them to school each day.
“Today, many Baltimore City students suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Their home environment is comparable to a war zone. The needs of these students far outweigh those of students from more affluent school districts nearby,” Johnson continued. “Additionally, these same districts tend to offer higher teacher salaries. A teacher choosing to work in Howard, Montgomery or Prince George’s Counties on average will earn $10,000 more annually than they would working in Baltimore City. These higher-paid positions come with less of the added social challenges found in Baltimore City School neighborhoods. If a teacher can earn more money with less stressful challenges, then why work in Baltimore City?”
Salaries are not the only resource issue facing the city’s schools, Johnson said. “In addition to lower salaries, Baltimore City Schools have been historically allocated less financial resources than necessary to appropriately serve their students.”
But this is not because the resources are not available. According to 2011 census data, Baltimore’s $15,483 per-pupil expenditure was second only to New York City’s $19,770 for highest per-student funding in the nation. Neighboring Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties ranked third — with $15,421 — and fifth — with $13,775 — in the nation, respectively.
Where does all the money go?
Johnson said the spending practices of Baltimore school officials have come under question “for decades.”
“One curious project is very difficult to forget, in that it stands as a beautiful monument” to misappropriated dollars in the Baltimore City School budget, he said. “The renovation of Baltimore City school headquarters on North Avenue is a daily reminder of questionable spending practices and priorities within the system.”
Saying, “The beautiful stately building is comparable to many of the historic edifices on the mall in Washington, D.C.,” Johnson reminded, “While the renovations of the headquarters took place, the vast majority of school buildings were in disrepair. Most were built prior to the availability of central air conditioning and pose miserable conditions on hot days. Old pipes fail and rupture regularly, and very few plumbing systems provide safe drinking water to water fountains. Many schools provide water that is safe for hand-washing, but unsafe for human consumption. Rodents, insects and other pests often attend classes more religiously than the students. The physical environment in many schools is far from conducive to learning and provides countless obstacles to academic achievement.”
Today, Johnson said, “Baltimore City school funding seems to remain in a state of crisis. Currently the system is in the process of laying off approximately 150 employees from the headquarters on North Avenue. This is in an effort to balance the upcoming annual budget and reorganize for long-term financial stability.”
And this continues to fare poorly for students’ chances of making it in higher ed. Those parents who have any hope for a college education for their children are largely turning away from the neighborhood zoned Baltimore City Public Schools.
“A generation ago, Baltimore City families striving to send a child to college hoped that their child could test into one of the ‘big three’”: Baltimore City College High School (City), Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (Poly) and Western High School, traditionally the “college-preparatory” high schools in the city, said Johnson.
“While the ‘big three’ continue to maintain their traditions of academic excellence, which date back to the 1800s, this generation of parents is learning to navigate Baltimore City’s charter school system,” he said. “Public charter schools seem to be the next evolution of the magnet school programs that were the vehicle of choice for many college bound families in the 1980s, especially in nearby districts such as Prince George’s County Public Schools. Like the magnet schools before them, the public charter schools have countless pros and cons and raise a myriad of questions regarding public education.”
As the city continues to grapple with the management of its school system — and as it continues to reap the fruits of a historically ill-attended system, Johnson said one thing is clear: “Every Baltimore City public school does not provide the same level of preparation, support and opportunity for college entry.”
It is also clear, then, that Freddie Gray was neither the first and may not be the last such case in the city.