A Bloody History of Police Brutality in Baltimore

When the media say that violence erupted among rioters last week, they need to check their history. Violence erupted in Baltimore at least a century ago at the hands of police.

Police officers in riot gear walk toward protesters along Reisterstown Road near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore April 27, 2015.  
Police officers in riot gear walk toward protesters along Reisterstown Road near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore April 27, 2015.   Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Read the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal and they tell you that violence broke out in Baltimore last Monday. You might have heard an NPR correspondent refer to an “eruption of violence” in the city. But the New Republic’s Rebecca Traister disagrees: “Violence broke out and erupted not when students threw stones at police, but when Freddie Gray suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody, and, eventually, died.”

Traister’s equating of the eruption of violence to the actions of police is an important historical distinction. Whose violent acts actually begat the current crisis? The Baltimore Sun reported in September that in the preceding four years, “more than 100 people [had] won court judgments or settlements related to allegations,” against police, “of brutality and civil rights violations.” Reporter Mark Puente detailed the “head trauma, organ failure and even death” awaiting victims. But this was not when the violence first broke out.

Look back to 1997, when Christian Parenti explained that “police violence is soaring.” “By mid-August of [that] year Baltimore police had already shot more than 70 civilians,” he added. It was the dawn of the “zero tolerance” era.

The approach directed cops to “stop, frisk and arrest vast numbers of young black and Hispanic men for minor offenses,” Jeffrey Rosen explained. The city’s population was 640,000 in 2005. There were more than 100,000 arrests that year.

And violence broke out in March of 1980 when “an off-duty police detective, without warning, shot and paralyzed a 17-year-old black youth,” the Associated Press reported. “The officer later said he thought the youth, Ja-Wan McGee, was going to rob a pizza parlor, but young McGee was taking a cigarette lighter out of his pocket.”

Look back even further to August 1978, when the Baltimore Afro-American broke a story about a trio of white cops. They issued black teenager Derek Copeland “a green pass giving the youth permission to walk neighborhood streets”—“similar,” the paper observed, “to the one issued by the South African government led by John Vorster.”

And the seeds of violence were there on the early morning of June 27, 1969, when Helen Smith sat on a stoop with Donald Best. Patrolman Alvin Nachman approached with his dog, and an order: “Hold the noise down.” No neighbors had complained. The dog attacked Smith first, and the officer maced her as she tried to fight off the animal. She got 75 stitches, and Best got 32 “to close the dog-bite wounds in his side and hip,” the Afro disclosed. “Both Mrs. Smith and Mr. Best were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. They were both forced to spend the night in jail after treatment for their wounds.”

But violence had hit Baltimore five years earlier. Raymond Petty drove there from Halifax, Va., to visit his sister Hazel in June 1964. She was ill and the outlook was not good. Raymond Petty was in a mild car accident after arriving. His brother Louis was at the scene; the cops arrived. The Afro described how policemen bludgeoned Louis “although they had arrested him illegally, and continued to beat him in a patrol wagon while transporting him to the police station.” He was dead two days later.

And before that, in 1956. There were five police killings in four months. Patrolman Charles Fennell shot Harry Boyd Jr. in the back on June 25. Patrolman Walter Mina Jr.’s bullet wounded Robert Harper in the leg on July 7. The blood drained from Harper’s injury until he died. On Aug. 15, Sgt. Albert Heck killed 24-year-old Frank J. Williams. Patrolman Benjamin Ledden opened fire on Sept. 19—in self-defense, he insisted—terminating Donald Jackson’s life at 23. Patrolman Marshall V. Brewer took out 14-year-old Benjamin Brown with a rifle he “didn’t know was loaded.” Of these five policemen, only Brewer was suspended.

Those were just the 1956 shootings. The Afro’s Elizabeth Murphy Oliver wrote of her visit to the Northwestern police station that September. What she saw shattered her. She “hoped it was a dream.”  It wasn’t. She had witnessed “a policeman beat a man and drag him roughly on the floor while the victim writhed and rolled in agony.” Vernon Johnson “was still sobbing and holding his eye” when it ended. “Blood was dripping from somewhere.” Oliver “wondered how an eye could run blood,” as she watched Johnson’s tears fall, “mixed with blood.” The Afro visited Johnson a week later. “His eye is still closed. He doesn’t sleep much, and his chest hurts when he breathes.” But 1956 was hardly the beginning of police brutality.

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