By Wes Moore with Erica L. Green. One World, 2020. 320 pages. $28/hardcover; $18/paperback; $4.99/eBook.
In April of 2015, I was living in Baltimore. I heard the terrible news of Freddie Gray’s untimely death at the hands of Baltimore police, saw the pain inflicted on my friends and neighbors as they struggled to understand how such things are possible, and shared the city’s grief. On April 27, returning to Baltimore from delivering a friend to Dulles Airport, my partner and I were astonished to find a large number of uniformed men in riot gear standing in formation as we drove by. We saw no unrest: only police. Five Days is the product of Baltimorean and author Wes Moore, created in his attempt to understand the uprising, what triggered it, who was drawn into it, and what motivated them.
That morning, Moore attended Freddie Gray’s funeral. We read that as he meditated on Freddie Gray’s life and its terrible end, he wondered whether this young man’s death would be the catalyst for change. Or would we go on as before, with speeches but no action?
Moore was raised by a single mother in the Bronx and Baltimore, and his success story might cause some to believe that the systems, structures, and policies we maintain are not really the problem. Such a belief—that individual effort can overcome all obstacles—obscures the racism that perpetuates the obstacles in question. Watching Baltimore’s escalating unrest, Moore worried that he was complicit in a cover-up of the reality of so many African Americans’ lives.
The west side was in shambles after the uprising. But Moore notes, “It was hard to tell which of the wrecked stores and rowhouses had been looted or burned that week and which had been falling apart for decades.”
Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12. What was his offense? He made eye contact with police officers and then ran. Doesn’t sound like an arrestable offense to you? How about this? When they caught him, he was found to be carrying a pocket knife in his jeans pocket. He was put in leg irons, manhandled into the back of a police van, and given a “rough ride” around the city for about 45 minutes. Upon the van’s arrival at the Western District police station, paramedics were called to help “an unconscious male.” They took him to the Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center where he died on April 19.
Moore tells the story of the uprising through the eyes of disparate Baltimoreans whom he interviewed.
One is a Baltimore police officer. The rioting found him and his command prepared for protests, not for a riot. He knew that when police engage, youthful protesters usually vanish, but as the protesters became increasingly riotous, this officer faced a lack of response as he shouted over the police radio for permission to engage.
Another is Greg, a former high school basketball star at one of Baltimore’s best high schools. Greg had dropped out of college after his father, who had been helping him pay his tuition, lost his job. Perhaps you saw a photo of a rioter riding a bicycle and wearing a gasmask in the news coverage. That was Greg.
Moore talked with a team member from the public defender’s office, which liberated a large number of children from the city’s jail after the uprising, most of them jailed without charges.
Another is Billy Murphy, the lawyer who represented Freddie Gray’s family in their wrongful death suit against the city of Baltimore. Speaking at Freddie’s funeral, he urged, “My brothers, I represent a family whose heart has been broken today. Let’s be clear about who broke it.”
In September of that year, the City of Baltimore agreed to a payment of $6.4 million to Freddie Gray’s family before the officers involved were tried in court. They were not convicted.
The taxpayers of Baltimore made reparations. The police department did not. Baltimore is now working under a consent decree with the Department of Justice, and some progress is being made toward just policing. Maryland’s General Assembly this year passed a repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which protected police from punishment for crimes which ordinarily would be punishable by law. Yet all around our nation, we hear reports of wrongful deaths of Black Americans perpetrated by police. Will we awaken to the need for major change in laws and attitudes in time to save ourselves and our country?
Rosalie Dance lives in Baltimore, and is a member of Baltimore (Md.) Meeting, Stony Run.