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The Luxury of Hope

What the Baltimore prosecutor's charges in the Freddie Gray case mean to native residents

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

How people reacted to Baltimore City prosecutor Marilyn Mosby's press conference Friday announcing charges in the Freddie Gray case seemed to depend upon how close they are to Baltimore. As I live-tweeted the presser, friends who were familiar with how these police brutality cases have played out in other cities reminded me to manage my expectations. "This is just a first step," one said. "Let's wait for an indictment," another hedged. "This is a very small victory."

I understood their reluctance to cheer. There’s a long way to go before we’ll know whether the six police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death last month, including one officer accused of second-degree murder, will be convicted of any wrongdoing. No one here in Baltimore City is naive about the possibility that these officers may walk free. We know exactly what Mosby is up against, in demanding accountability from police officers for whom the concept is novel. But we’re still wild with anticipation and unabashed hope. 

During the weekend of rejoicing and resistance that followed the presser, I checked in with old friends to see if they were feeling as invigorated as I was. Did Mosby’s bold statement that “no one is above the law” resonate because she was backing it with felony charges, or did it ring as hollow as other similar statements had in years past? Did this moment feel as seminal to them as it did to me? I asked writer Koye Berry, certified nursing assistant Katrice Evans, and mother Nikia Washington to tell me what they thought the future might hold for our city. 

Berry, 30, said that while he doesn’t know what will happen to the officers who stand accused of killing Gray, he found Mosby’s decision to prosecute them surreal. “It feels so wild to have someone call a murderer a murderer,” he said. “[I felt] nothing but positivity in the moment. But you get a little space from it and think, ‘This is just someone doing their job.’ How thrilled should I be that murderers are being indicted for murder? It’s like throwing a little party every time someone gets your order right at McDonald’s. It’s what’s supposed to happen.”

Washington, 36, says that she does think Mosby’s announcement is a sign that things are going to change in Baltimore City, but she also believes that Mosby wouldn’t have acted so quickly if teens hadn’t taken to the streets and confronted police last Monday. “I don’t condone the rioting. I don’t condone the looting,” she said, “but they lit the spark for this—literally and figuratively.”

Berry also characterizes himself as cautiously optimistic. “This state’s attorney seems a little more tough, so I have a little more hope than I’d normally have. I don’t think this will be as easy to get out of as [shooting Michael Brown] was for Darren Wilson,” he said. 

In Baltimore City, justice is an amorphous concept. It means something different for everyone I ask—but the definitions I hear are always complex and evolving. Evans, who was also born and raised in the city, says justice looks like more opportunities for young people like Gray.

“Out of all of this, I’m hoping that they will get real opportunities,” she said. Things like canvassing neighborhoods and compelling at-risk teens and young adults to attend job training, she says, will prevent future fatalities like Gray. “Some people have to be taken by the hand and walked through,” Evans told me.“[Boys] live a life of poverty and then graduate high school—or don’t—then commit petty crimes that lead to heavier crimes that lead to being unable to get a job because of their criminal history.  I have so many cousins who, even at 21 and 22, want to change their lives around and feel like it’s too late almost, according to society. They’re ‘damaged.’”  

Regardless of the case’s eventual outcome, Berry believes Mosby’s announcement broke from convention and set a new precedent. “We’re constantly being told by politicians and corporate media that [the police misconduct and brutality] we’ve been witnessing isn’t really happening.” He says Mosby’s announcement challenged that longstanding sense of denial.

Washington knows all too well what it feels like for authority figures to insist that facts are figments of her imagination. She has more of an emotional stake than most in the outcome of this case. Her younger brother, Eugene (nicknamed “Junior”), was 18 when he was killed by a Baltimore City officer in 2000 under circumstances that remain questionable to this day.

Only one account of Junior's death was published: the officer's. The Baltimore Sun reported that Officer John Pizzurro chased Junior down an alley at 2 a.m., claiming he fit the description of a robbery suspect and that he had no choice but to shoot because Junior "wouldn't drop his weapon."

But Nikia claimed that there was no chase: Junior was already in the alley, relieving himself after departing a Memorial Day cookout. "The weapon he had in his hand was his penis," Washington said. Junior was shot four times in the chest and two times in the head. When asked to identify her attacker, the woman Officer Pizzurro suspected Junior of robbing said that it wasn't him. Officer Pizzurro, who was just a three-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department at the time of the incident, was subsequently allowed to retire early. "I never thought about anything happening to the officer, honestly,” Washington told me. “I just wanted answers and for someone to admit responsibility. We never got that." 

The Washington family challenged the officer's version of events, but received little support from the police department. "We waited for answers and actions and never got them. They swept this incident under the table so quickly and stopped answering our calls." 

For the Washingtons and countless others in Baltimore City with similar police stories, Mosby's press conference had heightened significance. 

Washington says she didn't learn to distrust Baltimore City police until Junior was killed, and that a conviction for any of the officers charged with illegally arresting Gray would provide a small sense of vicarious closure. "Justice for Freddie Gray would be justice for my brother," she said. 

Evans believes that even if Mosby’s office doesn’t get a conviction in the Gray case, she’s pleased with the message being sent to the entire Baltimore City Police Department right now: Human lives are valuable, regardless of criminal history or personal background. “This has to be a long-term partnership [between local government] and the black communities they serve,” she said. “Police should have to do community service in the areas they police to foster greater understanding and sensitivity.”

She says the case has made her even more committed to talking about and pursuing solutions in Baltimore City. “There’s been a disconnect between people who get out of impoverished communities and those who are still there,” she told me, noting that she recently purchased a house in suburban Baltimore County, but returns to the city where she was raised every other weekend. “Everybody else in my family still lives there.” She is hoping Mosby's pursuit of justice and accountability serves as a reminder to others who’ve placed distance between themselves and the harsher circumstances their loved ones and friends in the city continue to face: “We have to stay connected.”

Horns honked at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues for hours following Mosby’s press conference. Spontaneous dance parties erupted on countless city streets. Cheering over the faintest possibility of justice, however each resident defined it, wore on until well after the city’s 10 p.m. curfew, since lifted. Baltimore City residents know that indictments won’t be easy, let alone even a single conviction. Months from now, Mosby’s long list of charges for each officer may seem like nothing more than a symbolic gesture. But, even after a weekend’s distance, the people of Baltimore are allowing themselves the luxury of hope. This kind of hope is never premature.