Lessons from Freddie Gray's Baltimore

Lessons from Freddie Gray's Baltimore

The death of the 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray is predominantly associated with police racism and police brutality. The reality of social toxicity and structural violence is disturbingly more complicated.

Last year was one the deadliest years in the history of the city of Baltimore (Maryland). In 2015, 344 people lost their lives as the result of a homicide. More than 90 percent of the homicide victims were male, more than 90 percent were black, and more than half were between the ages of 18 and 30 - reflecting an urban reality that residents and civil rights activists say is devoid of legitimate job opportunities and caught up in the violent drug trade. Baltimore is a city of 626,000 people, 63 percent of whom are African-American. Over the past 25 years, the city has rarely seen less than one-fifth of its residents living below the poverty level. There is a 20-year difference in life expectancy between those who live in the most affluent (read: white) neighbourhoods in Baltimore and those who live in the most impoverished. Researchers of the Well-Being of Adolescents in Vulnerable Environments (WAVE) study found that teenagers growing up in West-Baltimore were much worse off than teenagers growing up in impoverished areas in Shanghai, Ibadan and New Delhi, cities that are all located in significantly less prosperous nations. Now add, to say the least, some very tense police-citizen relations to this mix and you have the background against which the 2015 riots following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American male who died in police custody, broke out. In line with the 2014 protests following the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, the people of Baltimore were ready to take to the streets to fight for justice.

Social Toxicity and Structural violence

Having somewhat monitored the news on Ferguson and also the news on Baltimore as covered by the (inter)national media, I was under the impression that the core of the problems that was driving the growing national unrest in African-American communities throughout the U.S. was police brutality and racism. The slogan “No Justice, No Peace: No Racist Police” only contributed to that image. Whereas it is obviously an important contributing factor that cannot be left out of the mix, the past lectures of the MLAW Programs course “Freddie Gray’s Baltimore: Past, Present and Moving Forward”, an eight-week course on which I sit in as part of my visiting position at the University of Maryland, have painted a slightly different picture. By reflecting on the situation in Baltimore through different ‘lenses’, various lecturers have painfully illustrated the deeply embedded and city-wide structural social, environmental and legal problems the Gray case embodies. This combination of factors, including the exposure to violence and a lack of social support have culminated in high levels of social toxicity on the streets of Baltimore making people feel that they are marginalised, targeted, and harassed. Although these feelings transcend the police organisation, as the street-level embodiment of the state’s many failures, their unjust actions are of great impact. The physical violence demonstrated by the police is visible and therewith easier identified than what is often referred to as structural violence. Structural violence refers to the systematic ways in which social arrangements and social structures harm or otherwise disadvantage individuals. It is subtle, mostly invisible, and often has no one specific person who can (or will) be held responsible. As Farmer (1996) notes, this violence is structural because the social arrangements causing it are embedded in the political and economic organisation of our social world. As already pointed out, the evidence of structural violence in the city of Baltimore is overwhelming.

Lessons for the Netherlands

Police-citizen relations in multicultural neighbourhoods and ethno-racial profiling are increasingly being debated and researched in the Netherlands. These debates have grown more heated over the past year and a half in which there were several (violent) incidents between the police and minority groups. In the wake of the media coverage on the riots in Ferguson, politicians but also scholars were fairly quick to warn about “Ferguson-type situations” in the Netherlands. Although any form of unjust policing should be taken very seriously and therefore scrutinised, we should also be very aware of drawing unjust parallels. Without dismissing the situation in the Netherlands as unproblematic, it is of vital importance to be aware of the completely different situation of inner-city life in the Netherlands versus inner-city life in the United States. The conditions for and levels of structural violence and social toxicity in the United States differ greatly from the situation in the Netherlands. It therefore remains to be seen to what extent current tensions in the Netherlands can and should indeed be explained by the same processes that seem to be driving similar tensions in the United States.

Over the next couple of weeks I hope to further explore the situation in Baltimore and the proceedings in the Freddie Gray trial through different – on the ground – perspectives and site visits. It is only by actually experiencing the underbelly of discomfort that the learning can begin.



Dear Adriaan,
Thanks for your question. The WAVE study is quite fascinating: In the five neighborhoods examined in the study, poverty was the common thread that linked these culturally diverse locations. Yet, there were great differences among the teens in these urban areas when it came to how they perceived their state of well-being. Teens from Baltimore and Johannesburg, South Africa, showed “poor perceptions about their physical environments, their sense of social cohesion, and their sense of safety within their neighborhoods.” And top of this, teens in these two cities felt more unsafe and had witnessed more violence than their peers living elsewhere. Although the researcher don't draw extremely form conclusions on how to fully explain for all the differences between teens from Baltimore/Johannesburg and the rest, a strong explaining factor seems to be found in a greater lack of social control and greater level of social disorganization (Shaw & McKay) and the proven prevalence of violence in the neighborhoods in these cities. More on the study can be found here: http://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(14)00355-3/fulltext

Adriaan Bedner

Interesting blog! Just one question: how would you explain the relatively bad score of the Baltimore youths on the WAVE?

Add a comment