By George E. Curry
Baltimore is not Ferguson. That was evident by opposite official reactions to the death of an unarmed African American male killed at the hands of local police in the respective cities. At the time of Michael Brown’s death last year in Ferguson, Mo., the city with a two-thirds Black majority was governed by a White mayor and a White city manager, had only one Black on the 6-member city council, and had a White police chief who directed a department that was 94 percent White. Equally telling, less than 12 percent of voters turned out to cast a ballot in 2014.
Though also predominantly Black – 63.7 percent – Baltimore has a Black mayor, police commissioner, state’s attorney and president of a city council that is 60 percent African American. The police force is 48 percent Black.
After the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch mangled his grand jury presentation – perhaps deliberately – that resulted in the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, the White officer who fatally shot Michael Brown.
As the New York Times pointed out, the St. Louis County Prosecutor strayed from customary behavior by, among other things:
• Convening the grand jury for 25 days over three months instead of the usual one;
• Calling 60 witnesses, possibly confusing jurors, instead of only a few that are usually called;
• Allowing Wilson to testify for four hours, without being cross-examined, though most potential defendants do not usually testify before a grand jury and
• Taking the unusual step of not making a recommendation to the grand jury.
So, no one was surprised that the jury of nine Whites and three Blacks voted not to indict Darren Wilson.
In Baltimore, things were different. First, voters had ousted the incumbent state attorney by electing Marilyn J. Mosby over Gregg L. Bernstein in the Democratic primary. Though on the job less than four months, the 35-year-old Mosby made the courageous decision to charge six Baltimore police officers with crimes that included murder and manslaughter instead of conveniently shifting that responsibility to a grand jury.
Mosby made her decision several hours after receiving the medical examiner’s report that concluded that Gray’s death was a homicide.
At a news conference, she said: “The findings of our comprehensive, thorough and independent investigation, coupled with the medical examiner’s determination that Mr. Gray’s death was a homicide that we received today, has led us to believe that we have probable cause to file criminal charges.”
She also said, “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”
Shortly after Mosby announced her decision, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also an African American, said she was “sickened and heartbroken” by the charges outlined by Mosby. She said, “To those of you who want to engage in brutality, misconduct, racism and corruption, let me be clear: There is no place for you in the Baltimore City Police Department.”
The fact that Rawlings-Blake and Mosby were in a position to act boldly was possible only because Black voters put them in office. You can’t reasonably hope for that kind of outcome when only 12 percent of the voters turn out for an election, which was the case in Ferguson.
But don’t get it twisted: Having Blacks in office or voting in large numbers do not guarantee justice will be done. Blacks vote in respectable numbers in New York City yet the White officer, David Pantaleo, was never prosecuted in the choking death of Eric Garner.
In Baltimore, the state’s attorney’s investigation revealed that many of the early assertions made by the police department, under the supervision of Black Police Commissioner Anthony Batts were inaccurate. Even worse, of the six officers charged, three of them – Sgt. Alicia White and Officers William Porter and Caesar Goodson, Jr. – are African American.
Goodson faces the most serious charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. He was driving the van that transported Gray and was accused of not placing the suspect in a seatbelt for his safety.
Porter was told twice that Gray was in need of a medic, but never called one, according to the prosecutor. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault and other charges. White arrived on the scene after Gray had been placed in the police van. But she, too, was accused of failing to summon a medic. She was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office.
The other officers – Edward Nero, Garrett Miller and Lt. Brian Rice – were charged with, among other things, second-degree assault.
Clearly, having Blacks in key positions is no guarantee that justice will be served. But it certainly increases the odds of that happening, as we have seen in Baltimore.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and BlackPressUSA.com. He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook. See previous columns at http://www.georgecurry.com/columns.