By Michael Anft
This article was originally published here by Urbanite Baltimore.
When all else failed, Freddie could run.
As a boy facing long odds in school and life, he would outrace friends on the football field and blow by them on the basketball court. As those odds played out when he was a young man, when he dealt drugs and made himself a presence in West Baltimore’s streets, projects, and alleyways, he’d run from the heat.
Freddie’s strategy—leave them grabbing at air—didn’t always work. He was arrested a dozen and a half times. But movement is freedom. Without fail, he’d run.
So when, on a sunny spring Sunday morning at the corner of North and Mount, right outside the King Grocery Mart where Freddie Gray often hung out with his boys despite the “No Loitering” sign, he and a Western District police lieutenant riding a bike toward the corner from the east briefly locked eyes, Freddie was off. The bike cop, who’d been riding in formation with three other officers, took off in pursuit.
Westward a half block to Bruce Street, no more than a tree-shaded alley decorated with trash, where he turned left. Galloping past a rolled-up carpet, old tires, a sofa. Flying past the seven houses on the west side of the next block down, five of them boarded up. Skirting the grass lot with the signs banning pets and ball playing. Across Presbury and into Gilmor Homes, a drab, low-rise housing project, where he entered a walkway called Bruce Court and pulled up.
“They weren’t going to catch him—Freddie was fast, man. But he surrendered anyway, just stopped right here,” says Kevin Moore, who points to a spot right in front of his apartment. “People talk about his asthma, and he always smoked those Black & Milds, but it never affected his physicality.”
Several of the pursuing police officers corralled Freddie. Officers searched him and found a spring-loaded pocket knife, the legality of which is still in question. It was enough to bring a charge, however. They carried Freddie to a squat stone wall where Presbury meets Bakbury Court, a carbon copy of Bruce Court a half-block over. More police arrived in cars. This is where Moore pulled out his cell phone, followed the scene, and recorded the images that traveled around the world.
“He didn’t weigh more than a buck twenty-five, and they was just throwing him around,” adds Mike Coner, Moore’s next-door neighbor.
Not more than a week earlier, Moore and Gray ran into each other and joked about “hooking up in prison.” Now, Freddie was face down on the sidewalk and on the verge of becoming a statistic.
After he died a week later, his spine mangled, his name would assume a place at the center of a chain of events that would rock the city: accusations of police violence, protests, riots, curfews, standoffs between citizens and police, the charging of six officers with crimes relating to Freddie’s death, a $6.4 million city payout to his family, and a national conversation about abusive policing and its effects on young men like Gray.
“There are thousands of Freddie Grays in this city,” says Warren Brown, a well-known criminal defense lawyer in Baltimore who has represented a few, though not Gray himself.
Friends and neighbors say he was a regular guy they called “Pepper,” though no one seems to know why. He was a joker—generous, respectful, easygoing, liked to get high. He preferred name-brand designer clothes, nice wheels, pit bulls, hot girls. His short life left us little more than that, and yet it has become a prism that reflects every ill that plagues this city. Crushing poverty. Fatherlessness. Joblessness. Childhood lead poisoning. Housing segregation. Police brutality. The endless street-to-jail cycle and the war on drugs that feeds it.
Whether you empathize with Gray and his messy race with life, or see him as a serial lawbreaker who shares responsibility for his fate, it is a Baltimore story. Freddie Gray was a scion of the city. He was raised on its streets, poisoned by its homes, educated in its schools, and then—allegedly—killed by its police officers. His was a life wholly shaped by the forces that act upon thousands of other young people here, and it bears a closer look.
It’s no longer easy to get a clear picture of Freddie Gray. As the legal drama surrounding his death proceeds, members of his immediate family have been largely shielded from the media by Billy Murphy, the attorney who negotiated the settlement of their civil brutality case against the city. Several did not answer a reporter’s calls or visits for comment, and Murphy declined to speak on the record. Police officials and leaders of the police union refused to comment on the specifics of Gray’s case, citing the pending case against the six officers involved.
But here’s what we do know: Born several months prematurely along with
a twin sister, Fredricka, at Maryland General Hospital twenty-six years ago to a mother who had been addicted to heroin, Freddie Carlos Gray Jr. grew up in slum houses in Sandtown, just a few blocks from where he was last arrested. Gray’s father, Freddie Sr., didn’t live with Freddie, Fredricka, or an older daughter, Carolina.
Before Freddie and Fredricka turned three, their mother, Gloria Darden, filed paternity suits against Freddie Sr. He signed off on papers stating he was the twins’ father and agreed to have $40 of his wages from a job at Johns Hopkins Hospital garnished weekly for child support.
Money was always an issue for the young, broken family. Darden, who has said she couldn’t read, had been expelled from middle school and lived on a disability check. Former neighbors say that Richard Shipley, the man she lives with now, sometimes worked in construction. At least once, when Darden was in drug treatment, their home was without food or electric service, according to court records. By the time the twins were three, Child Protective Services had become involved.
Despite their troubles, neighbors say that Darden and Shipley, who assumed the role of the children’s stepfather, did what they could to keep the family together. But the children were subject to a variety of predators, ones they couldn’t run from. At least one of them was sexually abused by someone outside of the immediate family, according to a lawyer’s testimony in an unrelated case.
Then there were the walls that closed in on Freddie and his sisters. The first six years of the twins’ lives were spent in homes that shed lead paint like dandruff, so the children could eat it, suck it from their hands, or breathe in its dust. From the time Freddie was two, the family paid $300 a month for a house on North Carey Street where, they said in a court deposition, paint flaked from window sills and the walls of bedrooms and hallways.
At one point, the Gray children each had lead levels in their blood that were more than seven times greater than what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say can cause brain damage. In the years Freddie lived there, his blood maintained a level that was at least twice the CDC threshold. He was one of more than 65,000 Baltimore children found to have dangerously elevated blood-lead levels between 1993 and 2013, a rate considered one of the highest in the nation.
Owned by Stanley Rochkind, an oft-cited inner-city landlord, the Carey Street house was home until 1996, when the family is believed to have moved one block north.
Neighbors remember young Freddie as a playful, agreeable kid. “I was devastated, I was numb to hear what happened to him,” says Rosalind Brown, who lived two doors down from the family, then moved into their Carey Street home two years after they left. “He was a nice boy, always smiling.” She raises her ten-year-old grandson Dominic in Freddie’s old house, and the child attends Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School, next to a playground recently dedicated to Gray in Upton. The house is safe now, she says: “They painted it up real good.”
Freddie was a thin, smallish boy who would later play wide receiver in a local football little league. Sports were a refuge for him, remembers another former neighbor, Will Tyler: “It was something to do besides run the streets.”
After Freddie entered school, he was diagnosed with ADHD, was often truant, and, along with Fredricka, attended special education classes. The pair exhibited behavioral problems. Freddie failed several grades. Although some published accounts say he graduated from Carver Vocational Technical High School, the nearly all-black public school that serves the neighborhood, it appears Freddie actually dropped out in ninth grade. High school graduation was a criterion for successfully completing one of several stints on probation. There’s no evidence, at least in the court record, that he met that requirement.
The long-term impact of the Gray children’s lead exposure would play out in court a dozen years after they moved out of the Carey Street house. In 2008, the office of local attorney Evan Thalenberg filed a lead paint lawsuit against Rochkind on the Grays’ behalf, asking for a combined $5 million-plus in damages, nearly $2 million for Freddie. The suit alleged that lead poisoning from living in the Carey house resulted in “permanent and severe brain injury” to all three siblings and “will prohibit the Plaintiffs from gaining in any painful [sic] occupation, activity, or pursuit, as well as from performing any duties requiring the full and normal use of their mind, body, and limbs.”
The children had been treated at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, sometimes as inpatients. Pictures presented as evidence in the lawsuit show a smiling four-year-old Freddie with his sisters against a backdrop of almost-bare walls—he looks both happy and doomed.
But the child in that photo was long gone. The twins were eighteen when their lead-poisoning case was tried, and both were incarcerated by that time: They had to petition the court to allow them to wear “civilian clothes.” (The charges against Fredricka would ultimately be dropped.) Freddie, after saying his piece in court, went back to jail, a place he would become too accustomed to.
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