Language and the Uprising: Writers in Baltimore Schools Respond to Freddie Gray

Five years later, very little regarding Freddie Gray has been settled. We still do not know exactly how he died and because of that, it can be hard to even know how to begin to discuss it. Calling the weeks of protest and one day of rioting and the illegal curfew an “Uprising” still angers so many people. They’ll tell you that’s “political correctness” or they’ll say worse things than that. They of course, prefer the euphemistic “unrest” or more likely, “riots,” even though riots—in plural—is not accurate. There weren’t riots. Baltimore Beat cofounder Baynard Woods located “a very clear taxonomy: the uprising was the entire thing; the riot is what happened on April 27 at Mondawmin; the protests were all of the individual marches and demonstrations that made up the uprising.” He wrote that in June of 2015, when many of us were still processing it all, so why we’re still unpacking this five years later is not because it’s just that complicated but because a lot of people benefit from simplifying everything that happened for those couple weeks into “the riots.”

The same goes for Freddie Gray’s death. The most common way to refer to it is “Freddie Gray’s death in police custody,” and you’ll see that here on the Beat too because well, it’s the way to refer to it that seems the least loaded and closest to accurate since we don’t actually know what happened to him. Or rather, it all remains unclear what happened to him. This is everything that people hate about journalism—as they should. This “Well, actually”-ing of very serious events involving people’s lives all reduced into a kind of language that doesn’t really mean anything at all. “Death in police custody” is a concession to power pretending to be the “objective” way to handle it.

In some ways, “killed by police,” would seem to be a “compromise” but again, so many facts and details surrounding Gray’s arrest and the ride in that police van just aren’t fully accessible to most of us and likely never will. That said, journalist Justine Barron recently published, “Freddie Gray: Five Years Later,” for the website The Appeal. Barron’s work builds on the reporting she did on the podcast “Undisclosed” along with Amelia McDonnel-Parry and calls attention to the second stop after Gray was arrested and one where many witnesses saw Gray thrown into the van headfirst. Very quickly that second stop and all those witnesses left the narrative. Her story brings them back. This piece opens up a whole new understanding of Gray’s death and what led to it and typically. A lot of people with varying degrees of power have decided we know all we need to know about Gray. Gilmor Homes is being knocked down. A surveillance plane has been approved to fly over the city. An ongoing criminal enterprise within the Baltimore Police Department that continues to implicate more officers remains inexplicably, “just a few bad apples.” Police shot a sixteen year-old with a replica gun the other day.

Freddie Gray wasn’t murdered—technically. That’s because “murder” is a legal term even though pretty much everybody except for well, lawyers and reporters, use the word more colloquially. A killing becomes a “murder” when a representative of the state charges someone with that and then, jury or judge decides that charge was “deserving.” For most of us though, it means the harshest kind of killing, intentionality, cruelty, and so on. We all remember Marilyn Mosby on that May morning and the words, “depraved heart murder” as one of the charges against the police who were with Gray when he was chased and tackled and arrested and put in a police van. So this is why you hear people declare, “Freddie Gray was murdered” because it was a charge that never became a conviction. And people also say it was “murder” because if people who were not police officers had done what police officers did to Gray, we wouldn’t be hedging calling it “murder” and I don’t think there would have been all of that hand wringing surrounding it.

Calling what happened to Freddie Gray “a murder” is is a visceral reaction and making room for that kind of reaction is important to the Beat. So you’ll see in the essays and poems and reflections from the writers of Writers In Baltimore Schools (WBS) the word “murder.” It is how these writers feel and it is how a lot of people in Baltimore still feel. The writing the Beat is publishing this week came out of WBS’ Write-In for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, which took place on Saturday, April 25. 

I reached out to WBS Director Patrice Hutton to describe the write-in and its significance to WBS.

“On May 3, 2015, Writers in Baltimore Schools held a Write-In for Freddie Gray at 2640 Space. That we chose to hold our 10th birthday celebration in the same space in December 2019 was no accident. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody and subsequent Uprising led WBS to take a hard look at our work and figure out how to better center the voices of young people in Baltimore,” Hutton said. “This past Saturday, we held a second Write-In for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, this one over Zoom and with nods to the effect of COVID-19 on Baltimore. Many of the same young writers—now college students—attended. Two of them, Afiya Ervin and Marie Mokuba, led the write-in.”

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