I was back in salon the other day talking politics and current events with my witty, conservative hair stylist who whips the flatiron and Marseilles with the precision and flare of a true artist. After a rough morning on public transit, I had a lot of pent up frustration, which in turn gave me a lot to say. We started talking politics: Hillary’s halfhearted apology about her private email server shenanigans and the fundraising explosion that has happened around The Donald. It didn’t take us long to find our way to Freddie Gray.
“’Vonne,” she said…. you know we have to talk about Freddie Gray. Are you doing a follow up on him?” She had inspired me to write my first article about Gray. “I think you should—this settlement stuff has me hot!”
I had indeed heard about the settlement, and it made me incredibly sad. But, I honestly hadn’t thought about writing about it. That is, until my pint sized, pit-bull of a friend, and hair magician mentioned it while taming my damp afro with the blow dryer. Once again, my hair maintenance, the thoughts in my head, and her stance on the issue converged amongst styling gels and shears.
Six police officers were found responsible for Freddie Gray’s death. No one knows exactly what happened in that van, but what the news and the reports surrounding Mr. Gray’s death will tell you is that ,while in police custody, his spinal cord was damaged to the point of death. It was not an instant death—it was a death followed by days of him clinging to the smallest shred of life. It seems Gray was restrained with shackles and handcuffs like that of a rabid dog when he was arrested. Sources said his cries for help were ignored by law enforcement.
The fact that six officers were somehow involved is enough (to me) to blow $6.4 million out of the water. $6.4 million dollars is chump change when you think about six officers causing spinal cord trauma to one young man. In a world where just about everyone and everything has a price, is it right to have settled for an amount that may only last the family a few years?
What price can you put on the life of a child, brother, cousin, friend? Freddie Gray’s family had the power to ask for far more than $6.4 million. How do I know this? Because if there were resources for $6.4 million, then it is highly likely resources for $64 million exist. According to my spunky stylist, the paltry size and expedience of the settlement illustrated that Gray’s family settled quickly with no concrete information as to how the six officers would be tried in the criminal case.
For a family likely used to living in poverty, it’s hard to think beyond the dollar signs and amounts of money that seem like a lot. But $6.4 million dollars is pennies considering the agony that I’m sure Freddie Gray was in. The muffled sounds of pain that marked his last hours of consciousness will always hover over the Baltimore police department.
On the other hand, settlements like this one in excess can further bankrupt a city already facing economic turmoil. Who is to blame for how we got here? Do we continue to blame the police? Do we blame bad community PR? Do we feel like eroding communication between the youth of a city, like Baltimore, and those in authority caused this incident?
Clearly in recent months and years, police brutality has become one of the hottest legal, social, and political issues of our time. Do we now resort to holding classes to educate poor and lower middle class families on how to settle wrongful death claims with cities, townships, and states after they have had to bury one of their own? I would argue that we shouldn’t even have the expectation that people in our communities will have to continue to experience this kind of violence.
But, when it does happen, we must have those ready to advocate on behalf of these families. I don’t want to sound like a money hungry lawyer here. Let’s be clear—no amount of money will ever make the family of Freddie Gray whole—only his presence can do that. But why $6.4 million? Why not $16.4, $26.4, or $66.4 million?
“And who is advising them?” I asked rhetorically between the click of her shears.
My stylist, never at a loss for words, replied that it could be smartest most successful person in their family acting as their representative and (she pointed out) if you’ve come from nothing and your mindset is limited, $6.4 million sounds and seems like a lot of money until…well…it’s not. But I think she’s wrong. Mr. Billy Murphy, attorney for the family, said (when asked about the settlement) the family and the community are ready to move on. He even spoke about the fact that one of the conditions of the settlement is that police will use body cameras in the area in which Freddy Gray lived.
I like that part of the settlement included funding for the cameras—that is a bit of activism on their part, but what else? A scholarship fund? Will we see a peaceful protest every year commemorating their fallen young prince? $6.4 million will be divvied up amongst the family and let’s face it, Mr. Murphy will get his cut out of that as well. The mayor echoed the lawyers sentiment saying that it is time for Baltimore to move on. Body cameras are a good start. But it’s just a start.
And yes, as a lawyer, I understand that a wrongful death case would force his family to relive what happened to young Mr. Gray over and over again. Yes, I know that it ties up court resources. This case has left the family of Freddie Gray, the city of Baltimore and the mayor battle scarred, bruised, and emotionally drained. Stephanie Rawlings Blake even announced that she will not seek reelection. Most speculate that the madness and mayhem that ensued in April after Gray was laid to rest is what has caused her own political future to flat line. There were even rumblings of declining morale among a police force who feel unsupported by the mayor. We will, of course, all be watching what happens with the criminal trials, but this civil settlement raises many questions.
Will they the family take any other stances regarding police brutality? Will they know enough to invest the money? Will they use it for the good of the community or will they simply be made instantly hood rich?
This story is about police brutality and about taking responsibility; it is also about economic empowerment and the way that money can stifle the call for activism. As my stylist pointed out, while playing with my fresh curls, “it is a shame to have such a low price on a human life—I would have told the family that you have to hold out. Now, the family is going to take the money and run— we will never hear from them again.”
I hated to agree with her, but I fear she sees the future better than Madam Cleo ever could. It is, frankly, none of my business, but I hate the idea of Freddie Gray’s legacy reduced to a few brand new Mercedes Benzes. I don’t want his place in the movement to disappear underneath the plates at five star restaurants that hold steaks and lobsters for those those who won’t do anything to secure his legacy.
But even more than that, I am afraid that this settlement has purchased the type of silence that will make his death (as well as the resulting outcry) all in vain. We should all care! If Freddie Gray’s family quietly fades to black with hands in their freshly lined pockets, we lose loud voices for the Black lives Matter movement, ones that have a tragic, but very moving credibility. We don’t get the benefit of growth and (dare I say) some level of social progress from the pain of this ordeal.
The owner and operator of the best salon in DC seems to think the Gray family will be flat broke by 2018. None of us will be there when his family walks into the bank, but I pray that $6.4 million dollars is not the last thing we hear about Freddie Gray, what happened to him, or his family.Image Credits: Coco Curranski