‘Maybe I’d throw a rock at CVS, too’

After the Baltimore riots, I talked to mothers, a cop who told me cops are on drugs, and a 10-year-old who made the most sense.

Baltimore Police officers in riot gear look toward protestors along Reisterstown Road near Mondawmin Mall, April 27, 2015 in Baltimore. —Getty Images

The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to requests for comment for this story. They did not respond to complaints from young mothers that their children are harassed for sitting outside on hot days, and from lifelong city residents who complained of violent and intimidating tactics that never seem to align with actual police work.

They did not respond when a former cop told me the police in Baltimore are addicted to drugs — not addicted to drugs themselves, but addicted to a drug-enforcement windfall that includes everything from overtime to nicer cars for officers who make big busts.

They chose not to discuss whether their form of law enforcement contributed to the Baltimore riots, which started on April 27 and left hundreds arrested, cars and buildings ablaze, and the frustration between police and the community exposed to the eyes of a nation.

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The Associated Pressreports that May was the city’s deadliest month in 15 years, and that arrests in the city have plunged, especially since Freddie Gray’s death in custody, which sparked the violent demonstrations. Police would not discuss whether they are doing less policing, and whether more people are dying as a result.

Numerous calls and emails were not returned.

A Baltimore Police officers in riot gear push protestors back along Reisterstown Road near Mondawmin Mall, April 27, 2015 in Baltimore. —Getty Images

If the Good Lord were to divulge the cities least likely to blink in the face of danger, Baltimore would certainly be high on his list. From the idyllic Fells Point—situated by the water with lovely cobblestone streets—to West Baltimore, where tear gas made me retch and curse, fear was not often the topic of discussion.

Baltimore isn’t scared of much. But it is scared of its police.

I don’t really know why I went. It could have been because I was upset at the widening gulf between the story told by folks on the ground and the story presented by cable news and major news publications. I felt the same way after the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson. Maybe I didn’t want to feel that way again. Or maybe I felt some sort of survivor’s guilt. A city full of people who looked like me was in upheaval, and there I was in Gloucester, 432 miles away, trying to decide what craft beers would go with all of the steaks I planned to cook that week.

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Or, at 27, maybe I wanted to see firsthand why making it to 27 feels like less of a minor detail and more like a triumph over adversity as time passes by.

I made the mistake of telling my mother, who quickly rattled off a very chilling list of all the things that could happen to me at the hands of police. Once it became clear I wasn’t changing my mind, she called my sister. I saw my mother again before I left. She was proud, but it didn’t stop her from crying and clutching me for what felt like hours.

When I arrived at my hotel in Fells Point, one of the nicest parts of the city, the streets nearby were lined with National Guardsmen the way they’d normally be lined with folks spilling out of an Orioles game — if it hadn’t been canceled that afternoon. A dozen guarded a Whole Foods entrance. Eight more stood outside a CVS. I counted 75 more in less than 2 miles from my hotel to City Hall. There were no tourists, baseball fans, or folks casually walking. It felt like driving through a sound stage during the filming of a zombie film, with the knowledge that every bullet in every one of those guns was real.

I reached West Baltimore, site of the hellish scenes on TV. But where was the hell?

There were no guardsmen. The police seemed to be totally unbothered, laughing and taking pictures with children, talking to high school kids, and dotting the sidewalks. Kids danced. It was more like every black cookout I’ve ever been to, minus the food and with far more signs.

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Dancers gathered near signs calling for justice for Gray, the 25-year-old West Baltimorean who entered a Baltimore police truck alive and eventually wound up dead. Preachers prayed for peace and justice, and black fraternities and sororities wore their colors proudly while handing out water, sandwiches, and chips. People ignored police, or greeted them with smiles.

“These same officers gathered today with smiles on their faces are some of the ones we’re protesting against,’’ a preacher said.

Once I took stock of the day’s activities, I drove back to my hotel to see what I could write up as a news story. I tried some authentic crab cakes. I charged my phone, fielded a few calls, and hit the road for West Baltimore. It was 9 p.m.

What a difference three miles and a few dozen police in riot gear make.

That night, with the aid of at least three helicopters, a half-dozen military vehicles, and about 40 National Guardsmen; and dozens of officers with batons, gas masks, and riot shields cut off access to the very same street where in the daylight sorority sisters had smiled, children had danced, and police had helped old women cross the street. The helicopters flew low and shined their spotlights on protesters. Humvees circled the area, and police stood at the scene’s backstop, silent. Every 10 minutes or so, a line of gang members with red, blue, and black flags would form in front of the news media and push them back.

“We know you have a job to do,’’ a self-described Crip told me. “But we know these guys, they looking for a chance to fuck us up. Y’all wanna give ‘em one?’’

I watched media personalities who we all recognized from cable news struggle to get straight answers out of West Baltimore residents that night. It wasn’t that the people didn’t understand the questions. They just had a visible disdain for the folks asking them. It is entirely likely they had seen the media mistakes and misinformation that abounded in Ferguson and decided to be less trusting of reporters. Who could blame them?

I had no such difficulty getting straight answers out of folks. I’m by no means Anderson Cooper. But I was dressed like them, and I’m black.

I spoke to self-professed Black Panthers, Crips, and Bloods. I spoke to preachers and crack addicts and mothers of young children. Everybody wanted to go home. Everybody knew they couldn’t.

A protestor lies in front of a police barricade blocking the exit of a vehicle. —Getty Images

Everybody knew someone who got a taste of what police gave Freddie Gray. The details were grisly. A preacher had a congregant call him to post bond for a petty offense. The preacher got to the jail to find his congregant’s nose broken and face bloodied. A mother of two recalled watching police break her husband’s arm, because he wouldn’t stop resisting. She said her husband was having a seizure. A gang member who didn’t look a day over 30 removed his entire top row of teeth, claiming the police knocked them out in 2011 during a traffic stop.

All of these people were eager to talk to me. Very few of them agreed to have their names released. “We have to fucking live here with these fucking cops,’’ Michelle Jefferson, a single mother, told me. “It’s nothing for them to see your name, put a face to it, and now they’re making your life hell.’’

A man named Tetsuo Stewart chimed in: “It is hell. This is hell.’’ During the course of our interview, Stewart had asked me how I was enjoying Baltimore. I told him where my hotel was. He made sure I knew the difference between Fells Point and West Baltimore.

“They got you over in Fells Point, man. It’s hell, three miles from heaven,’’ he said.

All of this polite conversation took place before 10 p.m.

At 10:10, police pressed forward about 60 feet. Nobody tells you to do it, but you hold your breath when police in riot gear move toward you. You do it reflexively. But you can only hold your breath for so long.

Story continues after video:

Baltimore police fire off tear gas

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Jordan Lebeau footage from Baltimore

On the corner of West North and Pennsylvania, a red mid-90s Ford Expedition sat idle all day. A poster sat on its grille. “I CAN’T BREATHE’’ was painted in white letters on top of flat black paint. Over a loudspeaker, activists pointed at police across the street and told them that their communities couldn’t breathe, because police were brutal and power-mad.

Lynette Shaw, a mother of three, described being stopped and made to lay face down on the sidewalk because of mistaken identity. “They put their knee on the side of your head. You can’t think, you can’t move, you can’t hardly breathe,’’ she said, as she held her head to the side, tears rolling down her face.

By 10:15, no one could breathe. Police, in the span of about three minutes, fired off more than a dozen tear gas canisters in the direction of protesters and the media. People scattered like flies and eventually regrouped three or four blocks down West North. The crowd was smaller by then. Media personalities begged residents to do interviews, and military vehicles crept up the street.

At about 10:45, I met Tabette Monroe, a mother of two young children. She told me that in the summer, police will get out of their cars and go to people sitting peacefully on their porches, demanding they go inside.

“We’re just having fun, sitting, trippin’, enjoying ourselves, and then here come the police: ‘Go in the house.’’’

Story continues after video:

Tabette Monroe talks to Jordan Lebeau

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Tabette Monroe talks to Jordan Lebeau

The tear gas had cleared. I asked why Baltimore had erupted.

“A lot of these kids that were doing this, they really don’t really know what life is about. They haven’t lived life yet,’’ she said. “They just know that they’re frustrated with the police from being knee-high on up, and they’re just being attacked by the police, verbally, physically. They’re just abusing us.’’

She said parents are discouraged from spanking their children, but police get away with brutalizing them.

“The police can just come in, beat our kids, do whatever, mace them, taze them, do whatever to our children, kill them, and we can’t do nothing about it,’’ she said.

She said she didn’t want parents beating children — “I don’t believe in that’’ — but they had to be able to discipline them enough to teach them.

“The law is kicking they ass and killing them,’’ she said. “So it’s just ridiculous. A lot of this wouldn’t happen if a lot of our kids had discipline.’’

By 11 p.m., fully armed officers told everyone to get the hell out of dodge. Everyone obliged.

A protestor holds a sign surrounded by smoke Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. —AP

The next day, I set out to get a more complete view of the city, and the magic number, it seemed, was 68. The news media had discovered the 1968 theme, and started side-by-side comparisons of the new April uprising and the ones that spread across the country after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April of 1968. I heard the comparison from a bar owner and owner of a restaurant. They asked me not to use their names.

Many wondered how a city could erupt twice in a 50-year window over many of the same issues.

I knew there must be something wrong with comparing the Baltimore of 2015 with the Baltimore of 1968. Having been in the city for all of 48 hours at this point, though, I didn’t know exactly what.

So I asked a cop.

Leigh Maddox is no-nonsense. At about 5’4’’, she doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of anyone over the age of, say, 9. But her resume is more than formidable. A special assistant State’s Attorney who spent 17 years as a state trooper, she infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan before retiring a captain, she now teaches law at the University of Maryland and spends her free time volunteering her legal services. She knows her city, its laws, and its police.

I met her at the university before she drove me around the city. I asked her if she could boil the city’s issues to a simple explanation, and, after a little thought, she obliged.

Story continues after video:

In the car with Leigh Maddox and Jordan Lebeau

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In the car with Leigh Maddox and Jordan Lebeau

“Well,’’ she said, as a Terence Trent D’Arby song played from her car stereo, “the police are addicted to drugs.’’

Police, according to Maddox, are told to write up violations as often as possible, and to let the system sort out the details later. Decriminalization laws, such as the one that was sitting in limbo as we drove around West Baltimore that day, have done little to stem the tide of violations. (In the time since I met Maddox, the governor has vetoed a decriminalization bill.)

“They decriminalized marijuana, but they didn’t decriminalize paraphernalia,’’ she said, rolling her eyes. “You carry it around in your [backpack], and have your buddy carry the bowl, and you ride in separate cars until you get where you’re going,’’ she said, sarcastically. “It’s just so fucking stupid.’’

“The war on drugs is driving everything,’’ she said as we drove down streets that showcased once-beautiful, now-abandoned homes. “That is by far the biggest problem that we have… the criminalization of drugs and the resulting mass incarceration that has decimated generations of families and left young people with limited viable role models.’’

Maddox added: “It’s a travesty of justice.’’

She continued for a few more minutes while we drove down more abandoned streets. In one section of the city, we drove five whole blocks, with houses on each side, and observed a mere handful of homes that weren’t empty. “Who wants to live there,’’ she asks, pointing at one of the few houses free of boarded doors and windows, “when you’re looking at this?’’

We stopped at a red light, and Maddox looked at me, expecting another question. But I didn’t have one. I was interviewing a cop, and a cop told me that cops are the root cause of Baltimore’s hell. And there was no laugh. No caveat that tried to heap blame on the other side to even the scales. She’s an ex-cop, sure, but ex-cops are regular people like ex-boxers are regular people. The government told us it wanted to stomp out drugs, and it made police the boot. I looked at her stunned. She continued.

“The everyday patrol officers are awarded for arrests and charges,’’ she said. Later on, she elaborated: “They’re incentivized to put quantity over quality, and they’re told not to worry about the outcome.’’

I reached back out to her this week. She had said a mouthful back in May, and I wanted to make sure she was comfortable being quoted on all of it. Instead of backing down, she went deeper. “It’s not like they’re actually shooting it into their veins,’’ she said, when asked about her quip that police were addicted to drugs “But, the things that come from our failed drug policy, whether it be civil asset forfeiture and the proceeds that flow directly to the budgets, [or] whether it be the overtime that the police get and the correctional officers get every time they take either an inmate or come testify before a defendant in a criminal trial,’’ all are connected to drug policy, she said.

“They get overtime for all that, they’re incentivized, and then on top of that, the officers historically, especially under zero tolerance, but even under community policing, the police historically have been rewarded in terms of better duty assignments, better vehicles, better training opportunities, and better working conditions if they have a high numbers of arrests,’’ she said.

But let’s get back to that car ride.

“The cops go after low-hanging fruit, and marijuana was their low-hanging fruit,’’ she said. Now, the governor has declared a war on heroin, and police have redoubled their efforts to combat that instead.

I asked Maddox about the common refrain when folks protest or riot in response to a police shooting, that they’re remiss for burning, looting, and otherwise kneecapping their communities economically. According to Maddox, that’s wishful thinking at best. “Once you get ensnared in the system,’’ be it through a minor drug offense or worse, “you are virtually unemployable,’’ Maddox said. Folks can’t find work, due both to criminal records and a lack of nearby employers. “When you don’t give people any hope… ever,’’ she says, shaking her head, “it’s just really sad.’’

A young girl sits in from of a mural memorializing Baltimore resident Freddie Gray. —Getty Images

I spent almost two hours with Maddox, driving through a city that transformed from the types of places rappers move into to the types of places rappers move away from in the span of three blocks. I asked her more questions about Baltimore, and she walked me through a slew of problems: The city was hit especially hard by the Great Recession (“Some houses were abandoned before, but after all the deals from those banks put people underwater, it gets to be what you see now’’); certain neighborhoods hate a certain top-flight university (“They’re pushing people out as they build all these houses average, blue-collar people can’t afford to live in’’;) and public planning projects to revitalize the fringes of the city’s poorer sections have suffered from a lack of follow-through (“They built a big, ugly road that destroyed… the neighborhood, and they wonder why people are pissed off.’’)

We had a lighthearted, back-and-forth talk about a heartbreaking mess. I tried to remember the last time I’d heard or seen a white lady singing Terence Trent D’Arby.

The next day, I met with Montrey Moore, a lifelong West Baltimore resident.

He’s 25, 6-foot-something with curly hair, caramel skin, tattoos, and a ballplayer’s gait. He met me on the street and walked back toward his door like he could elevate off of his front foot for a finger roll at any given moment. We stayed outside, because his mother was having her living room painted, and the walls were still wet. Before we began talking in earnest, he called for his two little sisters, and they joined us on the front porch.

“Growing up, I hated the police, because it seemed like they hated us back,’’ he said. “To be honest, it’s not that I hate them now, I just wouldn’t call them unless it was life or death.’’

I asked him about some odd behavior I’d seen from Baltimore Police. On at least three occasions, I’d seen squad cars ride around with their lights on. They weren’t using their sirens or speeding past or writing out violations on the side of the road. They were sitting in traffic, making simple turns, or waiting at red lights in poor areas, with their lights on. It felt like Grand Theft Auto on mute.

Or like Big Brother was watching, all the time.

I asked Moore about the lights, and whether there was a pattern of police harassing people on porches.

“Man, they worse than that, that’s light work to them!’’ he said.

Before I could ask for an explanation, he sprung into action, impersonating a plainclothes officer.

“They dress just like you, man,’’ he said, pointing to my gray hoodie and black Jordans. “They’ll walk up to you, throw a football at you for no reason. … They’ll take your blunt or your cigarette and stomp on it without even giving you a ticket or nothing.’’

“If they see you in a spot known for drugs, even if you’re not doing anything, they’ll take you around the corner, and tell you they’ll charge you with whatever if you don’t tell them where the guns are at, or where the drugs are at,’’ Moore continued. “They make deals with you, they say, ‘Okay, give me a gun, give me some dope,’ shit like that.’’

And that’s all from regular officers. “Knockers,’’ as he called them, in that thick Black Baltimore accent that makes dog sound like “dug,’’ are a card of a different suit. Knockers are officers with reputations for violence.

“Say it’s me, you, and like 30 niggas, just chillin on West North,’’ Moore stepped back and opens his arms, as if to show how much space they would take up. “If you see 30, 35 niggas on the corner, and it’s all love, keep it real for a minute…’’

He started to talk again before catching his sister’s eye and backtracking.

“If it’s all of us, and we chilling, you know nobody’s getting shot, nobody’s fighting, nobody’s mad, you see us chilling, why would you bother us? Let us live, man.’’

He said Knockers would break the crowd up with force. “They’ll hit you, call you names, spit, cuff you, whatever they want.’’

Moore said little recourse can be found. “They do what they did to Freddie Gray on the ground all the time, but if he lived, and he tried to tell the police, they wouldn’t do anything.’’

As harrowing as some of Moore’s stories are, he’s says he’s had it easier than most.

Moore’s mom was a correctional officer, which is to say his mom is the reason local ne’er-do-wells wouldn’t let him join their ranks. “They’d give me money if my grades were good, give me candy, tell me to do the right thing, and stuff like that,’’ he recounted.

But his mother couldn’t be a buffer forever, and since “growing up poor and not having things, it gets to you, man,’’ he found himself on the wrong side of the law.

“I got locked up for a bit,’’ he said, rolling his eyes before hanging his head a bit. “My grandmother died while I was locked up, and that killed me. She was my heart. I knew I had to get right after that.’’

So he stopped. He works a full-time job now and lives with his girlfriend and his young daughter. He’s fearful for families all over West Baltimore.

“It’s worse now in a lot of ways,’’ he says of his childhood home, “because it’s kids younger and younger doing grown crimes now.’’

Now he and his family live on a sleepy street about a half hour from Baltimore in Baltimore County, each house adorned with a red door, each set of steps lined with plants in bloom.

Moore’s mother moved her family out of West Baltimore as soon as she could. His sisters have been exposed to comparatively little of the drugs, crime, and police discord their brother saw. They were shocked to see a CVS burn on TV.

A man walks past the boarded CVS Pharmacy at Pennsylvania and West North avenues in West Baltimore on May 4, 2015. —AFP/Getty Images

Moore’s youngest sister’s close friend, Jordan Miles, lives up the street from the CVS on West North. She had about as good a handle on both sides of the issue as anyone I spoke to.

She’s 10.

“It’s not fair to people who need to use CVS,’’ said Miles, “but then, it’s not fair how they hurt that Freddie Gray boy, too, and that made people mad.’’

I spent about 10 minutes talking with Miles on Friday. She was smart as a whip, quick to flash a smile, and just as quick to acknowledge she shared very few of Moore’s experiences.

“My parents make sure I do the right thing,’’ she said with a smile, “but I know people my age who do the right thing, and police are still mean to them.’’

I asked her how she felt about it, and she asked me a question right back.

“It makes me have to think,’’ she said, “if I kept on doing the right thing, and didn’t cause trouble, and people treated me like I did the wrong thing, how would that make me feel?’’

She answered herself.

“Well, it would make me really mad. If I was mad about that, and then they killed Freddie Gray where I lived, maybe I’d throw a rock at CVS, too.’’

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