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Freddie Gray’s arrest record doesn’t mean he deserved to be killed

He wasn't a criminal. He was a human being.


Pia Glenn

Internet Culture

Posted on May 1, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 10:39 pm CDT

I am not a lawyer, and I would certainly defer to the expertise of one if this were a conversation about sentencing or pressing charges against Freddie Gray. But Freddie Gray will never be arrested, sentenced, walk, talk, breathe, or do anything ever again, because Freddie Gray is dead, and the officers who killed him are being prosecuted for homicide.

So this is a different conversation.

This has been a small stretch of time that has seen huge loss of black lives at the hands of law enforcement, and Freddie Gray’s life, having ended following what is labeled a “rough ride” in a Baltimore Police Department transport van, seems to have been snatched by blue-on-black crime as well.

We’re sick and we’re tired, and so we fight. Protests in Baltimore began in the aftermath of Gray’s funeral on Monday, but protests of a different kind have popped up on Facebook feeds and across the Internet: People are protesting the idea that Freddie Gray was an innocent young man whose life ended prematurely and unjustly, and they are protesting this because he had an arrest record.


Freddie Gray will never be arrested, sentenced, walk, talk, breathe, or do anything ever again.

The word “innocent” has the strict legal definition it holds in the context of judicial proceedings, but it is also a word that has meaning in common conversation. Freddie Gray may have been arrested in the past, and indeed he was, mostly on drug charges related to marijuana, but in the context of dying at 25 at the hands of police, I am comfortable calling him both innocent and a victim.

I said up front that I’m not a lawyer, but what I am—and what Freddie Gray was before he was killed—is black in America. Comparatively speaking, I enjoyed the relative geographic luxury of growing up in New York versus Freddie Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, the area of Baltimore where he lived his entire life.

“Blighted.” “Impoverished.” “Troubled.” These are just a few of the words used to describe Baltimore as a whole, and particularly Sandtown-Winchester. While I don’t want to trample the humanity of those who live there or perpetuate the reduction of their home to those shitty adjectives, it is true that Sandtown-Winchester is home to more people held in state prisons than any other census tract in Maryland, and when it comes to the state of Maryland’s prison population, one-third of inmates are from Baltimore

I will not entertain conjecture or levy judgement about the details of Freddie Gray’s life that may have led to his arrests in the past, but since they are a matter of public record and are now being trumpeted as evidence of his lesser status by people who could only ever have seen him as less than, I will say this:

If selling drugs deemed one deserving of death, a healthy amount of folks would be shot on sight, and if using illegal substances made a human being expendable, millions more of us would be gone, myself included.

In the context of dying at 25 at the hands of police, I am comfortable calling him both innocent and a victim.

Self-medication is real regardless of economic status, but there is a link between substance abuse and poverty. Also, survival by means that may be outside the law when avenues within the law are closed to you is very real for many people. I say this not to belabor the point of Freddie Gray’s arrests, but to remind those who do that they have no idea who he was outside of a rap sheet, nor can they even begin to understand why that rap sheet even exists.

The causality of that link between poverty and substance abuse, or associated illegal or illicit enterprises, is what the residents of ivory towers and the riders of high horses get consistently wrong. There is no inherent defect associated with being born black, poor, or both, but rather structural barriers in place in our country that must be broken down with force.

To look at Freddie Gray’s arrests (not all of them prosecuted or convicted) and see only a “criminal” or a “thug” (light code for another word) is to deny the context in which they took place, and context always matters.

People tried the same thing with Eric Garner, who was killed by NYPD on July 17 of last year. He was suspected of the crime of selling loose cigarettes individually. A crime which he had, in fact, been arrested for earlier in the year and which he did not deserve to pay for by being choked to death by the police.

Freddie Gray’s neck was also damaged, his voice box was crushed, and 80 percent of his spinal cord was severed. According to reports, the day he sustained the injuries that would end his life began with him not being caught committing a crime or being arrested after committing a criminal act, but with him running from the police after making eye contact with one of the officers.

Inquiring minds who trust the police want to know: If you’re innocent, why would you run? 

There is no inherent defect associated with being born black, poor, or both.

If you’re black and innocent and have watched law enforcement officers avoid indictment and be hailed as heroes after forcefully taking black lives with impunity even when caught on camera, why wouldn’t you run?

Regardless of the actual legal crime in question, we don’t get justice. We face the death penalty daily for the perceived crime of being black in America.

So when there is an actual criminal record to point to, too many will reach as far as they can to shine a light on it. But how many arrests does it take until a life doesn’t matter? What’s the secret formula? Is it two felonies and a misdemeanor? Would three arrests of any type but no jail time do the trick, or do we need to get into double digits? How about a thousand parking tickets? How many violations does it take to make someone a walking target for those who swore to protect and to serve?

Even if each arrest had been completely justified and legally sound, which is highly doubtful, I see no record of a capital offense, so how dare anyone bring up his record as though it even remotely mitigates his death while in police custody?

Freddie Gray’s death was, best case scenario, a highly suspicious and tragic loss while in the custody of law enforcement. At worst, it was an execution, extreme corporal punishment carried out illegally by the very enforcers of the law.

Inquiring minds who trust the police want to know: If you’re innocent, why would you run? 

If you want so badly to malign that character of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or any of these other human beings who were killed in this way, ask yourself why? What’s at stake for you? It’s either denial of how systemically broken things are, and an intentional derailing of any efforts toward true justice, or it’s your confirmation bias asserting itself in the need to flesh out your narrative that he was a “thug” and not a 25-year-old man who should still be drawing breath on this earth.

The worst part is that you’re free to malign Freddie Gray’s character. You’re free to dig up every arrest and traffic violation and ask his elementary school principal how many times he was sent to detention in the fifth grade.

If you can see Baltimore burning and harp on Freddie Gray’s arrests, you must not know what it’s like to look at people who look like you and fear for their lives at the hands of the police. You’re free to respect authority without fear.

Save your character assassinations. You’re parsing his life for reasons why it didn’t matter, and how sad that he isn’t here to defend himself. Because he is dead. That fact matters more than the times he was arrested before the day he suffered the ultimate sentencing, for reasons that had nothing to do with his record.

Pia Glenn is an actress who also sings and dances and writes a bit, too. She enjoys classic films and the good kind of jazz and can often be found in the back of a yoga class trying not to feel fat.

Photo via seantoyer/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 1, 2015, 3:52 pm CDT