Earlier this week, Lt. Brian Rice became the fourth police officer to escape a guilty verdict in the trials of the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. By the evening of day one of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, speakers were acknowledging Rice’s acquittal on all charges.
During his prime time speech, Milwaukee County Sheriff David “Blue Lives Matter” Clarke, talked about the “good news” out of Baltimore, in reference to the Rice acquittal. He also characterized Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s prosecution of the six officers as, “malicious,” and her specifically as an, “activist.”
Indeed, all eyes have been on Baltimore since the uprising last April following Gray’s death. But, it’s not just the eyes of the nation.
Last week I facilitated a discussion at Coppin State University with community leaders, activists and representatives of organizations, who have engaged in protest to effect change specifically in the area of law enforcement reform. Tawanda Jones and her family has been fighting for more than 1,000 days to shed more light on the death of her brother Tyrone West, who was beaten, tazered and ultimately died while in police custody on July 18, 2013.
Elder C.D. Witherspoon, who leads the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has been protesting police brutality and misconduct from Ferguson to Baltimore and many points in between. Ray Kelly, of the No Boundaries Coalition, has also been working for police accountability among other goals. Jones, Witherspoon and Kelly, along with members of the Maryland ACLU and others met with Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, “on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.”
Kiai, a lawyer trained in the United States and Kenya, is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and he is traveling the country to hear the stories of individuals and organizations engaged in protest primarily over issues connected to law enforcement reform. Last week he stopped in Baltimore and truly got an earful from Jones and others who have been engaged in this struggle on the front lines for years.
Kiai, who worked in the United States with TransAfrica during the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa, is somewhat constrained in talking to the press when it comes to his UN mission; the possible perception of bias reflected through media reports could imperil his ability to hold frank conversations in other cities with governmental leaders.
But, there were two revelations in particular for Kiai during the meeting at Coppin, which I found fascinating.
When I began to craft a bit of historic context on the nature of protest in Baltimore and the vanguard position our city took in the struggle for equal rights, human rights and civil rights during the 20th century, I highlighted the contributions of a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. “Wait, are you saying Thurgood Marshall was from Baltimore?” exclaimed Kiai. That’s right, Kiai, an expert sent to Baltimore by the United Nations to learn more about protest didn’t know Marshall, America’s first Black Supreme Court justice, was from Baltimore.
He didn’t know that just weeks after passing the bar exam in 1933, Marshall was the attorney who represented Kiowa Costonie, the mysterious, “faith healer,” who began the, “Buy Where You Can Work,” campaign that boycotted stores on Pennsylvania Avenue, until Blacks were able to work in those businesses, which they patronized.
The other revelation that opened Kiai’s eyes was the fact that Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights is the oldest and most expansive in the nation. The connection between Maryland’s LEOBOR, the trials of the six officers connected to Gray’s death and Mosby’s seemingly futile effort to convict any of them of a crime was clearly of interest to Kiai. “I have never heard of this (LEOBOR)…I want to learn more,” he said.
As the trials of the officers charged with Gray’s death go forward and homicides continue to climb through the summer, the eyes of the world apparently are on us. And whether we realize it or not, and despite our pathology (or perhaps because of it) our city continues to play a leading role in the struggle for human rights internationally.
Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on WEAA 88.9.