West Baltimore was quiet yesterday morning, as the family of Freddie Gray prepared to lay him to rest. But I still parked my car several blocks south of New Shiloh Baptist Church, where his funeral was being held. Representatives from Gray’s family had been calling for peace, and on Monday especially, they asked for no protesting to occur. They wanted the day to be reserved for mourning and comfort. Though I hoped Gray’s loved ones would get the respite they deserved, I had my doubts.
Perhaps as a punishment for my cynicism, I got turned around on side streets as I parked. I passed Coppin State University’s campus, an elementary school, blocks of alternately well-tended and condemned row houses, and eventually Mondawmin Mall. When I hit the mall, I knew I was close to the church. They’re a few blocks away from one another; both are landmarks in West Baltimore.
Everywhere I walked was quiet. Schools had long been in session and most of the people headed to Freddie’s funeral had already made their way. I nodded to the few passersby I encountered. They nodded back. None of us knew recognized our benign greetings as the calm before hours and hours of chaos.
Seven minutes into the service, the sanctuary and balcony were already packed. A security guard in the vestibule directed latecomers to an overflow room. A minister asked everyone to hold hands and repeat after him. “I’m responsible for you, and you’re responsible for me. I’m gonna hold you accountable, and you’re gonna hold me accountable. By the grace of God,” he concluded, “peace will prevail.”
It’s eerie in retrospect, how hopeful yet prescient so many of the remarks at the funeral were. Almost everyone implored attendees to be as angry and hurt as they needed to be, but to also remain peaceful. The Gray family’s attorney, Billy Murphy, was the most direct. “They stand behind that blue wall of justice. You know the wall I’m talking about. The one that says, ‘Right or wrong,’ we gon’ cover for you.’”
“Yes, Lord,” echoed an usher next to me.
“Pray for our mayor who is struggling mightily to get to the bottom of this. Some of us forget: she is not the enemy. She knows what time it is,” Murphy told the crowd, citing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s lifelong residence in Baltimore, as well as the political legacy of her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings. “She knows what the police do. She knows.” Applause rippled through the congregation. Murphy leaned in and eyed the room. “There’s not a single person in this church who don’t know what they do.” Then, the crowd hollered.
Murphy challenged the media: “Tell the truth about who we are.” Rep. Elijah Cummings followed him and noted the battery of cameras posted in front of the church. “You recognize Freddie Gray now,” he said. “But did anyone recognize Freddie when he was still alive?” He pointed out humanizing, compassionate facts listed in Freddie’s obituary. He was once a member of his church’s youth choir and served on the junior usher board. In Baltimore, victims of violent crime don’t have to be perfect. Here, we bypass the stage of media analysis that rushes to find the shortcomings of the deceased and to use them as evidence for why he was killed. It’s a foregone conclusion that a lifelong resident of an impoverished community like Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray was raised, would have a few arrests, charges, and even convictions on his record. Here, those charges don’t undermine the best parts of him.