Monday, May 4, 2015

Turmoil then and now

Artist Nether works on his Freddie Gray mural. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Racial tension haunts Baltimore

across chasm of 45 years

Today marks the 45th anniversary of Ohio National Guard soldiers fatally shooting four students during a protest of the Vietnam War at Kent State University. The eventual Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a young girl kneeling in anguish over the body of one of the slain students ran atop the front page of newspapers across the world. 

In the next morning's edition of The Baltimore Sun, the Kent State story ran under the picture. But the lede story -- at the top right of the page -- carried my first front-page byline, and had nothing to do with the shootings or the increasingly unpopular war that was raging in Southeast Asia.

My story was about policing and racial tension in the City of Baltimore.

You don't see much these days about war protests, even though America has been at war for close to 14 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But racial tension is back in the news in Charm City, in the wake of the arrest by city police officers, and subsequent death, of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in a westside neighborhood little changed economically or demographically since the rioting here and elsewhere that followed the 1968 murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

My story began with a call to the city desk by a priest at a Catholic church along Old York Road, about two miles north of the central downtown area. A man who had been robbed had come knocking at rectory door in the wee hours, seeking help. To the priest's astonishment when he called the police, he was told that officers could not respond there because it was a "gray area."

It turned out there were half a dozen so-called "gray areas" around the city, each of them near the location of headquarters of what were perceived as black militant groups. In this case, it was a group called Making a Nation, located more than a block away on Cator Avenue.  The fact that the city police were refusing response to portions of Baltimore out of fear of provoking racial unrest was stunning enough to make it the top front-page story in Baltimore the next morning.

Not many people remember my story. Kent State, however, was and remains a watershed moment in American history.

The "gray areas" fiasco proved to be misinterpretation of a directive issued by then-police commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau for officers not to respond to any of the addresses occupied by black  militant groups without the presence of supervisory personnel from the department.

You don't hear the term "black militant groups" in Baltimore these days. More often, you hear about street violence and gang disputes over drug territory. The 2015 gang roll call: Crips, Bloods, Black Guerrilla Family. They were more about turf control for drug dealing and crime than addressing racial inequities in Baltimore -- until last week, when gang leaders came together seeking to discourage the rioting and disorder that brought a surge of thousands of police officers and National Guard soldiers into  town.

In 1970, Baltimore was a powder keg of racial tension. It was just two years after the King riots, whites were fleeing to the suburbs in ever-increasing numbers, the downtown shopping district was in its  death throes, and police were trying to avoid confrontations that might make matters worse.

Forty-five years later, the city population has shrunk to about 630,000. Parts of Baltimore look like ghost towns for all the vacant buildings. Poverty is endemic, opportunity elusive. The American Dream -- well, what is it? Does it even exist in cities like Baltimore? Or is it just an American Nightmare now.

Today, driving through town, we were passing through a section where a week ago young people had been throwing rocks and bottles at riot-equipped cops in skirmishes broadcast live on television, globally. It was an explosion of the racial powder keg, again.

At the intersection of Mount and Presbury streets, an outdoor mural artist who uses the name Nether was rolling brown paint to create a giant image of Freddie Gray's face, flanked by a scene of marchers for social justice.

There was not a police officer or soldier in sight.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Baltimore's Riot of 2015

In the matter of Freddie Gray

the 'routine' has vastly changed

During a 40-year career in the news business, I came up with my "two first laws of journalism": 

No. 1 is "Cops Lie."

No. 2 is "Cops can't spell."

I mean no disrespect for officers of the law. I like most cops I've met. But I deemed it important for folks in the news business to understand that cops are very much like other folks you meet -- they do not always tell the truth or get things right.

Face it -- everybody lies. Maybe not all the time, but sometimes. And who hasn't made a spelling error? The point is to understand that information you are being given may not be accurate or true. Journalists have an obligation to check facts and get other points of view. Truth can be elusive, perhaps not even possible to ascertain.

I learned about cops lying -- or perhaps not telling all the truth -- as a young police reporter at The Baltimore Sun nearly half a century ago. A tactical squad sergeant invited me to go along on drug investigations and raids with his team of about half a dozen men. But I had to make a deal with the devil. I might witness some activities that I had to agree not to report in my story.

The first such incident came as the cops were trying to locate a drug dealer, and leaned on his mentally slow brother-in-law for information, stopping by the man's tiny street-level apartment in pre-urban renewal South Baltimore. They told the man he faced arrest for drug possession and, to his denials, got him to agree to a search of his dwelling. As they rummaged around, one of the officers planted a packet of powder under a lamp, then "found" the supposed drugs. The guy was scared. And then, to avoid arrest, he told the team where to find his brother-in-law's drug stash nearby.

That was a little deception, a warrantless search -- a shakedown, really --  at the expense of a simple-minded citizen of Baltimore to get what they wanted. And it was part of the investigative process that I was bound by our agreement not to report.

Which brings us to Pennsylvania Avenue, in 1969 an epicenter of illegal drug activity -- and this week, an epicenter of the protests over the strange death in police custody of Freddie Gray.

It was another investigation here by the squad, this time with a search warrant for a building that had a padlocked front door. Two men sitting on folding chairs on the sidewalk in front of that building were detained, while the squad broke open the padlock and began combing through a 3-foot-deep heap of trash piled inside. They found, at the bottom of a trash can under the pile of debris, a plastic bag containing filled drug capsules.

Neither of the suspects resided in the building, and neither had a key to the padlock. Neither was holding drugs. They had been sitting in chairs on a public sidewalk. And they were charged with possession with intent to distribute narcotics.

In the official report on their arrest on drug charges, the cops wrote that the men were "on the premises."

As distasteful I deemed their deception in the case of the feeble-minded brother-in-law, which I was unable to recount in my story, I realized in the Pennsylvania Avenue arrests that the cops were lying in their official report -- and this time, I was free to write the circumstances of the search and arrests, and quote from the official report by the police that the suspects had been "on the premises."
They were not in jail very long. Defense lawyers noted my first-hand account as proof that the men had been outside the premises -- not on the premises. 

I asked the sergeant about that, and whether the men his team had arrested were in fact guilty. "They were dealing drugs, Dave," was the sergeant's reply. "Maybe not there, but they were drug dealers."
"On the premises" was an example of using vague language to avoid the truth. It was so routine that the cops hardly saw it as lying. 

Which brings us, 46 years later, to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose arrest on April 12 was partially recorded on video -- just the last seconds, in which he was shown face-down on a sidewalk, a cop on either side of him, and then, seeming unable to walk, dragged to the back of a prisoner transport van. He was shouting in apparent pain.

Police reported that Gray had been "arrested without incident."

It is a phrase so routine, perhaps the officers themselves could not see it as untrue. From their point of view, Gray's arrest was routine. He had made eye contact with them, then ran, and he was chased, caught, handcuffed and loaded into the van. That's what they do.

But it was hardly routine for Freddie Gray, whose short life was marred by childhood exposure to lead dust in his mother's cheap rental home and later a long rap sheet of drug arrests.

Sometime between eye contact and Gray becoming unresponsive and not breathing, his spinal cord had been snapped. He died a week later.

The death became Baltimore's Missouri Moment -- its turn in the global spotlight, with angry demonstrations following deaths at the hands of police  in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and other communities. Charm City, one of the local and usually ludicrous nicknames, is under a State of Emergency and occupied by National Guard soldiers after the demonstrations grew into a riot of looting, burning and violence.

Later this week, police promise a fuller report on Gray's arrest and death as the department turns over the investigation to the Baltimore state's attorney's office -- the prosecutorial arm of the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, six police officers involved with the arrest and transport of Freddie Gray remain suspended with pay.

And key questions from a period of some 30 minutes remain unanswered -- starting with what was the "probable cause" for Freddie Gray's arrest. The joke, of course, is that he was simply "running while black." And how could his spinal cord have snapped? Before that bystander's video began, did an officer have a knee resting on Gray's neck? Left unattended and without a safety restraint in the caged confines of the transport van, was he given a "rough ride" to the police station?

Nothing here is simple, other than the public response to deaths at the hands of or in custody of police in a nation that has changed, remarkably, since the 1960s. 

What once was routine is anything but.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A eulogy

Remembering my friend Joe,
who reached the finish line

My friend of nearly half a century, Joseph J. Challmes, died on Monday Feb. 9, of a heart attack as he was leaving a Stoop Storytelling show at Baltimore's Center Stage with his companion Margie Roswell. Today, his friends, family and extended family packed a chapel at a suburban funeral home for a nonreligious remembrance gathering.

Joe had wanted his body cremated, and was not religious. As I have noted here in the past, one of the traditions of my native Jewish faith takes place at the burial, with an opportunity for each person to drop some earth into the grave -- a last gift, of an act the departed cannot do for himself or herself.

Joe had no burial -- in fact, he wanted his ashes scattered at the finish line of the race track in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., his favorite thoroughbred venue. He was a gambler, a storyteller, and a man most people could not help but like or even love. 

It was my honor to deliver one of the eulogies:

 Joe Challmes and I had a lot in common -- Baltimore boys who grew up, or not, at The Baltimore Sun -- neither having gone to journalism school. We were, however, working our way through college. I started there as a wireroom clerk and won a promotion to editorial assistant and reporter, but Joe outdid me in that respect. He relished telling how he was probably the only person who was promoted to the job of copyboy.

In the days of newsroom typewriters, reporters would pound out stories on three-copy carbon sets, a few paragraphs at a time. We called each page a "take" and when it was ready to send to the city editors, you'd strip out the carbon paper, hold up two of the sheets in a haze of tobacco smoke and holler out, "Copy over!" And one of the half dozen or more copyboys, or girls, would scurry over and grab them.

I was a young reporter and Joe an editorial assistant when, on June 10, 1969,  he managed a then-unthinkable feat -- a bylined story. It was about the Govans neighborhood where he grew up, and headlined: "Peaceful exterior veils the real McCabe." It painted a sad picture of heroin needles, broken booze bottles and even seedier human detritus along a troubled street also beset with racial tension
 Predictably, the neighborhood association was not very happy, and held an emergency meeting with a demand for an explanation from the newspaper. Joe was off, maybe on vacation, and I was sent to appease them. Among other defensive moves, I tried to explain that Joe was not actually a reporter. I did not mention that his story was spot-on. I was, after all, a goodwill ambassador that night.

McCabe Avenue did not get better over time, alas -- nor has the world we inhabited with great relish as 20-somethings. Murders, carjackings, drug epidemics, fatal accidents, devastating fires, racial hatred. We were voyeurs of human misery, misunderstanding and, the most fun,  social darwinism. Joe and I worked side-by-side on the rewrite end of the city desk, taking notes from other reporters and turning them into fodder and, on a really good day, front-page eye-poppers for the newspaper.

You can find hundreds of Joe's subsequent bylined stories in a quick search of the online Sun newspaper archive through area public  library systems -- with headlines like "Society figure's death leaves police baffled," "Maryland Training School: Youth kept in leg irons," "Reputed psychic joined murder probe," and "Chase ends in ladies room: Baboon free for 3 hours after escape at airport."

Joe was probably the fastest writer I've ever seen, but he cheated. I'm sure he used more than two fingers, and he would leave out words... like verbs. I'm sure the verbs were in his head as he wrote each sentence, but he was thinking even faster than he could type. 

The Facebook responses to news of Joe's death give you an idea of how good he was on rewrite -- a senior reporting job that we occupied as two young crazies. Tom Linthicum, who became a top Sun and Maryland Daily Record editor and teaches journalism, offered this: "He was on rewrite when I started as a police reporter at The Sun and no matter how much detail I gave him, he always sent me back for more. It was a great crash course in reporting."

We learned journalism on the job. And while we were absorbed by the newspaper world, and late-night partying -- usually at the old Peabody Book Store and Beer Stube, whose owner Rose Pettus ushered us regularly into the tavern's back-basement speakeasy for after-hours drinking -- we were for various reasons slowly blowing up our first marriages after helping produce a few amazing children.  Casualties of our own immaturity, I guess.

Joe also had another mistress, besides our newspaper and carousing -- the ponies. He was consumed by a fascination for horse racing, and after a command performance of his handicapping prowess for a betting audience of his newspaper bosses, talked his way into a daily sports column under the nom-de-plume The Fashionable Fraud. He had a pretend thousand-dollar pot for wagering in print, and managed to blow it all before very long. But they gave him more pretend money to play with. 

Joe was not bad at handicapping, He was very good. And hopefully you have by now heard the recordings of his Stoop Storytelling appearances -- the first one, in 2009, about his amazing day at the Belmont when he turned a borrowed $40 into enough cash to help buy a farm in Carroll County with his then-wife Sharon, and breed their own thoroughbred race horses.

The fascination with racing also lured Joe away from his, pardon the expression, stable job at The Sun. Somehow he ended up writing and handicapping for a business offshoot of the owner of the Psychic Friends Network.

 Later, operating his own mail-order tip business, he took on a new nom-de-plume -- The Colonel. That's Kentuckyese for a successful gentleman with a fondness for alcohol who knows his way down the backstretch. He marketed a service in which bettors paid in advance for the Colonel's favorite picks and, of course, the "lock of the week." And a really great bet was called "a mortal lock." He had no shortage of them.

  Joe's path took him to New York, marketing and writing for a group of betting-oriented sports newspapers, and he expanded his writing work as a freelancer. None of this is easy. Joe worked hard to get by. Alas, horse racing -- like his poker playing -- did not make him a rich man, but losing in memorable fashion made for great storytelling.

  Most recently he told of being knocked out of a big-money poker tournament in Baltimore's new Horseshoe Casino by a grandmotherly card shark. (The Global Poker Index rankings of professional players lists Joe as #187307, with career winnings of $496!)

 I was equally consumed by my newspaper work, so over the years our contact became more sporadic. There was a visit to another farm in Pennsylvania, where Joe and another life partner, Cheri Moats, had some kids and a herd of horses before splitting up.

 I saw a Facebook post by Cheri yesterday, recalling how Joe -- in his first stroll outside their house after quadruple-bypass surgery -- found one of their horses foaling with great difficulty in the pasture and managed to save both equine lives.

A few years ago, Joe and I began seeing each other more regularly.

With a few other friends, I helped Joe move out of his huge but strange apartment beneath a strip mall in Hanover, Pa. Strange is having an underground lair that includes a judge's bench and a prisoner holding cell. And that's part of another tale you can hear online, at both the Stoop Storytelling and SpeakEasyDC Web sites -- how Joe ended up overseeing a way station there rescuing trouble-beset teens. You can find posts this week on the Joseph Challmes  Facebook page by a few of them, giving testimony and thanks at how Joe had helped turn their lives around.

Joe was planning to move to Charlestown, W. Va., near a favorite race track, but fate intervened. He was having problems with one of his legs -- and his foot was cold. I took him to his doctor there before we headed off with a U-haul truckload of his possessions, and the doctor told him to go to a hospital emergency room -- if not in Hanover, then in Baltimore. It took a few weeks before the medical folks figured out the problem, and Joe lost the leg.

Talk about a fall from grace -- he was homeless, really, and pretty much broke. He wasn't even legally a resident of Maryland, and without insurance or state Medicaid to cover the costs of rehab in a nursing home, the hospital was ready to send him out into the world with one leg and a wheelchair. Still, sitting in his hospital bed, Joe called himself the happiest one-legged man you'll ever meet.

I would not want to get into the politics of healthcare and insurance. Rather, I speak to the goodness of people -- in particular Margie, who came to Joe's rescue.  And, it seems, she also had fallen under the spell of a crazy storyteller with a booming laugh and a twinkle in his eyes, and a heart that may have failed but was truly made of gold.

I was very touched by a lengthy Facebook remembrance by our long-ago newspaper colleague Patricia Rouzer, who concluded: "Rest in peace, my friend. May we someday meet again, railbirds at the Saratoga finish line, basking in the warm summer sun, clutching fists full of only win tickets."

Following are links to most of Joe's record six appearances on stage in Baltimore's Stoop Storytelling series, and at SpeakEasyDC (the 6th Stoop show, as I recall, was outdoors in downtown Baltimore's Charles Center, and apparently was not recorded):

From Nov. 10, 2008, on hitting it rich at the Belmont:

 From June 1, 2009, newspaper days and handicapping the ponies:

From Feb. 11, 2011, on his odd subterranean apartment and teen-rescue center:

 From Oct. 4, 2011 (played at his memorial gathering), about his recovery from losing a leg:

From July 25, 2013, in a smaller venue featuring short tales, under the theme of "Scars"

 February 11, 2014 - Appearance at SpeakEasyDC's program, on the same tale as his 2011 Stoop tale on rescuing troubled teens.

Bonnie also blogged about Joe this week, as part of her 365-day project recounting a gift that each day brings:

Our friend Stacy Spaulding and Joe himself blogged about his recovery from the amputation and fulfilling a vow to walk back into place he had last walked on two legs -- Oriole Park, in time for Opening Day, 2011: