I write a lot about virtue, and why it matters. And then life presents a story that is far more compelling and challenging than anything I could conjur up. The rough ride of Freddie Gray is the latest example of why we need virtue—and what happens when it is absent.
For those who haven’t read the story, Freddie Gray was arrested on a weapons charge in Baltimore. According to police reports, he was seen with a knife in his pocket, and ran when the police approached him. After a short pursuit he was arrested, according to the police report, without force or incidence.
He appeared to be able-bodied—video showed him using his legs—as he was ushered to a waiting police van at 8:54. Thirty minutes later, police called an ambulance for Gray. When he was taken out of the van at 9:24 he could not breathe, he could not talk. His spinal cord was 80 % severed. He died one week later from his injuries.
Even with the video evidence, it has not been officially decided when the injury happened. Was it as Gray was being detained? Or did it occur because he was handcuffed and put in leg irons BUT NOT SEATBELTED when he was thrown into the back of the police van—a clear violation of police protocol?
There is a history of this sort of abuse—nicknamed “rough rides” or “nickel rides”. Police drive at high speeds, making sharp turns, and stopping several times on their circuitous route to the police station, insuring that unbelted detainees are tossed around in the back of the van like poorly bagged groceries.
Now, a quick search of his rap sheet shows that there were 20 criminal court cases in Maryland against Gray, and five of them were still active at the time of his death. The cases involved mostly drug-related charges, and one involved second-degree assault and destruction of property. He was no boy scout. And none of that matters.
No one should die because he has a knife clipped to his pocket. No one should have his spinal cord 80 % severed because he spent 30 minutes with police officers.
But focusing on the behavior of the police is too easy. Clearly there was an appalling lack of virtue. Anyone with a conscience gets that. I’d like to make this a little more personal. Because that’s what’s needed if we want to become better people, and if we want this world of ours to spin out of control just a bit more slowly.
How do you read this story? How does it stir you? Do you even really care?
The fact that most of you are not poor, black males living in the inner city should make no difference. Neither should the facts that most of you enjoy good relationships with the police and never carry knives.
Virtue says you should care because Freddie Gray’s death was wrong, and avoidable, and it injures all of us. Plain and simple. But it says more than that.
We need to live differently because of this story—not just shake our heads, not just shrug our shoulders, and not just sigh in resignation. But how?
Go back and read the story again. See yourself, your son, your daughter in the face of this young man? Because until you do, until I do, until we all do, we’re not caring enough. And caring, really caring, is a good start. It’s not enough, but it’s a good start.
Virtue says that Freddie Gray’s death is not just an African-American tragedy, it is a human tragedy. And what we do…not just feel…about this man’s death tells us a lot about how serious we truly are about being good and doing good…for the Good.