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Looking While Black

When eye contact with police is considered a crime

Mark Makela / Getty Images

For the past year, the three Giant Food supermarkets in my Baltimore neighborhood have had a uniformed police officer posted at the entrance and exit doors. It’s the lowest-stakes encounter I could possibly have with law enforcement, but I still tense up whenever I step through the doors and prepare to walk past the cop on duty inside. Will the cop suspect me of something? I usually respond to that tension in one of two ways: ignore the cop altogether or look him in the eye.

When I decide to make eye contact, my glance is furtive. If the officer seems amenable to a cordial greeting, I may say a very formal hello. If he smiles and returns that hello, I’ll offer a quick grin. If he doesn’t smile or even speak, opting instead to give an almost imperceptible head-nod, I walk briskly by. On the way out, I don’t look in his direction again. 

If this seems like idiosyncratic anxiety or needless overcorrection, consider that Freddie Gray’s fateful encounter with Baltimore City police officers began, according to multiple police accounts, with eye contact. Gray, 25, locked eyes with at least one of the three bicycle cops patrolling Gilmor Homes, where he lived, and in what was probably less than five seconds, decisions were made. Freddie ran. The cops pursued. Video footage shows him wailing, limp-legged and apprehended, moments later. By then, three other officers had joined the arrest.

Michael Davey, an attorney for the six officers involved, defended their actions to CNN by citing a Supreme Court ruling that “police have the legal ability to pursue you” if “you flee from the police unprovoked.” Apparently, he doesn’t consider eye contact provocation. I imagine that’s because he’s never tensed up at the sight of law enforcement, never worried about what will happen if an officer concludes you’ve looked at him a beat too long or recognizes you from an old mug shot, never felt the kind of fear of appearing suspicious that compels a person to run. 

 “He’s running from the police. Why? Because he knows they’re going to lock him up,” Jayne Miller, an investigative reporter for Baltimore’s local news station WBAL, told The Washington Post: That’s why. They look at him. Make eye contact. 'Oh, there’s Freddie.' You know, there was a time in policing that they would go up to Freddie and say, 'Hey, Freddie! Get off the corner.' They wouldn’t chase him down and lock him up.”

Miller is referring to a time before Illinois v. Wardlow, the case Michael Davey referenced, which was decided by the Supreme Court in 2000. The decision does, in fact, grant officers the right to arrest someone who flees police unprovoked, but only in high-crime areas. Areas like Gilmor Homes. 

It’s easy for me to consider that in the moment he made eye contact with police, Freddie Gray felt threatened. It’s much harder for me to imagine that police may have considered his gaze as a challenge. Though historically black male eye contact has been considered aggressive or defiant—averting eye contact when confronted with whites was one of the unwritten rules of Jim Crow—no black man is eager to initiate a staring contest with the cops, especially not a man with prior arrests. 

In the eulogy he delivered on Monday, Rev. Jamal Bryant offered yet another reading of Freddie’s eye contact with the officers. He addressed Freddie’s mother, Gloria Darden: 

On April 12 at 8:39 in the morning, four officers on bicycles saw your son. And your son, in a subtlety of revolutionary stance, did something black men were trained to know not to do. He looked police in the eye. And when he looked the police in the eye, they knew that there was a threat, because they're used to black men with their head bowed down low, with their spirit broken. He was a threat simply because he was man enough to look somebody in authority in the eye. I want to tell this grieving mother... you are not burying a boy, you are burying a grown man. He knew that one of the principles of being a man is looking somebody in the eye.

I don't think Freddie set out to be a revolutionary on April 12. I don't think he expected that something as prosaic as a look in the direction of the cops would set in motion the events that killed him. I think he was just being human: He spotted the presence of outsiders in his neighborhood—the potentially terrifying kind—and in the exact moment he saw them, they were looking right back. It unsettled him.

Constant police presence in the places you frequent most is unnerving. The stakes for Freddie were much higher than they are for me when I go grocery shopping, but he made the same mental calculation that I do. For him, eye contact wouldn't mean a possible smile. He didn't have the luxury of ignoring the officers. For Freddie, eye contact with cops was much more likely to mean assault or arrest than an exchange of greeting. Given the way he was treated during his arrest—denied medical attention and transported unbuckled in the back of a van—I think running was a reasonable choice.