OCFF 2021 – Lights of Baltimore
This film was made before 2020 and the civil unrest that we saw during the summer of 2020 following the death of George Floyd, which sparked massive Black Lives Matter protests. This film though, is perfectly relevant, as the country still in many ways is grappling with race relationships and racial tensions. Director Sabrina Bouarour focuses her documentary on the case of Freddie Gray who suffered fatal injuries while in police custody. However, the film isn’t about the legal arguments in the case against the police officers who were eventually charged. It’s more about the protests that broke out in April 2015 following Gray’s death. Bouarour explores the logistics of the protests, the history of racial protests, as well as the history of policing in Baltimore specifically.
The title of the film isn’t exactly a reference to police lights or the flashing ones that one would see on cop cars. The title is instead a reference to the street lights or street lamps that were established in Baltimore in the early 19th century. In fact, Baltimore was the first city in the United States to use gas-powered lamps on city streets in 1817. According to Bouarour’s film, street lamps were thought to deter crime. Bouarour’s film doesn’t explore the statistics of crime before and after these street lamps to see how effective or not the street lamps actually were.
Bouarour bringing up this subject is more a superficial prelude to her bringing up the fact that now Baltimore has one of the largest CCTV camera systems in the country. In addition to street lights, which are now electric-powered, the city has electronic cameras on the streets, monitoring neighborhoods and districts all over town. The cameras obviously are useful for identifying or apprehending suspects or criminals. However, Bouarour never gives statistics about how effective the cameras are overall. Instead, her film goes into how the cameras are perceived. What’s revealed is that more cameras exist in neighborhoods that are predominantly nonwhite than in neighborhoods that are predominantly white.
This documentary doesn’t go into why this disproportionate statistic exists or how it necessarily affects policing. We do get how some perceive it. It’s perceived as mass surveillance that some seem to think is perhaps an invasion of privacy. Kevin Moore, a resident of Gilmor Homes, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived, says the mass surveillance is like being in prison but with no bars. It’s a provocative statement, but it’s without context or nuance. There is evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that police treat young people in nonwhite neighborhoods differently than those in white neighborhoods.
Racism and the protests against it are traced back to the 1960’s. Bouarour’s film provides background to the protests surrounding Gray’s death, a death that is steeped in racial tension. That death also is steeped in what could just be labeled as bad policing. This is reinforced when the U.S. Department of Justice releases its report on the Baltimore City Police Department. This documentary doesn’t fully break down that report, but we get an idea of how Baltimore is symptomatic of a lot of bad policing.
What’s notable is that Bouarour has actual members of the Baltimore Police Department in this film. They voice their experiences and their thoughts. We get the pros and cons of certain things like body cameras. We also get some talk about the origins of crime and that includes the rampant poverty in the city, the lack of healthcare, housing and education. Hopefully, it provides some insight into what’s really the problems in the so-called Charm City.