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Witness: Freddie Gray yelled, ‘I cannot breathe’

Harold Perry, a blind 74-year-old, says he heard the young man killed in Baltimore scream for help

BALTIMORE – On Friday, Marilyn Mosby, the chief prosecutor for Baltimore, surprised many when she announced that her office would pursue criminal charges against six officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Gray's later death from the injuries he sustained in custody was ruled as a homicide by a medical examiner, she said.

After chasing Gray on foot, officers placed Gray in a prone position, with his arms handcuffed behind his back, according to her office's independent investigation, which determined that the arrest was illegal.

"It was at this time that Mr. Gray indicated that he could not breathe and requested an inhaler to no avail," Mosby said. She added that Gray later began to "flail and scream" as one officer used a restraining technique called a "leg lace."

On the day of Gray's arrest, Harold Perry, 74, says he was at home watching TV when he heard commotion outside his door. He's blind, but says Gray's yells were as plain as day. Here, Perry recounts what he heard and shares his own experiences with police in the neighborhood. Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What was the first thing you heard that indicated something was wrong?

"Why are you holding me? Why are you grabbing me? I haven't done anything. Let me go." That's the first thing I heard.

And what did you do at that moment?

I turned my TV down to listen and I sat up in the bed. And [there were] continued yells: "Let me go, let me go. I haven't done anything." He hollered, "Help, help! Somebody help me!" And as these police got out of the car, that's when they must have been bringing him up this way, I guess to meet these officers. And they got him right there and then he starts screaming, "Let me go, you're hurting my legs. I have asthma. I cannot breathe." And I heard that plain as day.

No mistaking what you heard?

No mistaking, whatsoever.

What is it like to live in this neighborhood, in Sandtown?

Well, let's put it in these terms: Every city in America is a drug area and there's no doubt about it; I don't care what community you go in, drugs are prevalent. And this is no different, but everyone in this community is not involved in drugs. You have people that come here and pull up to go in that complex over there to visit their families, and they'll be walking out here and they'll be stopped, made to sit on the curb, searched, detained; I've seen people being detained, you supposedly detain them for no more than 10 minutes and let them go. I've seen people detained for 30, 35, 40 minutes, being made to sit on the curb.

‘[The police officer] said, ‘You mind if I search?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I mind, but you’re going to search me anyway, so go ahead and knock yourself out.’ And I just spread my arms and let him search me.’

Harold Perry

Baltimore resident

Do you see people in this area frequently stopped by police, searched and then let go without being arrested or charged?

I'm blind. I'm walking through the store [and] I've been stopped. I've been searched. [There's] a liquor store up on the top of that hill, and every now and then, I'll have a hunch to play a number. I can't afford to play them every day. And I had a hunch this day and I was going up that hill to play my number, and as I got to McKean [Avenue], a guy spoke to me. He asked me for a light, I said, “I don't have a light,” so I kept walking and went to the store.

When I came out, [a police officer] said, "What were you and that guy discussing?" I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "The guy that you were talking to." I said, "The man that spoke to me?" He said, "Yeah." He said, "What do you have in your pockets?" I said, "What any normal human being would have in their pocket: their wallet, their ID, their money, some business cards, what?" He said, "You mind if I search?" I said, "Yeah, I mind, but you're going to search me anyway, so go ahead and knock yourself out." And I just spread my arms and let him search me.

Harold Perry
America Tonight

How did you feel when you were being searched?

I felt a little degraded, because I don't have any vision. I'd be a darn fool to be out here trying to do anything against the law. I can't protect myself. I can't see anybody, you know what I'm saying? The person that might come to me and ask me for a drug could be the police. I wouldn't know any different. What would make him think that I would be so stupid or ignorant as to be trying to participate in illegal activity at this point in my life? I'm 74 years of age.

So why do you think you were searched?

All of this is considered a high-profile drug area.

So you think anyone's a suspect in the eyes of police?

Yes, anyone in this area. You're in a high-profile drug area and you're a suspect. It doesn't matter that you live here, you have an ID to state that this is my residence, I'm going home, I'm coming from the store. And it's not just one set of people. It's the old ladies, the men, the young kids, everybody.

How would you describe the actions of the police here? Do you think they're doing some things right?

From the beginning, it's only been harassment from these officers. I don't see any of them come into the community talking to these people, trying to do them any assistance, giving them any information as to where they can get assistance or anything. Anybody that comes in here comes slamming doors, kicking people's doors down or throwing people on the ground. And it's a shame that there is no better rapport between the police and the citizens here.

[Police] Commissioner [Anthony] Batts, I remember when he first came here two or two and a half years ago. He got on nationwide TV and the first statement he made to the community [was] that my first duty is to get all repeat offenders off the street. That was his first initial statement. Now, what kind of statement is that to make to people in this city?

What should he have said?

If anything: "We are going to try to help these people to find some type of programs to assist them in getting a trade, getting some type of assistance until they can get back on their feet, rather than to threaten to incarcerate them. They live in enough threat around here."

What should we do to fix this issue?

Well, number one, it's too much prejudice on both sides. It's just entirely too much prejudice on both sides.

Are you saying white on black? Or is it more about black vs. blue?

Blacks have a prejudice toward whites, because they’re always [thinking they might be] taken advantage of or deceived, or if you work for [whites], not being paid. It's a lot of deception that a lot of people have gotten from whites. I'm not saying everybody, but some. And the white community, they're always [thinking they might be] yoked, robbed, raped, something stolen from them, from the blacks. So, it's a mistrust issue. How do you work it out?

You've lived through a lot in changes in race relations in this country over the years. Did you think we'd be further by now?

I hoped we would be further and we've come a long ways. Even since the days of Martin Luther King, we've come further, but it's a lot more that needs to be done. People need to more or less think before act. Your actions have repercussions. They only think, "That's what I need for now," not, "What's going to happen to me for doing this?" And that's basically on both sides.

You've seen things play out in Ferguson, you've seen protests around Trayvon Martin in Florida, about Eric Garner in New York. You've seen this play out in all these other cities and now…

It's here … in front of my door.

What are your thoughts on that?

The other instances that you spoke of, I understood the significance of it, but it wasn't affecting me per se, so we shook it off and we keep living. But now that it's here, in my neighborhood, on my doorstep, something's got to be done. It's coming from people thinking that because I'm here and I work for this organization, I can kill this person and I can get away with it. And that seems to be the mentality of the people that's been committing these acts.

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