Two days after Krystal Gonzalez, whose 18-year-old daughter was one of two people killed in this summer’s Brooklyn Day mass shooting, brought a Baltimore City Council hearing to a standstill, the chair of the public safety committee says he still has tears in his eyes.
“I put myself in her shoes, and I watched her going through that anguish,” Councilman Mark Conway said Friday, growing emotional as he reflected on the moment. “That’s really hard to sit through as a parent.”
Hours into a hearing Wednesday afternoon probing the police response to the July 2 shooting, Gonzalez delivered approximately 12 minutes of raw testimony, recounting her daughter Aaliyah’s death and offering incisive criticism of law enforcement’s passive response. The speech left some in the room, the deputy police commissioner among them, in tears, and brought the council’s typically staid proceedings to a standstill. As Baltimore residents demand answers and accountability over the police response to the worst mass shooting in the city’s recent history, Conway decided to postpone the rest of the hearing.
While some have questioned the public safety chair’s decision in the days since, Conway said he couldn’t have imagined continuing. The North Baltimore councilman appreciates that the kind of pain Aaliyah’s death has caused happens over 300 times a year in Baltimore, he said, but it’s also rare that people have the courage to come before a City Council committee and talk openly about how they have dealt with tragedy. “Frankly, I was like, damn, this hurts,” he said.
Attempts by The Baltimore Banner to reach Gonzalez on Friday were not successful. But the 40-year-old mother had been determined to be there for Wednesday’s hearing, reaching out to Conway over Twitter in late July to ask whether it would be okay for her to attend. In an email two weeks later, Gonzalez told Conway: “I absolutely have to be in attendance.”
When the time came, she seemed to floor the attendees. “I can never, ever, ever have the only thing that I want back,” she said, her voice wavering over the course of her speech. “Sometimes I have to hug myself to imagine her hugging me back. Sometimes I have to reach my hand out to imagine that I’m holding her hand while I’m walking. This is my life.”
The hearing Wednesday was the council’s second on the Brooklyn Day shooting and the first first since the Police Department and other city agencies released a 173-page report chronicling the series of systemwide errors and inaction that left the city flat-footed when the annual neighborhood party erupted into gunfire.
The report revealed numerous points in the days and hours prior to the shooting in which high-ranking supervisors and patrol officers alike took a hands-off approach to the Brooklyn Day crowd, choosing not to intervene or request more units even as 911 calls from citizens grew more frequent and more desperate. In the end, 30 people were shot, most of them children. Two, including Aaliyah, were killed.
In addition to criticism on social media, some public safety advocates and elected officials have questioned the decision to stop the hearing in the wake of Gonzalez’s testimony.
“My concern is that it’s more symbol over substance, and the substance is to dig deeper into the events that happened and hold people accountable that should be held accountable,” state Sen. Jill Carter said Friday.
The suggestion from Gonzalez that it has become “normal” to let people “take each other out” rings true for Black residents in Baltimore, said Carter. And while the City Council has repeatedly probed police staffing shortages, Carter, a Baltimore Democrat and prolific criminal justice reform advocate, said the the shortcomings in the response to Brooklyn Day warrant “more scrutiny” from a police oversight perspective — especially as the City Council prepares to hold its confirmation hearing next week on Worley’s nomination to police commissioner.
Still, Conway said that after hearing Gonzalez’s testimony, “we all needed time.” Those who have criticized the decision to recess the hearing, he added, “just weren’t in the room. They don’t understand it. That’s okay. I think we did the right thing.”
In her speech, Gonzalez took the audience through her hours leading up to the news of Aaliyah’s death in often painstaking detail, recalling the tender moments the two shared earlier in the day and her insistence, even as she stood with her daughter’s body, that what she was seeing couldn’t be true. “That’s what grief does,” she told the chamber. At one point in her testimony, Gonzalez held her phone up to the microphone and played a video someone had taken of the moment she discovered Aaliyah’s body, the sound of her cries piercing the chamber.
As video and audio from Gonzalez’s testimony made its way across the airwaves on Thursday, Mayor Brandon Scott joined WBAL radio, describing her remarks as “the pain and trauma of a parent that no one should ever have to experience.”
The mayor was on the scene at Brooklyn Homes in the aftermath of the July 2 shooting, and he told the radio station that he spoke with Gonzalez within hours of her daughter’s death. The first-term Democrat said it’s important for everyone in the city to understand what Gonzalez and so many other families of gun violence victims endure after they have lost someone they love.
“I think it’s important for folks who don’t often get to see that, who don’t often have to see families go through something like that, to see that pain and anguish,” said Scott. “You have to continue to help families heal, and the best way we can do that now is through accountability.”
Heather Warnken, who authored a federal report on how police and other city agencies interact with gun violence survivors, said that she could understand both perspectives: There were good reasons to take a pause, she said, but the moment should also serve as a “gut check” for City Council members on “why it was such an outlier to hear the raw pain and lived experience of a resident suffering through the anguish of gun violence, when that is a pervasive and everyday reality for many people in this city.”
Warnken, executive director at the University of Baltimore Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, picked up on a comment from Conway Wednesday about how “it’s not often [they] get to hear” firsthand from a victim’s family member. It was “a very uncomfortable” statement, she said, and she questioned why the normal routine is to hear from establishment and law enforcement voices rather than the people directly affected by gun violence, like Gonzalez. When lawmakers don’t hear from community members on the frontlines, she said, it “makes any attempt at oversight or problem solving profoundly incomplete.”
At points during the emotional testimony, Gonzalez raised criticisms of Baltimore Police — including about the seeming indifference from officers over the possibility that violence had broken out among the partygoers. Elaine Arndt, a volunteer leader in Baltimore with Moms Demand Action, said the speech raised questions that elected officials should have been asking of police and other city officials gathered in the chamber that day.
“I thought this would be something for them to move forward with. I thought it would advance the questioning,” Arndt said. “So when they came back and announced that this was a lot to take in and we weren’t going to proceed today, I was angered. Because she was the one that was absorbing the emotion, she was the one now that had to sit with this.”
For survivors, Arndt said, going public with that raw grief can be a deeply traumatic and difficult experience. Most who decide to share their stories, she added, do so because they want to honor their loved ones by making sure other families don’t suffer their fate. That City Council members weren’t compelled to “employ their intellect as well as their emotions” by continuing with Wednesday’s proceedings, Arndt called “appalling.”
“There are elected officials who know how to take that and listen both with their emotions and with their intellect to make a difference and move the needle,” she said.
Others said the the council’s response was the natural, humane way to proceed. Former Councilwoman Rikki Spector said in an interview that she didn’t understand criticisms of Conway and the council’s response to Gonzalez’s testimony, but commended “the sensitivity that they had for that poor mother.” If she had been in the room, she said, she would have felt the same way.
“You don’t come from outer space to be a council person. You come from the community,” said Spector, who served nearly 40 years on the City Council. “You don’t leave yourself home. You bring it with you to the office, and you bring it to a hearing. And it takes your breath away.”
Even so, Spector said she’s deeply worried about Baltimore and thinks today’s City Council members lack connections to the communities they represent. She said she still gets calls from constituents who don’t feel like their council member is responding to their needs.
“There is a responsibility as an elected official, especially a local elected official, to connect the dots. Be the conduit,” said Spector, who retired from the council in 2016. “I’m thinking that that isn’t the way they function right now.”
For Conway, it’s important that the council is thorough its analysis of the city’s Brooklyn Day investigation and that it ensures the recommendations in the report are carried out. After what the council heard this week, the public safety chair said he hopes the panel and city agencies can move forward with a bit more urgency, a bit more understanding and a bit more connection to the communities they serve.
“We gotta figure this out,” Conway said. “I don’t know how else to put it except that this is incredibly urgent work. I think we all know that, but seeing it and feeling it are two different things.”