The Baltimore police force has avoided another incident that could have worsened its already troubled relationship with the Black community.
The Baltimore Sun reported a fundraiser featuring a former cop who performs in blackface has been cancelled because of protests from Black leaders.
“A Glen Burnie venue on Wednesday abruptly canceled a planned fundraiser for the six Baltimore police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray after the scheduled entertainment — a former Baltimore officer singing in blackface — drew sharp criticism,” reported The Baltimore Sun. “Bobby Berger, 67, who was fired from the city police force in the 1980s after his off-duty performances in blackface drew the ire of the NAACP, had said he wanted to revive the act to help the families of the officers.”
Gray died from spinal injuries sustained from a ride in a police van. His death sparked violent protests that lead to a city-wide curfew and the National Guard being called out. Baltimore Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby has charged officers Caesar Goodson, Garrett Miller, Edward Nero, William Porter, Brian Rice and Alicia White, with a host of crimes including second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault, misconduct and false imprisonment.
Berger was one of several acts scheduled to perform at a bull roast at Michael’s Eighth Avenue. However, after news spread about the event, the venue backed out.
“No contract was signed with Mr. Berger,” the venue wrote. “Michael’s does not condone blackface performances of any kind. As an event venue, it has not been the practice of Michael’s Eighth Avenue to pre-approve entertainment that is planned as part of a contracted event. This policy will be carefully and thoughtfully reviewed.”
Berger said he had sold 600 tickets at $45 a piece for the event. He insisted his impersonation of Al Jolson had no “racial overtones” and he was just trying to help the indicted officers.
“I’ve been through what they’re going through and I know they need the help,” he said. “Look at yourself as having a wife and two kids and a mortgage and school payments and everything that comes with it, and a guy comes up to your desk and says, ‘We’ve got to let you go.’ How do you survive?”
However, Black civic leaders were incensed, calling the planned performance “disgusting.”
“Right now, with all the things that are going on in Baltimore and also with all the issues with the Confederate flag, this is just putting more salt in the wound,” said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore NAACP chapter.
Even lawyers for the indicted officers were quick to distance themselves from the show.
“My client will not participate. We will not accept a single solitary dime from this sort of action,” said Ivan Bates, a lawyer for Sgt. Alicia D. White. “This is the type of racist behavior that we do not need and do not want.”
Michael Davey, a lawyer for the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, said the union did not condone Berger’s racist act.
“We don’t endorse it. We do not support it, and we will accept no funds from anything involving this event,” Davey said.
Berger has been performing his controversial act for more than 30 years. He first ran into trouble for his Al Jolson impersonation in 1981. He was ordered to stop performing the act by the Baltimore PD and was eventually fired after he lost a lawsuit where he claimed performing the act was part of his right to free speech.
A federal appeals court later ruled in his favor and ordered the department to rehire Berger. He was also awarded more than $108,000 in compensation. He rejoined the Baltimore police in 1986, but was stuck with a desk job and given nothing to do. Berger sued the department again and settled for $200,000.