‘Reckless Eyeballing’: Why Freddie Gray Was Killed

A month ago today, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby indicted six cops for various crimes connected with the killing of Freddie Gray, rejecting their excuse that he had a switchblade. The question remains: why did Freddie Gray die? Because he made eye contact with a police officer. If that seems absurd, it is because we forget the long history of accusing African American men of ‘reckless eyeballing.’ Under slavery, that meant making any eye contact with a person in authority. Under segregation, it referred to any alleged look at a white woman, part of Jim Crow’s terror. Today, it is a tool of the prison-industrial complex, where ‘don’t eyeball me’ is a standard command.

A still from the cell phone video taken of Freddie Gray's arrest, showing him clearly in pain.

A still from the cell phone video taken of Freddie Gray’s arrest, showing him clearly in pain.

‘Reckless eyeballing’ is the vernacular name for the look from the segregated to the dominant. What passes in that look is the dominant accusing the dominated of a desire for (sexual) violence, a displaced register of the dominant fantasy. Under segregation, a person (of color) could be legally accused of assault with intent to rape for an improper look at a white person, presumed to have sexual intent. Today it is part of the way police operate and other law officers act both on the street and in corrections facilities. It has multiple, often confused, meanings in official proceedings.

Matt Ingram after his acquittal in 1951

Matt Ingram after his acquittal in 1951

Matt Ingram was among the last convicted under this framework, in a 1951 case made notorious by civil rights activists in North Carolina. A seventeen-year-old white woman named Willa Jean Boswell testified that she was scared when her neighbor Ingram looked at her from a distance of about 65 feet. Prosecutors demanded a conviction of assault with intent to rape that was reduced to assault on a female by the judge, leading to a two-year sentence.

At the appeal in Superior Court, the judge instructed the jury that Ingram was guilty if he used “intentional threats or menace of violence such as looking at a person in a leering manner, that is, in some sort of sly or threatening or suggestive manner…he causes another to reasonably apprehend imminent danger” The all-white jury again returned a conviction, leading to a six-month sentence of labor on the roads, suspended for five years.

However, after pressure from the NAACP and African-American media like Ebony, the state supreme court vacated the conviction because: “it cannot be said that a pedestrian may be assaulted by a look, however frightening, from a person riding in an automobile some distance away. …He may have looked with lustful eyes but there was the absence of any overt act.”[i] The look alone no longer represented grounds for conviction. People continued to be convicted of assault if there was “reasonable apprehension” of danger, such as a body movement, movement in the direction of the person under observation and so on.

Reckless eyeballing is a troubling instance of the persistence of white supremacy. As it is not formally part of the law, it cannot be repealed or deleted. It places the Black person under a permanent threat of conviction if the “reasonable” person, meaning either any white person or an officer of the state, chooses to interpret their look and movement as hostile or suspicious, as happened in the Freddie Gray case.

Reckless eyeballing is expanding its reach across the legal system where it has taken on new and flexible meaning,  applying to both men and women. It sustains codes of sexual desire in highly coercive form, attributing desire to a perceived look by the other. It is part of the unofficial but rigorously enforced rules of conduct on the street and within the prison-industrial complex, upheld by police, prison guards and even pimps. The cases available appear in court of appeals records, so it is reasonable to assume that there are many more instances where the concept is used in lower courts.

In a 2013 case in Florida, a man’s conviction was upheld on appeal in part because a female corrections officer testified that he had performed reckless eyeballing against her, creating a sexualized transgression of prison hierarchy.[i] In a new twist, vice cops assert in court that women in sex work are not allowed to look at African American men by their pimps and to do so constitutes reckless eyeballing. In a 2010 California case, an officer testified that the result was that the “male pimp will either be able to take all of her money, he will be able to have her work for him, he can kidnap her and make her his prostitute.”[ii] To be detected doing reckless eyeballing is to become enslaved. The appeals court cited this assertion in their judgment without comment. In a further twist, a corrections officer in an Illinois case accused a prisoner convicted of sexual offenses of “reckless eyeballing” as part of her effort to have Latin Kings gang members rape him in accord with prison-industrial-complex informal punishment codes.[iii]

It may appear that reckless eyeballing can now be countered by citizen journalism. After all, the officers in Freddie Gray’s case were indicted because two passers-by made video of the arrest. The cops’ story that his arrest took place “without force or incident,” as they later reported it, was undermined still further when a CCTV camera showed them making a second, undisclosed stop.

No one should be confident that the trial will bring a conviction. In the confrontation of word and image between police officer’s testimony and vernacular imagery, the word of the police usually wins. Because those images can be considered just another form of reckless eyeballing. When what is seen and recorded by citizens prevails over what is said by police, you will know that the world has, finally, changed.


[i]  State v. Ingram, 74 S.E.2d 532 (N.C. 1953)

[i] KEITH LAMONT PETERS, Appellant, v. STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee. No. 4D11-607

[ii] THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. GERALD DENNOREST MANGHAM, Defendant and Appellant. No. G041266. Court of Appeals of California, Fourth District, Division Three.

[iii] ANDREW MYERS, #S05918 Plaintiff, v. TERRI ANDERSON, S.A. GODINEZ,