A former Baltimore police officer plans to revive the blackface performance that got him fired from the force in order to raise money for the six officers currently facing charges in the death of Freddie Gray.
Bobby Berger, 67, told The Baltimore Sun that he’s already sold 600 tickets to a “Bull Roast” fundraiser to benefit the officers, all of whom pleaded not guilty to charges in Gray’s death, some of which include second-degree “depraved heart” murder. Gray died from what was said to be a spinal injury he sustained in a police van. Gray was black, and his death sparked weeks of “Black Lives Matter” protests and violence in Baltimore this spring.
Berger told the newspaper that his own long, acrimonious history with the Baltimore Police Department motivated him to organize the fundraiser.
“I’ve been through what they’re going through and I know they need the help,” he said, as quoted by the Sun. “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?”
Berger got into a legal battle with the department after it ordered him to stop performing in blackface in 1982, when members of the local chapter of the NAACP complained to police officials and picketed one of Berger’s scheduled performances at a downtown hotel. Berger sued to have the department to lift the ban on his blackface performances, but was fired when he refused to drop the act after losing his case in 1984.
But Berger continued to fight the department’s order. Months after he was fired, a federal appeals court threw out the previous ruling that stated the department could not claim an interest overriding Berger’s First Amendment rights. He eventually rejoined the force and settled his legal battles with the department in 1991 for $200,000.
The former officer has performed over the years as Al Jolsen, the vaudeville icon who is best known for his blackface performance of the song “Mammy” in the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer.” Berger told the Sun that he believes there isn’t “one iota of racial overtones” in his Jolsen bit.
The Baltimore Police Department’s union distanced itself from the fundraiser and Berger’s planned, racially charged performance.
“We do not support it, and we will accept no funds from anything involving this event,” an attorney who works with the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, Michael Davey, told the newspaper.
Watch an undated TV news story on Berger’s blackface performances, which was uploaded to YouTube, below: