A fundraiser to benefit the officers in the Freddie Gray case was canceled Wednesday due to backlash from the main event: a former Baltimore police officer performing in blackface.
Bobby Berger, 67, planned to perform an Al Jolson routine in blackface to raise funds for the six officers involved in Gray’s unlawful April arrest and death. Jolson, a White entertainer famous for his blackface impersonations from the 1920s through the 1940s, was best known for his role in the racially charged 1927 film, The Jazz Singer.
Berger — whose blackface performances created contention between him and the police department in the 1980s, ultimately resulting in termination — said he sold over 600 tickets in eight days at $45 each for the Nov. 1 fundraiser. But on Wednesday, the Glen Burnie, Md. venue where the fundraiser was to be held, Michael’s Eighth Avenue, abruptly canceled.
From the Baltimore Sun:
“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 reportedly wanted to revive his old act to help the families of the officers, but at least one of the officers involved did not agree with the fundraiser. A lawyer who represents Sgt. Alicia D. White, one of the six officers involved in the Gray case, called the planned blackface performance “racist and in poor taste.” Berger, however, said there is “not one iota of racial overtones,” claiming that thousands of African-Americans have watched his performances, the Sun writes.
“My client will not participate. We will not accept a single solitary dime from this sort of action,” lawyer Ivan Bates said before the show was canceled. “This is the type of racist behavior that we do not need and do not want.”
The Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police said they were not aware of Berger’s blackface performance or the fundraiser. Attorney Michael Davey said the fundraiser was not endorsed or supported by the union.
The police union issued a statement Wednesday saying it has “much respect” for Berger and another retired officer organizing the event but does not condone “any performance representing the iconic racist figure that is Al Jolson” or any fundraising for the officers that does not come directly through the union.