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Al Jolson
Al Jolson

Fundraiser for officers in Freddie Gray case draws scrutiny

Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony magazinereported Wednesday morning about a local fundraiser scheduled in November to benefit the six police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray.

The bull roast (“a popular Maryland tradition,” Lemieux notes) is being organized by Bobby Berger, who also will be performing during the event — in blackface.

Berger performs as Al Jolson, the early 20th century entertainer and star of vaudeville and minstrel shows who often donned blackface. Berger, in fact, was fired from the Baltimore Police Department more than 30 years ago due to his portrayals of Jolson.

“If you are English and portraying Othello, you gotta blacken up,” Berger told Lemieux about playing Jolson. “If you are going to play Liberace, you better have on a jacket that looks like it costs $100,000. …I try to think of a Jolson song that is offensive with the lyrics and I can’t. I’ve been singing him since I was a little kid. My homework revealed that he was anything but a racist. “

Berger told Lemieux he “empathizes with the six officers because he knows what it’s like to lose his job.” He also said he did not think his choice to perform in blackface “seemed, if nothing else, poorly timed,” Lemieux wrote, given that race plays such a major role in the Gray case and Baltimore riots.

Michael Davey, a lawyer who has been working with the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, told The Baltimore Sun the union was unaware of the event and does not support it. The FOP will not accept any funds raised from the event, he added.

Berger told The Sun he’s sold he’s sold around 600 tickets, at $45 apiece, and hopes to give $5,000 to each defendants’ family.

Asked by Lemieux what he would say to people offended by his upcoming performance, Berger had this to say:

“It’s just make-up. There’s no jokes, there’s no buffoonery. If that bothers you, don’t buy a ticket.”