A former Baltimore police officer said yesterday that he plans to perform an Al Jolson routine in blackface to raise money for the six Baltimore officers indicted in the death of Freddie Gray. Bobby Berger, whose performances as Jolson created tension with the department in the 1980s, said yesterday that 610 tickets have been sold at $45 each for the Nov. 1 fundraiser in Glen Burnie, Md. But the venue involved, Michael's Eighth Avenue, says the fundraiser will not be held there. "No contract was signed with Mr. Berger," a notice on its website said. "Michael's does not condone blackface performances of any kind." Berger said he doesn't believe there's anything racist about his routine. "It's coincidence," Berger said about the fact that the entertainer he impersonates wore blackface. "There's no racial overtones to this show."
Berger, who's 67, has performed the blackface act for decades and was fired from the police force in the 1980s for performing it in his spare time. He was reinstated following an appeal, and later retired. His performance at a retirement dinner for a white Baltimore County officer in 1996 prompted a black officers' group to protest. Berger said yesterday that he only intended to help the officers in the Gray case. "I want to get these people some money," he said. "I know they need it, and that's the long and short of it." Meanwhile, an attorney for the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police says officers don't support the fundraiser and that no money would be accepted from it. "They've been put in a pretty bad position without their knowledge," he said of the officers. The president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP adds that the idea is "very distasteful" and shows "no sensitivity to the family of Freddie Gray."