TRNN’s Eddie Conway and Megan Sherman and Baltimore City firefighter Gary Nelson give the real account of the encounter between Baltimore youth and police on Monday and discuss the underlying conditions that produced it
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux coming to you live from our Baltimore studio. Today we have a full day of live interviews on the street. We’re going to get people in our studio coming to you, asking questions. We have panels, tons, tons to get to. So let’s first open it up to our panel that’s currently in studio. We have, across from me, is Gary Nelson. He’s a Baltimore City firefighter. And next to him is Megan Sherman. She’s a journalist with The Real News and a producer, and has been on the street covering all of this. And Eddie Conway, who you all know. Political prisoner and producer at The Real News. Thank you all for joining us. EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for having us. DESVARIEUX: So we’re going to start off the day and just get, give people a sense of what happened on Monday. The media has been talking about how Tuesday there’s been a lot more restraint. I have here there were only 35 arrests yesterday. But on Monday we had 235 arrests made. And it all really started in this one section of West Baltimore. Eddie, I know you can sort of give us a timeline of what really transpired, because I think there’s a lot being said in the media that here on The Real News we want to make sure we’re getting the story straight. So first, let’s start off, why were the police even there in that location in the first place? CONWAY: Okay, well sometime during the funeral which took place Monday around between 11:00 and 12:00, the social media started putting out information that there was going to be a purge, that the students were going to gather somewhere and attack Mondawmin Mall. DESVARIEUX: And Purge is referring to that film where it’s like one night of–you could do whatever you want. Illegal activity. CONWAY: Yes. And it was coming across social media. And so in some of the schools, Connexion High School for instance, there were threats made that white supremacist groups were going to come and attack the school. At the Douglass High School there was threats made that gangs were going to invade it. And at some point the Mondawmin Mall decided to shut down. So they closed Mondawmin Mall down. Then they closed the subway, the mass transportation system down. And then they let the students out of Douglass High School, which were hundreds of students. And then at that point the police were in place around Mondawmin Mall and they forced the students down Reisterstown Road to Pennsylvania Avenue and North, which was an area completely foreign to those students. They didn’t allow them to get to the mass transit outlets where they normally would catch the subway and go home. Once they were down at Pennsylvania and North they didn’t have anywhere to go. They were in a strange neighborhood, and–. DESVARIEUX: It’s about six blocks, right? Away–. CONWAY: Six blocks away from their school, and they’re not part of that neighborhood at all. But they were forced into that neighborhood and they reacted. And as they started reacting, probably some people in the community also reacted with them. But it all resulted from the fact that they weren’t allowed to go home. DESVARIEUX: Okay. So when they reacted, we’re talking about the burning of the CVS. Megan, you were actually on the scene that day. What did you see happen? MEGAN SHERMAN: So when I showed up on the scene we actually were on Gwynns Falls Avenue, which is kind of like, right next to where Mondawmin Mall is. And so when we showed up there were kids throwing rocks at police officers on the median strip. And by the time we had kind of shifted onto the main street where folks were at, they had corralled all of the kids into maybe like a two or three block radius. And so they had the kids kind of packed into this, like, small little area. And a lot of the kids took some of the side streets and started to go south, because they had no–they couldn’t go to the bus stops, which were on the opposite side of the street. So a lot of the kids went south towards the CVS. And so at that point once the kids started moving down Pennsylvania Avenue, I got the word that–because I had still, I was still up near Gwynns Falls. We got the word that some cars were on fire. So we went down there, and when we got down there people were of course coming out of the back of the CVS, taking like, toilet paper and pampers, like, basic necessities for the most part. And people had of course raided the pharmacy. And we went around the front of the CVS. Again the cars are on fire and people were kind of just milling around in the street. Going back and forth inside of the CVS. Throwing stuff at the police a little bit, but mostly just kind of milling around in that area and kind of watching the cars just burn. And so in my–just being down there for about two hours, that was kind of what I saw. DESVARIEUX: And the cars, were they police cars that were on fire? SHERMAN: They were actually Metro police cars. So not the city police, but the Metro officers who usually patrol that area. DESVARIEUX: And Gary, they were burning for a couple hours, right? Megan, like–so I mean, the first response is, why wasn’t the fire fight, fire department down there? Why didn’t they put out that fire? Is it unreasonable to have a fire burning for two hours like that? GARY NELSON: I think–well first of all, one of the main things is scene safety. You know, like, you can’t do anything for anybody if you know, let’s say if your apparatus has been destroyed or something like that. So we, instead of–and by the way, we were already stretched. We were very thin at that time. I think we were already having mutual aid from Howard, Baltimore, and Anne Arundel County. So we had basically a buffer zone around Mondawmin. And we, my own contingent staged at Baltimore City Community College. And we were told to stay there and wait for instructions. DESVARIEUX: Stay there and wait for instructions. So you–did you not have an assignment at that point? NELSON: Our assignment was to stage. And that means to wait at a place until given orders to go and put out fire, wherever that might be. DESVARIEUX: Okay, okay. So I kind of want to open up the discussion a little bit more. Because we now sort of have a timeline of what really transpired. Because in the media it’s seeming like there were just spontaneous or intentional acts of violence. Do you see it this way, Eddie? CONWAY: No, I see that if the Metro station had been open most of those young people would have gotten on public transportation and went home like they had been doing for like, years. The fact that they couldn’t go home created a situation that led to tension and conflict. DESVARIEUX: And you mentioned that protesters were throwing rocks, but there were also images of police officers throwing rocks back at protesters. So there’s this tension that was clearly being built that day. And I mean, Gary, you’ve been on the Fire Department for how many years now? NELSON: 24 years. DESVARIEUX: Have you ever seen anything like this? NELSON: 1968, with the assassination of Martin King. But I was only 14 years old. Almost 15 years old. And once things got rolling it was fairly close to chaos. We had multiple fires throughout Baltimore City, as you know, beginning about that time when kids got out of school. I had actually had a pretty big fire earlier that day up in 5900 block, Park Heights. But we have 24-hour shifts now, and suppression. And that is very taxing. DESVARIEUX: Because a lot of people are using the violence that transpired on Monday as sort of like this symbol. Some people even saying really as a distraction because we’re no longer talking about Freddie Gray, we’re now focused on the events that happen on Monday, and really seeing images like these burning cars and all of that. Does this sort of become a symbol now of what’s happening, as opposed to Freddie Gray and that video? SHERMAN: I think it’s a symbol of the already stressed relationship that police have with community members. Because if you think about the area–and as a person who was a student at one point in Baltimore City and caught the bus at Mondawmin, young people have continually had issues with law enforcement there because that’s a place where a lot of young people gather, and that’s always an issue. Like with young people going into the mall, and people–we were barred from the mall completely. They let out schools at 3:00. Young people couldn’t enter the mall until 4:00. And so, you know, there has always been that tension between young people at that space, and especially in that neighborhood. And so I think it’s just kind of like a snapshot of what happens when you push young people too far, and especially when you trap them in an area that isn’t–like Eddie was saying, unfamiliar to them. And you don’t give them resources so that they can get home. DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And we’re showing the map right now so you guys can have a sense of Baltimore. A lot of people are coming to us from all over the world, so you have a sense of where they actually pushed the students. Those six blocks that Eddie was describing. It was Metro stations closed, buses closed. I mean, a lot of people are even saying why didn’t they have buses available for these kids when they got out of school? CONWAY: Yes, I think, you know–and an important piece is, what do you–you know, what do you expect young people to do when they come out of school, you release them from school in the hundreds, and then they’re faced with police in riot gear that’s moving toward them and pushing them away? You know, young people are going to respond. They’re going to throw, they’re going to–this is one of the things that happened in terms of militarizing the police. Instead of having buses there, instead of having counselors there, instead of having city personnel there saying okay, this bus goes there, this bus goes there, we’re taking you out of the area. That was appropriate behavior. But once you just let students out and then turn them into a mob, because that’s pretty much what happened. And then other people seeing them in that predicament will come and join in. I think it’s a distraction and it’s a distraction that might have been inadvertent. Or it might have been neglect. Or it might have been inefficiency on the part of the city officials. Or it might have been deliberate. Because it certainly has taken the attention off of Freddie Gray. It’s certainly taken the attention off of a need for accountability, for what happened with these six officers and him. It’s certainly taken the, distracted the world because of the way the media is dealing with it from the issue of why is these things happening in poor, impoverished black neighborhoods? DESVARIEUX: So basically we’re not looking at the systemic issues, we’re now looking at just this reaction, this response. These violent images. CONWAY: Yes. Yes. And the discussion is about a CVS being burned instead of the fact that some neighborhoods are policed in a sense of an army occupying that community, and the citizens of those communities are harassed and jailed and in prison and unemployed. And that discussion is not taking place in the media. International media. You know, it’s more of a discussion about the woman that took her child away from the riot than why was all of the children out there in the first place? You know, there had to be some sort of core issue there. DESVARIEUX: Yeah. Gary, I see you nodding over there. NELSON: Well, I agree with everything that Eddie Conway has said. And the demonization of black folks is nothing new. The stratification of society is nothing new. And the maintenance of the status quo is one of the things that has perpetuated this situation. And until we get to, as Dr. King, and as Michelle Alexander reminded us of when she was in town on the 20th, fundamental radical change must occur. People need to be a priority instead of an afterthought. Especially the children. Especially the children. And since I was born here in 1953, some things have improved, but most definitely the chasm between the haves and the have-nots has grown almost exponentially. DESVARIEUX: Yeah. We’re going to actually get into that. We’re going to have more panels throughout the day. I just want to first of all just thank you all for joining us, and when we–we’re going to take a quick break. We’re going to have–we have a package from Angel Elliott, she’s been out there on the streets, and she’s been speaking to gang members. So let’s hear what they had to say.
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