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Poverty in Baltimore is No Accident

Former City Council President Lawrence Bell, attorney A. Dwight Pettit and TRNN Senior Editor Paul Jay discuss the systemic reasons and deliberate policies that led to the murder of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore, coming to you from our studio in downtown Baltimore. We’re continuing our coverage of the Baltimore protests that have erupted after the killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Let me just open it up to our panelists right now. Here on our panel we have CEO and senior editor of The Real News Paul Jay, as well as A. Dwight Pettit who is a civil rights and constitutional attorney. And to my right is Lawrence Bell. He’s a former City Council president.

Thank you all for joining us.

A. DWIGHT PETTIT, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: Thank you for having me.

LAWRENCE BELL, FMR. CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT: Great to be here.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. So let’s start off with you, Lawrence. I know that obviously as former city council here in the city of Baltimore, we’ve heard from President Obama now that–he’s basically said that there are ongoing social problems that we need to address. Most of the media’s talking about how he’s described some of these protesters as criminals and looters. But we want to unpack some of these ongoing social problems. And when we say systemic, what does that really mean?

BELL: Well, first of all I want to give the President credit for at least mentioning that there are ongoing social problems. I mean, that’s the first step. But now we’ve got to go to specifics. And I, my grandmother still lives a few blocks away from where the incident occurred. It was my first home, in West Baltimore. So I’m very concerned about it. But you know, we’ve got to remember that these young people are not products of themselves. Their grandfathers like my grandfather came from North Carolina in the 1930s. He got a good job, good paying job, at Bethlehem Steel, made a lot of money. Or quite a bit, compared to what young men are able to make today. Built a family, built a life.

In the–I’d say by the mid to late ’60s, the jobs went out, the drugs came in. And that was a formula for really the demise of that community. And so you’ve got too many people chasing too few jobs. You’ve got the crime that comes out as a result of that. You’ve got drug abuse, because so many of the drugs have been pumped into the community. And the drug economy has become the largest employer. And here’s the thing that really, really concerns me and I think people miss a lot, too, is that the average young person who’s out there caught up in that economy is not making much money. You know, he’s making just barely enough to get by.

So there aren’t enough opportunities. And I would like to see President Obama and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake here in Baltimore, the governor–Governor Hogan and others really come up with a plan to put people back to work. I mean, that needs to be done, pronto.

DESVARIEUX: Dwight, what is your response? What’s your take on what are the systemic issues here?

PETTIT: Well you know, while you–when you mentioned that I was thinking, Jessica, it took me back historically to the great society and Lyndon Baines Johnson. We were talking about the same exact thing then, 55 years ago. And what we were going, I think Martin Luther King before his demise was talking about the war on poverty. And we’ve watched over the years as different political administrations have come to bear, and what have we seen this nation do? I think Lawrence hits it right on the head, we saw the war on drugs which was really a war on the inner cities of African-American people. We saw the transfer of jobs out of the United States to other countries, so that there could be low-income production. We saw the destruction of our educational system in terms of the urban environment. We even saw partial destruction of the HBCU environment in terms of higher education.

And so I remember, I was with the Nixon administration coming out of law school, believe it or not, I was in the General Counselor’s office. And at that time at least the mode of the country–and you can say what you want about Nixon, but the mode of the country was to pump money to empower, economically empower the African-American community. We were talking about [88] contracts and set-aside programs, and the constitutionality of affirmative action. At least the country had a mindset that the problem had to be rectified economically before just social changes.

And we’ve moved through other administrations, whether they be Republican or whether they be Democratic, where these things were in my opinion totally neglected. And all that we saw was the things Lawrence just talked about and the things that I’ve already mentioned in terms of–I won’t say just neglect. I’ll say determined neglect, with intent, of the African-American community. Almost to isolate them in this urban, hostile environment and then create these militaristic police forces to control it.

DESVARIEUX: So essentially this is by design–

PETTIT: Yes. Yes.

DESVARIEUX: –we are talking about.

PETTIT: Yes, intent is designed. Malice is designed.

DESVARIEUX: Paul, do you want to jump in here?

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Yeah, I think what–just picking up on what Dwight said, it really has been a war on the poor, not a war on poverty. But not for some–racist ideology justifies it, but it’s not because of racist ideology. It happens. It happens because there’s a need for a large workforce willing to work for next to nothing. For $7, $8, $9 bucks an hour.

We did a story covering the Johns Hopkins Hospital strike. There’s a man there who’s worked at Johns Hopkins for 14 years clearing the surgery room after surgery. He has to take special medication to guard against HIV. The guy’s making $13.50 an hour after 14 years at Hopkins. How do you get that? You get that because you have a community desperate for jobs. You have a community that’s so desperate for jobs they’re willing to do dangerous jobs for low pay. So yeah, it’s by design, but by design for very economically-driven motives.

Now, take what’s going on. Why chronic poverty in Baltimore, decades after decades? Why boarded-up housing for decades after decades? Because they want poor black people to get the hell out of the city. It’s a form of ethnic cleansing. Because they hate poor black people? Maybe, but that’s not the driving factor. The driving factor is real estate speculation. There are thousands of houses that people are sitting on. The city’s sitting on them, Hopkins is sitting on them, and the only thing that’s really stopping gentrification right now–what’s been told to me at least, by people who should know–is the school system is so bad you can’t get people to move into the city. So they’re trying to deal with that.

But are they trying to deal with it so poor people can move back into their communities and have a real life? No, they’re doing it so they can get people with money, black or white, probably, but with money, who will then come and pay a lot of money for renovated housing. And then you get the whole housing boom going again, here.

So what Dwight says, it’s absolutely right. It’s by design, and it’s by design because people are making money. They’re also making money out of crime and poverty. Mass incarceration is making money through the prison systems. One of the cops I once interviewed told me, go look at when most of the small pot busts are. He says, ’cause they’re usually about an hour or two before the shift changes. Why? ‘Cause as soon as you arrest somebody, you stay with them until they’re handed over to the court system. You’re into overtime. At petty levels and big levels of lawyers and the legal system, people are making money out of the situation.

So you know, we got to start–when we talk systemic, we got to start talking about that solutions are not going to come from the people who are making the problems. And the people who are making the problems are not the people breaking windows and stealing some diapers, or whatever they stole. Yes, they shouldn’t steal, everybody knows that. But the point is, put that next to the murder and the violence that’s taking place. Why isn’t that all over CNN? Why aren’t we calling them thugs? No, we’re calling some young kids that almost got cornered into doing this, if you follow the story of what happened.

So the media coverage is totally harping on thug, thug, thug. The whole thing about Freddie Gray has practically disappeared, which was a form of execution, which I think is not–it’s not an exaggeration. It seems–okay, we’ll wait for the final evidence, but it sure looks that way. So systemic is at this level we’re asking police to be a buffer between people that own stuff and people that don’t. And that’s what has to change.

DESVARIEUX: But there’s some black working-class people that own stuff that might actually agree with some of this rhetoric that the Mayor has espoused, like calling these protesters thugs. Lawrence, what’s your take on that? Do you feel like there are people even in the black community that are saying yeah, use the hammer?

BELL: Well you know, emotion kind of takes over. And [Cosom] I know Dwight knows a lot about this, too. Some years ago when Martin O’Malley became the mayor, I think that he played upon a lot of the fear that existed within the African-American community. Quadrupled the number of young black men being arrested. Illegally arrested.

And initially, I mean, people who are living under siege, so to speak, economically and because of the drugs and the things that are pumped into the community, you know, they were reaching out emotionally to a solution. And when you say thugs, you know, sometimes that resonates with people emotionally. But when they stop to think about it–and you see this in churches, you see this in neighborhood meetings. You know, if you go, if you’re on the street. They remember these young people that are being called thugs are their children, their grandchildren. Their nephews, nieces–you know what I’m saying. So it’s us that we’re talking about. And the reality is that we need to heal the community, not just condemn the community.

And I want to say one other thing about this, and you made me think about one of the things that’s going on in terms of systemically how things are. I’ve talked to people on the street in that area. I’ve talked to people, drug people. Most of us, because the community is diseased, it’s sick, we know somebody who’s addicted. We know somebody who’s been on both sides of the law. Virtually all of us do. Relatives–I had a relative a few weeks ago, there were a number of shootings, and a relative of mine that got shot. And that was just a few weeks ago. I’ve had a relative who was killed about ten years ago. They wrote about it in the paper. The President, Council President right now, his nephew was killed actually a few weeks ago.

We all know people, okay? But if you talk to people on the street, they know what’s going on, and they know exactly what happened in terms of Freddie Gray. They know there’s one officer who has been known for a long time to be a racist, and not only do the people know it. There’s several officers that know it. And one of the questions that comes up is, you know, if you’ve got these African-American police officers here–down in South Carolina you saw the same thing, they saw somebody plant something on the person after he got shot. There were people around that saw this particular guy. This guy has a reputation. Why didn’t they say anything?

Well, it’s systemic. Because if you understand police departments, and I’ve talked to a lot of black police officers, they’re afraid of retaliation. And that’s an issue–again, if you’re talking about things that are systemic, that goes on. They know what happened to Freddie Gray. They know how he was taken out of the wagon. He was beaten up. That’s happened before many, many times. So again, the devaluation of life of the people that are residents who live there and a systemic police state that has developed, and even when you have some good cops, black and white, there’s not the critical mass of good to overcome the negative. And that’s what we got to deal with.

PETTIT: Let me just jump in here. You got to realize, the African-American community basically is very conservative. A lot of people don’t realize that when you ask about their political persuasions and so forth. The African-American community is extremely conservative in some areas. Particularly the church area, and what have you. But Paul hit upon a major point that we just, I don’t want to gloss over.

This matter of mass incarceration has been a major, major sword to be used against the African-American community. Yet we have politically tolerated that because that is an industry within itself. Can you imagine the numbers, the number of families that have been destroyed because–and they knew it was disparate. They knew it was inequitable. The powers that be knew that those laws were wrong, and that they were sending people for nonviolent crimes, marijuana, possession of cocaine, for mandatory sentences of 10–5, 10, 15 years. They knew that was disparate. They knew it had an impact basically on the African-American community. But nobody moved to change it, either on the federal side or the state side. And the African-American community has accepted it for the last 40 years.

Now, speaking of conservative African-American communities, I go into these cases where police brutality–I’ve been doing it for 47 years. I wrote a book on it, Under Color of Law. And when I try these cases, believe it or not I’ve tried back shootings, where people unarmed have been shot in the back by police. Two or three times. Many cases right here in Baltimore. The last five or ten cases were right here in Baltimore. And we don’t absolutely win those cases. We might resolve them on settlement. But African-Americans on the juries and African-American predominant juries are very conservative. They want to believe the police are going to do the right thing. They do not want to accept that the police are going to intently kill somebody. And so you find that this thing that we think that the African-American community is always going to be on the progressive or the liberal side is not a reality.

BELL: You know something–I’m going to jump in here. You make an excellent point. It calls to mind what they call Stockholm syndrome. You know, when people who get beaten down so much, they identify with their oppressor. And one of the problems I think we have, and this is on a psychological level in our community, is that we have an inferiority complex, many of us do. And we want to be accepted, we want to believe that the country is more liberal. We want to believe that we can all work together. Most black folks–even people that complain. Deep down inside they have this yearning to be accepted. And I think that that plays into that, and that makes people kind of blind to what’s really going on.

JAY: I think it’s very important what both my colleagues here are saying. But just I’d add one thing. The reason police think they can get–kill and use abuse with impunity is ’cause there’s an entire legal structure that’s been erected that gives them impunity. They do have impunity. From the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights to–go from state after state, how difficult it is to get an indictment. At times they go for these, this one that happened in Ferguson where they go for a grand jury for absolutely no reason. They could have gone directly to indictment but they had this secret grand jury process.

One of the things that’s systemic is the protection of police. Because in the choice between changing how we do business and how we tax and how we do social policy versus having a police force that’s a hammer, we choose the hammer. As a society. I think the wealthy have the most to gain from it. But a lot of us that are relatively doing okay, it’s better to have the hammer than actually have to change the way we do things in society. And of course there’s white supremacism, racism, even subconsciously, it helps justify it. You can turn away, you don’t have to see it. So it’s easier not to see it and have the hammer there.

And then the images we’re seeing that CNN keeps harping on, like the looting, and this and that, which is really mostly a bunch of kids, they love this image. ‘Cause they want people to think that that’s what’s going to happen any moment there isn’t a lot of policing. That that’s what’s ready to break out at any time. People are just going to go crazy, ’cause that’s what they’re like. You know, if we don’t, if we’re not on top of them with all this policing they’re just gonna come and take your stuff away from you.

So the fear is there, and this onerous state police is there. And we have to understand, and certainly those of us ordinary people who buy into this stuff have to understand, it doesn’t solve anything. This hammer ain’t a solution. What’s a solution is change, you know, how stuff is owned, who has power, and the community has to start thinking about how to take control and govern. Because right now that political stratum and the people that fund them, that have power, they have interest in keeping things just the way they are.

PETTIT: And Paul is exactly right. I mean, instead of looking for solutions to the social problems, have a police force that maintains the status that we see. And as they run out these crime rates and these murder rates and what have you to the public, the public sees this and we all, especially in the urban community, we live in fear. So the average citizen is willing to trade off for his fear and for protection, to trade off his constitutional rights, and–

JAY: Protection racket.

PETTIT: –and give the police a pass. And it’s an automatic trade. As long as you protect us, or you say you’re going to protect us, we will give up the challenge of any type of constitutional offenses or infringes that you might display in your interactions with the public.

BELL: You know, it’s also psychological warfare, because–and one thing I really appreciate you all here, The Real News Network, I appreciate the town hall meeting you had recently with Michelle Alexander. And you know, I thought that I was intelligent and knowledgeable, and I’m going to tell you, till I read that book. I was amazed the things I learned. For example, the fact that drug use is pretty much the same statistically across the board, black, white, Hispanic. It’s pretty much the same amount, with 12-15 percent.

Most people don’t know that. Most people–if you’ve been bombarded with the images on television over and over again, you think all the drug dealers are these black kids in the inner city–

JAY: Jessica–we did a story–in fact Jessica did it, in Westminster. It was about 30 minutes from here. And we went around asking, what’s–this is a white community, 80 percent white. Voted for Romney. And we asked, what’s the number one problem in Westminster?

DESVARIEUX: Heroin.

JAY: Heroin addiction.

DESVARIEUX: Heroin addiction. Yeah, yeah. That was the big problem.

JAY: But the media ain’t telling us that. We are.

BELL: Well you know what my–my father’s a, is a dentist. And we’ve learned that the gateway in recent years has been the painkillers. You know, the painkillers. The closest thing, heroin is chemically so close to–people go into the hospital where they have other problems, health problems. They get on these painkillers, and a large percentage of the new heroin users were people who were using painkillers.

So it is–you know, it’s very pervasive. And getting back to something you said about the, Dwight, about the incarceration rate. I remember in the mid-’90s when Bill Clinton pushed the crime bill. You know, and I remember–

PETTIT: The omnibus crime bill.

BELL: –some of us, I was president of the City Council in Baltimore back then. I remember Senator Clarence Mitchell IV and I were the only two people from Maryland. We went, we were down there at the White House where they were talking about this. And we kept saying, wait a minute. You know, logically, what’s the justification of having this amount of crack cocaine, which is really amount of somebody who’s using, often an addict. How does this person get this big sentence, and all this powdered cocaine which the white fellas out in the suburbs use–

PETTIT: Recreational drug.

BELL: –and blacks that have money, and people that have money, they can have this amount of powdered cocaine, and they don’t get a sentence that these poor people have, this little amount of crack cocaine in the city. So the thing–and we’d argue this. But you made a very good point that the powers that be knew what they were doing. It was a form of social engineering. They tripled the number of black men in jail, and now you’ve got so many people that have records now, and it’s just affecting us to this day.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, and employment and all of those–jump in, Paul. What where you going to say.

JAY: At the very beginning we gave President Obama a little bit of credit for talking about ongoing social conditions. Now, that just shows how pathetic the dialog has been on the media, that you actually have to give somebody kudos for even mentioning the social problems, because all they do want to talk about is looting and so on.

But that being said, President Obama is not talking about what could have been done during his presidency. For example, trillions of dollars went from the Fed to the banks to let them hide which essentially was a fraudulent scam, which was invented in Baltimore, the sub-prime mortgage scam. Most people don’t know, this is actually, was developed in the 1990s here. In the year 2000, the number one reason for foreclosures in Baltimore was sub-prime mortgages. The fact that they played this enormous casino scheme, the big banks and houses like Goldman Sachs, to get bailed out with trillions of dollars from the Fed.

The Fed could have loaned money to Baltimore. If they wanted to use, shore up the economy by just shoving money out from the Fed, you could have done this across the country to keep, create a jobs program, loans for cities, loans for states. There was lots of things that they could have done, even bypassing Congress if they had to. The Fed never got permission from Congress to go–you know, they get originally with TARP, but after that they just started doing it.

So the systemic problem of the amount of wealth is in so few hands–now, what ordinary people that are buying into we need tough policing and all of that, what they need to get is these policies are driving the whole society into hell. It’s not just poor people that are going to suffer from all of this.

Everyone–you know, what happened in ’07-’08, that crash where how many tens of thousands of people across the country lost their jobs, lost their houses, nothing’s been fixed. All the stuff, the systemic problems of bank speculation that triggered that crisis and that collapse–Dodd-Frank, the supposed legislation that was gonna deal with it has been so eviscerated it’s meaningless. You talk to any serious economist that’s, or anyone that studies bank regulation, it could all happen again. They’re doing nothing about climate change. Just, you know, believe the scientists. You know, you go to a doctor, you go to the hospital, you believe them when they give you a pill to take. So you know, when you get the preponderance of scientists saying we’re facing practically apocalyptic consequences over the–our kids are gonna feel these consequences. And we’re already starting to feel it, in terms of storm systems, and such. And take the geopolitics. This endless war in the Middle East. Serious provocations with Russia. I mean, geopolitically very dangerous situation.

So you know, can’t just be in this bubble. You know, I got my job and I got my house, so I’m okay. The people that are running the society are driving it off the cliff. And what’s happening to poor people is just the most symptomatic obvious thing of it. But we’re all in that–not all. Most of us are in that boat. A few aren’t. A few are on yachts and the rest of us are in rowboats. And those of us in rowboats had better start thinking of getting together, ’cause those in yachts, they’re quite happy about the way things are.

DESVARIEUX: Then how we’re going to change that course, let’s take a break here, and in the second part we could talk about solutions and how to get us from driving off that cliff and into the right direction. Thank you gentlemen, for joining us.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.