Sherrilyn Ifill: Baltimore Must Address Economic and Social Segregation to Achieve Justice
The President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund gave the keynote speech at the Solution Summit hosted by OSI-Baltimore
SHERRILYN IFILL: I’m going to truncate my remarks and be brief, but I do have some things I want to say to you.
First of all, let me give you a little background so that you understand my perspective about Baltimore. Eddie’s quite right, I moved here in 1993 to take a job teaching at University of Maryland Law School where I taught for 20 years. Many of you know that I ran several legal clinics there. I started the second clinic focused on re-entry of ex-offenders in the United States. I worked on environmental justice issues, did lead paint cases, I even taught a reparations clinic, which I’m very proud of.
And I lived in Baltimore for 20 years and raised my daughters here and so I encountered many of the challenges that we all know exists in Baltimore. My children went to every kind of school there is, as we searched for the best education. They went to pre-school in Sandtown-Winchester, they went to the Bethel Christian School. They went to Grace and St. Peter’s. They went to the public Roland Park school. They went to Bryn Mawr. We tried everything and so we became very familiar with that challenge.
But we also became very familiar with what I call “the beauty of Baltimore.” I regard the experience of raising my children on the west side of Baltimore as almost entirely positive. Because we threw ourselves wholeheartedly into the heart and soul of this city. The focus on community, the focus on joy, the focus on neighborhood. There isn’t an Artscape I didn’t go to. I did the Electric Slide with the Kinderman. I went to every Stone Soul picnic. I went to the Caribbean parade and went out early in the morning when people were getting ready. You know, I sat on the board of Enoch Pratt Free Library. People thought that I was from Baltimore and I didn’t correct them because I really have felt such a strong part of this city.
And yet I recognized, up close and personal, many of the challenges that we face in this city. One of the reasons I was willing and very excited about coming to speak at the Solutions Summit is because I’m so excited that there’s a focus on solutions. I am over the constant lamentation of problems in Baltimore that we talk about over and over and over again in an endless loop that never ends in solutions. So, first and foremost, I’m excited that this is a Solutions Summit and I want to remind you of that as you engage in your conversations today.
Secondly, I am so thrilled that this Solutions Summit recognizes the interconnectedness of challenges in Baltimore. That it’s impossible to talk about criminal justice without talking about behavioral health. That it’s impossible to talk about jobs without talking about education. That all of these are of a piece and the solutions to them will be holistic.
Years ago, the organization I lead, which is the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — and I have to correct the Mayor a little bit. It’s an entirely separate organization from the NAACP and has been since 1957. The organization I lead is the organization created by that great Baltimorean Thurgood Marshall. And years ago we participated with one of your great civil rights institutions, the ACLU of Maryland, in a case challenging segregated public housing in Baltimore, in which a federal judge found that the Federal Government had deliberately segregated public housing in Baltimore. And as part of that litigation we were able to see how segregation — racial and socioeconomic segregation — pervades every problem of this city.
And I raise the issue of segregation because I know it sounds old school, the old “S” word, but I’m convinced that until we deal with economic and racial segregation in this city we will not be able to resolve many of the problems that you are engaged in today.
SHERRILYN IFILL: Because while there are two Baltimores — while there are two Baltimores, and we all know that there are two Baltimores — there will not be sufficient incentive to take the extraordinary and ambitious measures that will be required to ensure that every Baltimorean has a chance and an opportunity to have a true life with an education, and a job, to be safe and to have a future.
I think about this often when I look at some of the work that my organization has been trying to do in Baltimore. You know, after the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, you know, I was on national news programs all the time and people would say, “Why are they burning the CVS?” Was the only thing they could see, was the CVS. And they weren’t interested in the fact that if you looked up and down North Avenue, besides that CVS, there was no other national chain. There was no Starbucks, there’s no Cohen’s Optical, no Best Buy, none of the stores that you would expect to see in a thriving community. And no real effort to get at the depth of the challenges that I think the entire Freddie Gray incident should compel us to confront.
The questions I have about the death of Freddie Gray are absolutely questions of policing. But I also insisted on engaging a set of questions about what Freddie Gray’s life would have been had he lived. If Freddy Gray had lived, ask yourself, what were the opportunities for him to be legally employed in a job that would have paid him a living wage? What were the opportunities for Freddie Gray to live in housing that was not substandard? If Freddy Gray was able to get a job at Johns Hopkins Bayview, what kind of transportation system would have ensure that he could get to that job on time and get home on time?
This is one of the reasons why we brought and action challenging the cancellation of the Red Line. I felt this personally because when I lived in West Baltimore…
SHERRILYN IFILL: When I lived in West Baltimore and I would get up early in the morning, I would see those great women, those great mothers of Baltimore, standing at the bus stop in the dark at six in the morning in the nurse’s smock. You know, Reverend Jackson always says they take the early bus. So, even if you had a job way across town, you’ve got to get up at six so that you can take that long, meandering bus ride over to the east side, so that you can make it for your 7 a.m. shift.
But what we don’t ask when we see that woman standing at the bus stop is what is the collateral damage that’s involved with her standing at that bus stop at six in the morning? Have her kids had breakfast? Is she able to walk them to the bus stop? Is she able to make sure that their homework is in their book bag? When that child arrives at school without the homework, not having eaten, or having encountered bullies — or maybe doesn’t arrive at school — what’s the assessment of the teacher? Is the assessment of the teacher about the public transportation system of Baltimore? No, it’s about that parent. It’s about that child.
And so, until we begin to understand the interconnectedness of the problem — it’s not just about the jobs, it’s about the ability to get to the jobs on a rapid transit system that allows you to be with your family in the morning and get home to your family in the evening. When that same woman works the 12-hour shift and then gets home at eight o’clock, her child has been out of school since three, what do we expect to happen to her children? So my hope is that you will be looking holistically at solutions and you’ll recognize the need for us to think ambitiously and big about how we resolve problems in Baltimore.
SHERRILYN IFILL: Some solutions, I think, are simple. The Mayor talked about development and I’m all for development in Baltimore. But I’m all for development that ensures that we are not replicating the same problems that got us here.
SHERRILYN IFILL: So a very simple solution, a very simple solution is for the city council to pass an ordinance that requires that anyone seeking to do development in the city has to, as part of the plan they present, demonstrate how that development plan will decrease economic and racial segregation and increase integration in the city. It’s very simple.
SHERRILYN IFILL: It’s very simple. You shouldn’t have to show up… you shouldn’t have to show up at meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting to get that showing. That should be part of the plan that is submitted initially by anyone seeking to do development in this city. Doesn’t mean that what they show is a deal-breaker but it puts the onus on developers to understand this is what we think is important in Baltimore and you have to prioritize this as you engage in your development plan. That’s very simple. And that’s in your hands to compel your city council to require this kind of showing.
But I also think we have to address the reality of the way in which the two Baltimores contribute to, I think, the most important issue facing the city at this moment. And this is the issue of policing, which the Mayor already referred to.
The report that the Justice Department developed after doing its investigation of the Police Department — and I’m going to ask you to be honest, how many of you have read the report? Okay. So it should be every one of you. And I’m going to ask that OSI Baltimore make sure it probably already is online and that you read this report. It is devastating. And I can tell you that we work on policing reform in cities all over the country and I know Baltimore very well and I know the policing problems in Baltimore very well. And yet, still, read all together, it is a devastating indictment.
And I use the word “indictment” very deliberately because this report indicts all of us. This system of policing described in the report, the use of excessive force against young people, the use of excessive force against disabled people. The disregard for sexual assault. The brutality, the lack of accountability, all set out in this report reveals what many have known to be true. That is what the people have been saying at community meetings around the city is true. And it’s been happening on our watch.
Now when I say convicts us all this is what I mean. I was a law professor for 15 years at University of Maryland Law School and engaged many of these issues. Some of you are doctors or you have an investment firm, some of you are lawyers, some of you are city council people, some of you are teachers, some of you have led businesses in the city, some of you are ministers and preachers — listen to me. This happened on our watch. On our watch.
SHERRILYN IFILL: And when you read it, I can tell you, because all over the country we talk about these issues and the Baltimore report stands out as a devastating indictment of our Justice System. It must, on our watch, be addressed.
Now what does that mean? Much of what the Mayor said is incredibly commendable and I’m excited to hear her commitment to transforming policing in this city. But it’s also true that what we need is a tool that allows you, the community, to make sure that this change happens. Because this change is not going to happen on the shift of one Mayor. How many terms can mayors have? Three, maybe on one Mayor she has many terms. Maybe. Maybe. But it’s a 10-year plan. ‘Cause we’re talking about a change of culture. We didn’t get into this with the last mayor or the mayor before that or the mayor before that. This is an entrenched problem that has existed over decades and we’re talking about a cultural problem.
Now all of you know about culture — you have a workplace, there’s a culture in your workplace. How easy is it to change the culture of your workplace? It’s not easy. And so you, the community, needs a tool that allows you to hold the police department accountable for this transformation and change. Your commissioner is committed to this change. I’ve talked with him, I believe he’s sincere, I believe he wants it to happen. But you have a process right now that will allow you to have tool and that’s that consent decree that has to be signed…
SHERRILYN IFILL: …and placed with a Federal judge so that you have the tool.
Now what do I mean, by you having the tool? Once that consent decree goes to the Federal judge there’s going to a fairness hearing. You’ll get to come in and look at the provisions of the decree. But then that decree is essentially a judicially enforceable agreement. Which means that there’s a departure from what that agreement requires, you get to go into court and challenge the failure to comply with that decree. And that’s what’s going to give you the 10, the 12 years that you need to see this process through. We’ve had, since I lived in Baltimore, we had eight police commissioners. We have police commissioners that come and go. So one mayor in one term or two terms can’t solve it all. It has to be the community, but the community’s got to have the tool.
Now, I know and believe that the mayor is working hard to get that consent decree signed. But let me say, in no uncertain terms, we are about to change the Federal government. That decree has to be with the Federal judge before January 19th.
SHERRILYN IFILL: Has to. Once it’s with the Federal judge, the President, new Justice Department can’t touch it. So it’s got to be signed and it’s got to be with the Federal court to give you that tool.
So what does this mean for Baltimore in this moment? I’m always optimistic and hopeful about Baltimore. That’s the energy that comes from this community — not because I’m a particularly optimistic person. I truly believe that Baltimore is on the cusp of solving some of these entrenched problems. But we should not lie to ourselves about how deeply entrenched these problems are. We should not pretend that these problems are easily solvable. They are going to require hard work, the kind of hard work that the mayor described. It’s going to require the hard work of other leaders in the city. It’s going to require a scale of ambition. Listen, this is key, ambition. That means believing and wanting more for Baltimore than most people think this town deserves. It’s time for us to be ambitious and visionary. It’s time for us to recognize that change is made up of investments.
Do you know what I mean by investments? Investments is time, energy and money. And we invest in things in Baltimore. But you have to decide, going forward, what we want to invest in. Do you want to be talking to your grandchildren about how they should encounter the police? Or are you ready for this to be done? Are you ready to make a change so that you can tell your grandchildren, “There was a time in Baltimore when it was like this, but now it’s like this.”
It’s going to require an investment and I’m fond of saying that, in this country, we make investments all the time. We made investments in an interstate highway that allowed the creation of the suburbs. You know, Towson used to be the country — y’all know this, who come from Baltimore, that used to be the country — you couldn’t even get there. But the United States made an investment in an interstate highway system that made the creation of the suburbs possible — the white suburb possible.
We had a GI bill that allowed returning veterans to move into the middle class by being able to buy homes. We created a mortgage system beginning in the 1930s when the Federal government began insuring mortgages, and it was the Federal government that required segregation. In their very deeds, they would not insure mortgages for people to live in integrated neighborhoods. I want you to understand that because we tend to believe that the landscape we see is inevitable. It was created by policy and investments — intentional policy decisions and investments. And you know what’s the good news about that? The good news is that as intentionally as it was created, is as intentionally as it can be dismantled and transformed.
SHERRILYN IFILL: So the fear that holds us back is that we start thinking problems are too big — are too big for us to solve. But they didn’t think it was too big to take an entire generation of returning veterans and make them middle class and allow them to be homeowners. They didn’t think it was too ambitious or too big to create a highway system — Eisenhower saw the Autobahn in Germany and thought, “We could do that,” — to create a highway system that would allow you to travel across the country and would allow you to live 25 miles away from the city but still come into the city and have your job and go home at night. They weren’t too ambitious. They understood what they could do with investments.
And the question for us today as we sit around the table looking at solutions for Baltimore is how ambitious are we for this town? Are we prepared to tinker around the edges of transformation or are we prepared to demand true transformation?
I know there’s a change situation at the White House that may not be friendly and I’m really worried about the Supreme Court and all of that’s true. But from the history of my people, of African-American people in this country, from the example of my predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, he didn’t wait until there was an amenable political system to decide that Jim Crowe had to end. He didn’t wait until we had a particular kind of Congress…
SHERRILYN IFILL: …or a particular kind of Supreme Court. Do we have that ambition for Baltimore? Do we have that excitement? Do we have that sense of demand within us for what we really want to see? Do we think that Baltimore, if it truly is a great American city, deserves a rapid transit system, like great American cities have?
SHERRILYN IFILL: Do we think we can find a way to have a public safety system in which we respect the police and the police respect us? In which you would be proud to tell your child to become a police officer. In which you can feel safe in your own neighborhood and in which you really believe that public safety officers are there to protect you? Do we believe that this city deserves that and that we can have that? Do we believe that a child who’s educated in Baltimore and begins in school in kindergarten and graduates in the 12th grade actually is able to read on a 12th grade level, if not greater? Is able to have basic numeracy skills? Is able to critically think and be a citizen for the future of this city? If you don’t believe that, then you’re in the wrong city. If you’re in this city then you should want and believe that these things are possible for us. I know that I do.
I’m so grateful to all of you for being here today because it shows me that you’re believers as well. I’m grateful to the Mayor, to the city council members who are present, to OSI Baltimore and to all of us who believe in equality and justice and a future for everyone in Baltimore City. Thank you very much.