Why is There Systemic Police Abuse in Baltimore? (1/2)
TRNN’s Taya Graham speaks to Paul Jay talks about the connection between poverty and policing
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network. I’m here in front of the Mitchell Courthouse awaiting the motions that are first being argued by the lawyers in the Freddie Gray case, who died at the hands of six police officers while in police custody.
I’m here with Paul Jay, senior editor of the Real News Network. Hi. Welcome, Paul. Thank you. What I want to know is, what do you think some of the implications might be of this Freddie Gray case? What do you think, how the city’s reacting to the case, whether or not you see more possibility of uprising?
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Well, let me start by saying that this is nothing new. The police abuse, systemic police abuse, has been going on for 50-60 years or maybe longer in Baltimore. There have been people killed by police often over the years. The reason this has become such an issue I guess is probably because it was caught on videotape. As we’ve seen in other parts of the country, when it goes public you can actually see it. But it’s a tip of the iceberg.
But the–we’re hearing a big siren, which is part of living in Baltimore. You get used to sirens.
GRAHAM: And helicopters. Also helicopters.
JAY: Helicopters, yeah. This one’s an ambulance going by. But we’re standing right next to a bunch of hospitals so that may be why.
What doesn’t, isn’t being asked in the media very often, is why is there systemic police abuse? You get the odd reference to poverty. But the connection between poverty and police abuse is not normally drawn. Because the next question has to be asked, why since about the 1950s in Baltimore have you had whole areas of communities that were vibrant communities where people had jobs, there were grocery stores, there was cafes, there was a real life, how those communities have been destroyed. And not just recently. The destruction begins around the end of the 1950s into the 1960s. And one failed policy after another has not changed the situation.
So it’s a complex set of issues, but the role of police in all this is to keep a lid on poor people. Because if people are living in desperate conditions they will fight back desperately. Sometimes self-destructively. The murder rate in Baltimore, most of the people that are getting killed are poor black people. In fact, it’s one of the safest cities in America if you’re white. It’s like, I think last year was about 240 murders, and I think 11 were white people. So this is poor people, poor black people, in a desperate situation with their families under–being destroyed. To a large extent–in fact, if you ask people in these areas what is the number one thing, the answer’s always jobs. Lack of being able to make a dignified living.
So the role of the police, and it’s not just about bad police and bad apple police. Even the good cops. They’re being asked to enforce laws, and these laws reinforce a whole set of social, economic and political relations that are based on some people have enormous wealth and a lot of people are living in utter poverty. And even the people that aren’t living in utter poverty, a large section of Baltimore go to work every morning. Sometimes they go to work again in a second job. And they’re making $8 and $9 an hour trying to support three or four kids.
I’ve been telling this story about somebody we interviewed at Johns Hopkins who was on strike a few months ago. He cleans–this guy cleans surgical rooms at Johns Hopkins. He has to take special drugs because he’s cleaning up blood and guts. He has to take special drugs to avoid getting HIV. He’s been doing this for 14 years. 14 years of seniority. He’s making $13 an hour. Yeah, oh my gosh. So why is he doing the job? Because unemployment is so high people are desperate for jobs. And if you’re desperate you take what you can get. In fact, $13 an hour is actually considered a good pay in Baltimore for most people. Never mind how ridiculous it is after 14 years of work.
So the high unemployment is advantageous to people who are hiring people. So this idea of having a big pool of unemployed people, it’s very good if you happen to own a business or you’re running a big hospital, or a pharma sector–and you can make your cleaning staff bear the brunt.
The other thing is people are speculating like crazy on real estate. All the government schemes to get rid of poverty have thrown money which essentially–sometimes it’s programs so people can buy houses. In fact the whole subprime mortgage fiasco that helped trigger the crash I ’07-’08 was invented in Baltimore in the 1990s. The number one cause of foreclosures in Baltimore in the year 2000 was subprime mortgage foreclosures deliberately targeting African-Americans. In fact, the city wound up suing Wells Fargo and a couple of other banks. And in the lawsuit some of the emails came out, and outright Ku Klux Klan racist language amongst the Wells Fargo people who were selling these mortgages to people.
So what’s the role of police in all this? “Society”–I put it in quotation marks because it’s really the top percentile who actually own stuff that really have the influence on what kind of laws get passed. But the kind of laws that get passed reinforce these economic, social, political relations where people can live in half a century and more, and no end in sight of desperate poverty. So then you say, police enforce these laws. And I’ve asked a cop, you know, what do you think of all this abuse and what’s going on? His answer, I thought, was pretty good. He said, well, what do you want us to be? You want us to be the hammer, or you want us to hand out flowers?
Now, we know there is somewhere in between there. But the truth is, the laws, the people that really have political power in the country, they fundamentally want the police to be the hammer. Because the only way to really solve chronic poverty is to have a kind of public policy that they don’t want. First of all, higher taxes on wealthy people. But even more importantly it’s really clear from decades and decades of public policy of–supposedly investing in the downtown harbor was going to revitalize Baltimore and solve the problem of poverty. Well, a lot of developers and hotels and now casinos have made money out of that development. Very, very little has trickled in. in fact, there’s pretty good evidence, we’re looking into it now, that more public money has gone into that development than tax money came out.
And it certainly has had next to no effect on the school system falling apart, on–in fact, the number of neighborhoods in poverty has grown exponentially even since all this Inner Harbor development. Even some of the other policies, like subprime was one, there’s been other get people to own a home programs. It caused a flurry of real estate. Real estate values go up. They go up–and speculators are the ones that have already bought the stuff. So they’re cashing in on this, public money goes in. It looks nice. Oh, you’re going to get, help people buy houses. Really what happens is people wind up buying houses they can’t afford, so they get a little real estate bubble going. And eventually they get foreclosed anyway and they’ll lose their houses. And then the city–the neighborhood’s right back where it was before.
So again, police are being asked to reinforce these relationships. And so police abuse is actually built in to what we’re–we, I say we. If it was up to us we wouldn’t have this kind of society or this kind of police force, so I’ll say they. What they’re trying to do in terms of maintaining the status quo in the society–.
So why is the DOJ worried? Why is the Department of Justice coming in to investigate the Baltimore police force? Why does Marilyn Mosby finally actually charge some cops? I’m not saying finally for her, but finally a state’s attorney actually charges cops. It’s not good for the system for the abuse to go too far. [Hardly] in the realm of–day of cameras.
GRAHAM: So this is a way of putting a lid on it, essentially. So just like you could say charitable operations, people like Warren Buffett simply are a way of giving just enough back to prevent people from being radicalized, from keeping the poor from actually uprising. So you’re saying it’s similar, that here it’s just an action just to keep the lid on things, just to keep the poor from going to going together in solidarity and uprising, essentially.
PAUL: I think when the abuse gets too overt and it’s caught on camera it’s a very radicalizing effect on people. And they don’t want the abuse to get so far. So when some cops cross a certain line they do want to pull it back. But they need–it’s a balancing act for them. Because they don’t want to send a message to the police, don’t be the hammer.
GRAHAM: Okay, I see what you’re saying. Thank you so much, Paul Jay. We really appreciate it. This is Taya Graham, Stephen Janis, and Megan Sherman for the Real News Network at City Hall.
GRAHAM: Hi. We have here now Paul Jay, our senior editor for the Real News Network. Thank you so much. We appreciate having you come out and speak with us.
We’re here in front of the Mitchell courthouse, once again going over the Freddie Gray case where recent motions have been filed. The first motion filed is that city State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby should be recused from the case. The second motion on behalf of the defense most likely will be that this case has to be a change of venue, moved to another place, because supposedly there can’t be an impartial trial within Baltimore City limits. I’m here with Paul Jay of the Real News Network, our executive producer. Hi. Thank you so much.
What I wanted to ask you first off is the question that I don’t think a lot of people have asked. Our current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, seems to have had her position somewhat weakened by recent events. And so now we have a flood of players coming into the mayoral race. Do you think that the case, the trial of Freddie Gray, is having some effect on our candidates? Do you think it’s affecting the current mayoral race?
JAY: It’s a good question. It’s hard to tell, because I don’t think we really know where broad public opinion on this case is right now. And I think a lot of the city, and the city’s at least 63 percent black, and black working people–they’re kind of caught betwixt and between on this issue. Nobody suffers from high crime and murder and mayhem more than black people do, especially working people and poor people. So they need that to stop. You got to be able to walk to the corner store and not get mugged. You don’t want to worry about an [addict] coming after you or your kid. So they need some safety. And they’re kind of stuck, because the only, at least perceived, place where safety will come from is from the police.
On the other hand they’re very aware–and I’m talking about broad sections of the people here, not just people living in the poorest areas, or the hood. They’re very aware that black people and brown people are targeted for abuse and targeted systemically because, as I said in the earlier interview, that’s what police are for. To enforce laws that reinforces a set of social conditions where some people are rich and a lot of people are poor.
So yeah, the politicians are trying to gauge where is public opinion on this. Because while a lot of the public hate what happened to Freddie Gray and they hate the police abuse they do want some kind of law and order. And they’re stuck because they know, most people know, the real solution to poverty and mayhem here is alleviate the poverty. Alleviate the social conditions. Get jobs, have decent schools, and so on and so on. But people have gotten so pessimistic about that ever happening, because the decades and decades that things don’t improve, in fact they get worse. Then they figure, well, then maybe we do at least need more policing.
GRAHAM: Many of the people that I’ve spoken to don’t see to have any faith in the political process anymore, whether it’s the Democratic party of Maryland as a whole, or even our current, incumbent mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
You said that the larger public still hasn’t made up their mind about Freddie Gray, but I think a–oh, I’m sorry.
JAY: No, no. They’ve made up their mind about Freddie Gray. And I think there’s broad support for the charging of these cops. And if anything I think there’s some concern, a lot of concern, that the charges might be dropped. I don’t think they buy or have a lot of sympathy for the argument that this is going to stop the police from being effective and doing their job. I’m not suggesting that. I’m just saying they’re not against having policing because they don’t know what else there is to make life livable.
On the other hand, they know more policing has never been an answer. I’m saying people are stuck. Oh, I think there’s broad public opinion in support of the charging of these police. Absolutely, people are demanding an end to the abuse, to the murders. There’s no ambiguity on that.
GRAHAM: I suppose it begs the question then, if the police are actually charged, assuming that city State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby actually successfully gets all the charges that she’s levied against these police officers, do you think it will make any actual difference in the average Baltimore citizen’s day-to-day life? Do you think it will actually affect policing in Baltimore?
JAY: Well, that’s kind of the most important question. And there’s, I’d say, a couple of parts to the answer.
One of the charges she had originally laid was the most important systemic charge, and that was the illegal confinement. It’s actually saying to cops that if you arrest somebody without probable cause, and you lock them up and you put them in the paddy wagon, and you send them back to the police station, even if nothing ever happens to them that’s in itself an illegal act. Not just not good procedure, not good process. Not just maybe a reason why the case might get kicked out of court, the charges might get thrown out by a judge. It’s actually you as a police officer could go to jail because you’ve essentially just kidnapped somebody. Because even though you’re a cop you can’t forcibly confine somebody unless you have probable cause. That’s supposed to be constitutional rights.
And the original charge Mosby laid said if you violate someone’s constitutional right by taking away their right of free assembly and walking around and habeas corpus, and all the rest, if you do this without probable cause you’ve committed a crime. And that’s the thing that would have been the most systemic in terms of changing policing. Not just in Baltimore, but if it held up on appeal, and I’m sure if it had been followed it would have maybe even appealed right up to the Supreme Court, it could have changed policing right across the country.
Well, she dropped that. And I think she dropped it because it was so systemically significant. Maybe she didn’t get how important it was when she first filed that charge. The State’s Attorney’s office is saying they dropped that charge because they didn’t want it to be a distraction from the murder cases and the manslaughter cases. In a normal course of things–.
GRAHAM: Doesn’t a prosecutor normally throw every single charge they can?
JAY: Well, no. No, you don’t. You don’t want to overcharge. It’s very important you don’t want to overcharge. Because if you overcharge you can wind up weakening your overall case. And some people accused her of overcharging, but the legal people we’ve talked to do not think she overcharged. But I think she came under enormous pressure to drop these charges. And–.
GRAHAM: Because of the implications.
JAY: Because what it means is what happens every day in Baltimore is that on a corner a police officer comes up and says, up against the wall, kid. Put your hands behind your back, kid. No probable cause. The kid’s just been standing on the corner or the adult’s just been, you know, black male of any age, really, is standing on the corner. Show me your ID. Pat down. And often, often, get in the car. With no probable cause. In fact, they call them walkthroughs now.
GRAHAM: Or abated by arrest, as well.
JAY: And they’re taking people back to the headquarters. And it’s just an act of intimidation. Of creating dominance in the hood, that we could pick you up and we can do what we want to you. If she had left those charges and if doing that, putting somebody without probable cause into a police car and taking them back to the headquarters, to the police station, if that was something that could send a cop to jail that would change day-to-day policing in Baltimore.
Well, she dropped that. Okay. So what are we left with? Yes, if these cops are convicted it will have an influence. The cops don’t like it. There’s been a lot of evidence and discussion that the cops have deliberately held back on policing since the charges. A lot of people say it’s one of the reasons for the spike in the murder rate, which is up 60 percent over last year. I don’t think it’s the only reason. You’re seeing a spike in murder in other cities in the United States.
GRAHAM: But that implies that policing actually prevents crime in the way it’s enacted now. That policing can actually prevent murder.
JAY: I think it’s obvious to some extent it does. I mean, if you’re on a street corner and you think you think you can shoot somebody and walk home and no one’s going to do anything about it, it’s got to give rise to more room, more space for especially–I would say more deliberate killing, more gang-type killing where it’s kind of thought out and more premeditated. I don’t think it has much to do with domestic violence, which is the consequence of terrible poverty and is done in a rage. I don’t think policing has anything to do with that.
And we don’t have good numbers on how much of the murder rate is this kind of more deliberate, gangland stuff and how much is domestic. Based on talking to some hospital workers they actually think the numbers are far, far higher on the domestic side than anyone thinks. But we don’t know for sure. But is it–but to some extent if you send the message out this whole area’s not going to be policed anymore, and people want to seek revenge, it’s a no-briner that it has an effect.
Am I suggesting that more policing is a real solution to crime and murder? Well, no. Clearly even with tons of cops and tons of policing prior to Freddie Gray, you still had 240, 250–and the only reason it’s 240, 250 murders–I shouldn’t say the only. One of the primary reasons it’s more is not that there’s that much less attempt at murders. They’re doing way better triage in the hospitals because they’re bringing back medical technology from Iraq and from the war theater, and they know how to save people so that the actual death rate is coming down. But it really doesn’t–we don’t know for sure, again. Terrible data. We don’t really know whether people trying to kill each other is down, even though we’re seeing a murder rate go down. It just means not as many people are dying.
No, I’m not suggesting the solution is more policing. The solution is obvious. The solution is jobs. The solution is social safety net, education, so on and so on. But to say, tell people in a certain area where there’s a lot of gang rivalry, and also people frustrated and going crazy in the summertime that it’s don’t worry, do whatever you want, we’ll take an hour before we show up. I think there’s some evidence that’s being done. I think a kind of deliberate attempt to say more mayhem, the more you need us cops.
GRAHAM: That’s a very good point.
JAY: So systemically, will this in any way mitigate the abuse that goes on? Maybe a little. But as long as police play the fundamental role as being the buffer between people that own stuff and people that don’t, and if they’re fundamentally enforcing laws that just perpetuate this long-term suffering, well, no. It’s going to be a very minor effect and over time it will dissipate, and we’ll be back where we were before Freddie Gray was murdered.
GRAHAM: So if I understand you correctly you’re saying some of these public programs like helping people buy homes, things along those lines, are just small gimmes. They’re the carrot, and the police officers are the big stick of the capitalist class.
JAY: No, I’d go further than that. Most of these little programs made money for wealthy people. The public money went into the program. It may have in the short term helped some people. But in the longer term, people who had to buy houses lost their houses. But the real estate speculators or the developers in the Inner Harbor, they did very well with all this public money.
GRAHAM: So essentially people in Baltimore have found a way to profit off of the poverty and the misery of people who live here in Baltimore City.
JAY: Yeah, it’s a good business.
GRAHAM: Thank you so much. This is Paul Jay, the senior editor of the Real News Network. And I’m Taya Graham, here in front of the Mitchell courthouse reporting for you, the Real News Network.
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