Is There a Path Forward for Baltimore After Freddie Gray?


Scholars and activists debate the future of a city still dominated by aggressive policing strategies and tax breaks for downtown developers

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LESTER SPENCE: I’m really interested in kind of the reproduction of inequality within black spaces.

SHERI PARKS: The best way to explain this in Baltimore is look around at the high number of security guards in the city who are black women. And I ask, I asked someone who hired a lot of them why, and he said, well, they can do everything.

STEPHEN JANIS: Expensive, and having, and policing, the tax breaks have persisted despite, you know, plenty of evidence that they don’t, that they’re not going to work in the long run. And the evidence that we see right before us. So I really think at this point a candidate has to come out of nowhere, or somehow change the political alliances that have created the machine that exists before them. The machine must, I think, in order for the city to change its, pretty much the way of its direction, has to be dismantled.

D. WATKINS: [Inaud.] was born a black person, then the [inaud.] the love stories. It’s a love story to anyone who is going through some type of healthcare disparity, education disparity. The people who face the horrors that come with the prison-industrial complex to the people that have been stepped on by our militarized police forces. If you’re a rich white person, [inaud.] person, then the [inaud.] is just a guide to help you understand why we are the way we are and to help you recognize that humanity exists within all of us.

TIM WISE: The class system in the United States cannot be understood absent an understanding of white supremacy. It does not exist without it. It would not exist as strong but for it, but for the manipulation of white workers and white workers’ racism, and adherence to white supremacy, but for the manipulation of what WEB Du Bois called the psychological weight of whiteness, which is a way of saying to white people who don’t have a pot to piss in it’s okay, at least you’re not black.

SEAN YOES: So the name, or the title for this discussion is Baltimore: The Path Forward. The future of Baltmiore’s diverse communities and what it takes to unify a city. I would offer this to kind of start the, the conversation. May 15, 1911, Baltimore Mayor J Barry Mahool penned, signed into effect the first law in the nation that directly created segregated housing of black and white homeowners. So basically Baltimore invented segregation, housing segregation. Amongst all of the other great things that we’ve done, we invented segregation. And many of those lines that were made distinct, and in some [inaud.] immovable, have remained in place, I think. So my question to the panel is, have we ever in the history of this city really ever been truly unified? As we look forward trying to seek that type of unity, have we ever really been unified?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, I would say that, most of what I’ve seen as a reporter was during the uprisings there was, it was something that I think a lot of us who covered Baltimore didn’t think it was possible. Certainly, you know, if you watched The Wire you wouldn’t think it was possible. But certainly during that period of time that was the most unified I’ve ever seen the city in terms of how it, trying to solve a problem or trying to overcome something instead. I would say that’s the closest. But generally in covering this city it’s very fractioned, it’s small neighborhoods, small little villages, a collection of 250 villages right there. Sometimes [inaud.] connected. It is very difficult to cross those lines.

S. WATKINS: I feel like I’ve been living in two Baltimores my whole life. I know white people and I know black people who will never meet each other under any circumstances, and they cross paths all of the time, just because of the structure in the city. So you know, the bigger question for me is, going along with what you asked, was how do we, how do we–now that we have this moment, how do we capitalize on it, and set up something more, especially for the next generation of young people there.

SHERI PARKS: And I wanted to piggyback on that, because I think most black people that would have any privilege in this city jump back and forth on a regular basis and meet people every day who [would never] meet each other. And I think that’s a social reality that, that most of our, particularly our white friends did not know about.

After Ferguson but before Freddie Gray, a very affluent Presbyterian church north of Baltimore asked me, to ask what people of faith could do. And one of the things I said in passing was that it was Baltimore. This could be Baltimore, that it had been Baltimore. And they were shocked. I was shocked that they were shocked. They were absolutely shocked, and they went around asking other black people who, who got back to me. It’s like, Sheri Parks said this. And they were going yeah, yeah. And then this is the difference, is that post-Freddie Gray nobody is asking that question.

LESTER SPENCE: Right. We’ve got a presence. Up until Freddie Gray it was pretty unified amongst black elites, amongst white elites, amongst every elite you could articulate. They say that poor people are poor people because of their own actions. That’s unity. Right? The solution to the city’s problem was downtown development. It didn’t matter whether you talked about this mayor, the last mayor, or the mayor before that. That is a black one, a black one and a white one. They gave the same answer. That’s unity. The question isn’t about when–that’s unity now. Who wants that? Right? Who wants that? So the way forward is actually unpacking what that looks like, what that false unity looks like, and then how we deconstruct that through political organizing and then through storytelling.

TIM WISE: Spike Lee himself, [inaud.] love the film he made. But Spike Lee said oh, Katrina was a system breakdown of monumental proportions. No, that shit wouldn’t break down. That was the system. The idea that it broke down and was a failure, you could only believe that if you actually thought poor black folks in New Orleans, like normally, shit was good for them. And then the storm came and then it got bad. But actually I think the system was producing exactly the outcome that it was intended to produce.

So that means, and this is tough for those of us who do anti-racism work and want to be allies and are trying to do multi-racial solidarity, what does it mean? It means that the idea that, what we’re defining as success and what the system defines as success are two totally different things. It’s so rooted in a hostility to blackness, a hostility to indigenous people, a hostility to people of color that we will literally sacrifice our self interest on the altar of white supremacy. I don’t know for sure how to move through them. But I do know that those of us called white who see that problem have got to begin standing up and steering resources and attention to those folk of color like people in this community so that they can solve those problems.

Because it’s very clear that the majority of us are not going to see it. We are programmed not to see it. We are programmed to do the opposite of it. So those of us who do see it have got to make sure the people who live it and die it have the power to actually make the decisions that alter those conditions on their own with or without our involvement.

SHERI PARKS: But when we’ve been having these revelations of racist videos and racist songs and racist emails, these are things that, that other people didn’t know were happening among white people. What’s happening is that some white people are now starting to call out other white people. We wouldn’t know these videos exist or those emails existed unless a white person had called out another white person. I think that’s the beginning of something. Whether it ever gets big enough, we don’t know. But some things are beginning to happen that didn’t happen 20 years ago.

LESTER SPENCE: The other thing I would like to push back against, against in a different way is, we’re missing that there is not just a psychological weight to whiteness. There’s a material wage, right? So if you look at the–so the fundamental issue that Baltimore and other cities have, other cities like it have, is the problem of the red line. Not the red line that Hogan, you know, that Hogan got rid of. It’s the red line that, that technology used to determine who got housing money and who didn’t that was started around 1930 and funded by the federal government. If you take every single problem Baltimore has and layer that 1930 red line map on top of it, every single problem is concentrated in that red line. Every single one, right. And there’s a material wage that people get when they actually are outside of that red line.

So the reason I talk about material wage as opposed to psychological wage is because there’s a way where we transition where the political result of a psychological wage of whitness argument–it’s not always this. But a lot of times it’s [inaud.] right. Well, what we need to do is we need to kind of teach white people about themselves. We need to teach people to check their privilege. We need to teach people, like, no. Tt’s a political problem. You need therapy, yes. We all need therapy. Right? But, but we have to separate that therapeutic dynamic from political organizing. Those are two very different projects.

SEAN YOES: Well, let’s drill down a little bit on policing. We constantly heard from our leaders in the city, specifically after their conversations with the mayor where she says over and over, we know how to deal with spikes in homicide. We know how to deal with this. Talk about the militarization, if you will, or the police state in Baltimore and how it contributes to keeping groups and people separate, and apart.

STEPHEN JANIS: This city arrested 100,000 people a year for about seven years under Martin O’Malley as mayor. I don’t think anyone can really understand the trauma of that type of policy. What that meant to the people of the city. [Inaud.] we’re arresting almost the entire city on a two or three year cycle. And that, the psychology of fear and intimidation, and I think civic engagement that you lose from that, can’t–I can’t even think you can quantify that. I mean, it was, it was–I was witnessing it as a reporter and I just couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. And truthfully, as you point out, there was a great silence between the political leadership on both sides. All the mayors were there in some form of political capacity, past mayors. And they said nothing. It was, it changed–it changed the landscape of the city.

It might have been bad before but that, that was so many people, we literally lived in a city where a van could drive into a neighborhood, open up, and what was called the jump out boys would come out and just walk people to the back of the van. We lived in a city where there was something called a walkthrough, where you went to central booking and you walked through because they were arresting so many people. It didn’t get a lot of coverage. And it wasn’t in The Wire. But it was real, and I think it still has an efect today.

SHERI PARKS: I think we need to talk about the importance of surveillance. You began to talk about it. And actually, if most of you probably don’t, and I don’t live in a neighborhood where there, there are blue lights. If you’ve ever seen what that looks like, if there’s an [inaud.] now we can see the footage, the live footage from a surveillance camera. It’s very clear, and you can see in people’s houses. And so I think we think oh, you know, there’s just this kind of thing that blinks and maybe keeps people away. Living constantly under surveillance is part of the, of living in a police state. I have made what somebody thought on the radio was an outrageous statement, that I thought the United States was moving to, like, apartheid-era South Africa. And someone wrote in that that was an absurd statement. But by the time I was done with the incarceration rates, and if you’re a young black man in Baltimore you do not leave the house without your ID. You don’t. That’s a [fast] law.

And so if day to day ordinary life, which is what I’m most concerned about is–it may have sounded to you like an outrageous statement, we’re [turning] into a police state. And if you look from the top down it doesn’t look like a police state. But if you look at the day to day texture of people’s lives it’s very much a police state. And we know what that does to people. And that, we, we can talk about dramatic trauma, there’s a type of traumatization that happens from chronic day-to-day surveillance and subordination. And it doesn’t lead to people who are bold, are bright, or who are willing to take chances. Because–because those people in those situations don’t survive. The idea that you are, are being told that the only way to survive is to submit, that is what it means to live in a place [like that].

D. WATKINS: The current system needs to be gutted. It needs to be gutted. If you, if you’re a black person, if you live at the [inaud.] in West Baltimore or East Baltimore, it’s almost 100 percent guaranteed to never have any positive interactions with police officers. They are not there to protect and serve. They’re not there to help you change flats. They’re not there to help your grandma get the cat out of the tree. They are there to–honestly, excuse my language, they’re there to fuck you up. And put you in whatever type of situation they want you in. That’s what they’re there for. Now, if you go into more affluent areas then you’ll get a different type of cop.

It’s almost like, you know, the traditions of some of the older police officers are being passed down every year to a new set of cops that’s coming in. so even if we talk about the officers who were charged in the Freddie Gray incident, yeah. Lock them up, fire them. Get rid of them [inaud.]. But it’s 300, 400 more just like them being trained right now. So until we attack the culture we come to [inaud.] the same thing over and over and over again, and it won’t be a win.

TIM WISE: Right. And we can’t be shocked that this is happening. I mean, this is–the function of law enforcement has always and forever been only one thing: to control the have-nots for the benefits of the haves. There is no other purpose for police. I mean, the idea that police are there to protect against the greatest harms to society is obviously crap. Because if that were it they would be profiling Wall Street bankers, they’d be locking them up, and they’re not. They’d be locking up employers, every year employers rob their employees of three times more money, wage theft, not paying overtime, not paying minimum wage, not paying for prep time like if you’re a line cook, or whatever.

Employers steal three times more money from their workers every year than are stolen by all the street criminals knocking you over the head and taking your purse, robbing the liquor store, robbing the bank. All the street thefts combined. But you steal $100, you steal somebody’s cell phone, you commit $100 worth of SNAP fraud, you’re going to jail for 10 years. You steal $12.5 trillion, which is what happened on Wall Street, and nobody’s going to prison. Now you know, [inaud.] in the news and been talking about the fact that he was basically run out because he acknowledged that his buddies in blue were beating the crap out of criminal suspects without due prospects. So if you actually try to be a good cop and not one of the bad apples that we’re told about, if you try to be a good cop then you’re not going to be a cop anymore. They might kill you. But they will certainly not allow you to have a career.

So this is all, this is like having the sausage factory, and then being shocked when you stand at the end of the conveyor belt and you’re like, damn, look at the sausage. Well, if you’re expecting it to give you chicken nuggets, well, the hell are you waiting for? It’s a sausage factory. It’s supposed to give you sausage. So then when it gives you sausage don’t be surprised. You don’t want sausage, build another damn factory. Blow up the one you got. Break the machinery. Step on the gears, do something. Flip a switch. But you’re not going to get chicken nuggets out of a sausage factory, and you’re not going to get justice out of a police culture that’s about controlling the have-nots for the benefit of the people who have.

SEAN YOES: I want to ask the audience to thank our panelists for [inaud.].


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