Ending Segregation in Baltimore Will Take More Than Electing Black Politicians
Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative executive director Walter Lomax explains the recent history of overpolicing and overincarceration in Baltimore
SEAN YOES: I’m Sean Yoes for the Real News Network, and I’m having a conversation with Walter Lomax, who is director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. Walter, welcome.
WALTER LOMAX: Thank you for inviting me, Sean.
YOES: So I want to talk a little bit about the backstory of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, and your backstory, specifically. Why don’t we talk about the years you were incarcerated, and how–and the circumstances behind that incarceration?
LOMAX: Sean, I’m always reluctant to talk about my story, primarily because oftentimes it will overshadow the issue that we advocate on behalf of. I want to briefly describe that, but then I’d like to stick more, to focus on the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, the work that we do.
I was arrested in 1967 for a crime that I did not commit. And this was only found out after I had spent close to four decades incarcerated. And while I was incarcerated, I got an opportunity to meet a lot of people that we advocate on behalf of, and because of changes in the system and policies while I was in there, we began working on to change the policy. And we–.
YOES: The policy specifically–.
LOMAX: Policy affecting folk that were serving long-term incarceration and life, and parole-eligible life sentences. And again, I got a chance to meet a lot of people that we advocate on behalf of while I was there. So even though I was wrongly convicted and I was there for something I did not do does not mean that I was not subjected to all the same conditions that they were. And along the way, I began to meet the people as they were then as opposed to how they were when the crimes may have been committed. And I realized that a lot of these folk really deserved a second chance. They deserved a meaningful opportunity to be released.
And so I was fortunate to be released in 2006. That is, a judge looked at the evidence that was presented in my case–.
YOES: Judge Gail [inaud.].
LOMAX: Judge Gail [inaud.], correct. And she realized that it was really a bad conviction. She acknowledged at the time that she felt that I was innocent. And so she released me in 2006, and she formed the organization, the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, in 2007 after meeting with some advocacy groups and some family members and friends of folk that are currently incarcerated, or folk that were currently incarcerated at the time, and put together an agenda to move the issue forward.
And in 2011 we produced a documentary titled Blocking the Exit. And we were able to take that documentary to Annapolis with us and show it to the legislators, because it was really about educating folk. Some of these legislators were not even elected officials during the time when these policies took effect.
And so what that education–it assisted us in getting legislation passed in 2011. However, the legislation didn’t go far enough. It only gave the governor 180 days to decide on petitions, recommendation that comes before his office. Shortly after legislation became effective in 2012, the governor at the time denied all the petitions that came before his office.
And so, the following year–well, actually, we went back before the legislators. And they said that the legislation hadn’t been in effect long enough. They wanted to give it an opportunity to see how it would work over time. But once the governor denied those petitions they realized that it didn’t matter. It was a political decision that he made.
And so we reduced–we produced a report titled Still Blocking the Exit. And what it did was it began to profile these folk that had begun to be released in 2013 under what is called the Unger decision, filed in the court of Maryland. A Maryland Court of Appeals decision in 2012 saying that anyone who was convicted with a jury trial prior to 1980 is entitled to a new trial. And because it had been such an extended period of time, most jurisdictions decided to offer the individuals some type of plea agreement, and they were being released on probation, between 2-5 years or better.
YOES: Let me ask you this, Walter. You made it clear that you went in in 1967 for a crime you didn’t commit. And so we talk a lot about the effects of segregation in Baltimore. And I think you’re in a unique position, because in 1967 the city was–obviously it’s still one of the most segregated cities in the United States. But even in 2016 we still see that Baltimore is still one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Talk about the effect of segregation, the segregated effects of–the effects of segregation on the criminal justice system. But more broadly, the culture in Baltimore that helps kind of move forward, or keep in place an oppressive kind of government setup. Talk about that a little bit.
LOMAX: Well, you’re right. When I went to prison in 1967–I just recently read, I didn’t know at the time, is that at that time, 1966, black police officers couldn’t ride in vehicles, and could only patrol African-American communities. And so this is what happened and was occurring back during that era.
But what has happened over time, that even though the appearance that segregation no longer exists, but in fact it still exists. Greatly so, in fact, that there was the case that they talked about, Wells Fargo was still executing the redline philosophy as far as the law was concerned. So if you have, over an extended period of time, this pocket of individuals existing in specific neighborhoods and communities, and then you see the patrolling of these neighborhoods and communities, and then you see the advent of drugs, other types of behavior begin to occur, and along–while these things are occurring, you see all the manufacturing jobs being systematically removed.
And so when you have this type of formula over a period of time, you can’t help but deduce the type of hopelessness that exists in a lot of those neighborhoods and communities. And so on the surface it would appear the black president, black mayor, black state’s attorney, black councilpeople, that it no longer exists. But the fact of it is it still exists, and it has produced the kind of behavior that exists in those neighborhoods and communities with a sense of hopelessness, specifically if you have people who are occupying the community as if they are a military force as opposed to public services that help the community.
YOES: Well, you talk about some of those effects, and I would argue and I think a lot of people would say that when we look at the uprising last April, that was not–it was sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, perhaps, but what happened in those communities, what happened in West Baltimore during the uprising, had been building for generations, quite frankly. Speaking to what you’re talking about. That systemic oppression and racism that has been in place in the city for so long, and really has not changed all that much in the minds of a lot of people.
LOMAX: No, absolutely. Let me digress for just a second, and move it to, like, another arena. Is that–and so the, the rhetoric that exists. If you have the vice president of the union that’s going to call protesters and advocates thugs–.
LOMAX: Yeah, [inaud.]. That’s the mentality that exists at that level. Now, you have the president of the–well, a candidate. And I’m not going to call his name, because I get headaches when I call this guy’s name. But you have this megalomaniac that’s talking about, I think we should be more hard on those people that’s out there breaking the law, that’s protesting. He’s using the same rhetoric that Goldwater used on Johnson.
LOMAX: And that Nixon used, right. It’s the same. These people–you’re blaming the victim here. These people, who are protesting about being victimized and are seeking some type of justice. But you have this mentality that exists for someone at this level, and then you see what’s being perpetuated actually in the neighborhoods and in the communities.
So Freddie Gray did not cause that riot. The conditions that existed caused Freddie Gray’s death, and caused those riots. And to say that you’re going to say that the state–the state’s attorney’s prosecution, or attempted prosecution, of someone that’s responsible for his death, if it was ruled a homicide and the man didn’t kill himself, then what is she supposed to do? Whether she convicts or not, her responsibility as an elected official is to indict.
So if you had what’s alleged to be [inaud.] who’s going to be responsible for protecting us, that in fact it’s going to protect the people that’s victimizing us, then what else can we expect, from what we saw with Freddie Gray?
YOES: You also spoke of the fact that we’ve seen some changes politically. So we’ve had black mayors in the city, we had, you mentioned, the black president of the United States. The majority of the city council is black. But that–so there’s this expectation, I think, people have that we should have a more progressive city. We should have a city that is more sensitive, if you will, to the plight of poor people, brown people, black people. But to a great extent, I think people don’t see it that way. I mean, how would you–what do you say about the kind of expectation that black people in power, black people in office, should have a different disposition than maybe another community? What do you think about that?
LOMAX: Well, let me make this [inaud.], Sean. When [Schmoke] was elected as mayor of Baltimore City, and Governor Schaefer was the governor, and for the first term, full term, of Mayor Schmoke’s election, I mean, term in office, he could not get one single thing done. Not one single thing done. Because Schaefer had a stranglehold on the power in the city. He was only able to marginally get some things done, doing his second term in office, because of that stranglehold on power.
And that still exists. The people who control the money and the power are the ones that literally calls the shots. Now, we see–there’s Port Covington. Now, most people think that it’s a good idea. And from the sidelines, I think that it has a lot of good to it. But on the other hand, other people could potentially suffer.
Now, before it’s allowed to completely play out, and maybe time is of the essence as well, the power says, look, we’re going to solve your concerns. So we had the president and the Senate and the Speaker of the House saying, look, don’t worry about the school system. We’re going to take care of that money there. Well, you know, you shouldn’t have to say that after the fact, or during this process. You should be saying that up front. Don’t say that–I mean, I’m not saying don’t say that. But why just say it to ensure that that moves through? See, because a [inaud.], rest his soul, Pete Rawlings, Mayor Rawlings’s father, had wrestled with Peter Angelo when he was building that stadium to make sure that minority represented–that there was minority representation there. That they actually was a part of that process, where they could actually generate capital.
And I watched after that stadium was built. Then if you go down there right now, suffice it to say that you will not find any minorities that’s actually benefited from the profits that are being made down there. And there was a lot of money that went to building that stadium.
YOES: We’re going to have to make that the last word for right now. I want to thank Walter Lomax, director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. Thank you, Walter.
LOMAX: Thank you for inviting me, Sean. I hope they don’t [inaud.] when I leave out of here.
YOES: I’m Sean Yoes for the Real News Network.
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