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Officials say homicides across the country are up because of guns, drugs and gangs, but the Real News spoke to people in Baltimore who say that the causes for violence run much deeper

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NEWS REPORTS: Gun violence in Chicago during the holiday weekend left 12 people dead, another 44 wounded since Friday afternoon. Then on Memorial Day weekend Baltimore, during the last 48 hours, there have been at least a dozen shootings. We are at pace to be the highest, not only in my seven or eight years of being police chief here, but the highest in a number of years, and that is disturbing. THOMAS HEDGES, PRODUCER, TRNN: A year of turbulence between poor black communities and the police has given way to a summer of violence within many major cities across America. NEWS REPORT: And there really just seems to be no end in sight to the overwhelming amount of violence that we’re seeing in the streets. HEDGES: With homicide rates in Milwaukee that have more than doubled, and with cities like Baltimore, New Orleans, and St. Louis seeing a 30 percent increase in homicides this year, police chiefs and mayors across the country are trying to identify the causes for this level of violence. J. THOMAS MANGER, MONTGOMERY COUNTY POLICE CHIEF: As we were discussing all this, we were looking for what’s the answer to the why question? Why is this happening right now? And I will tell you that there’s no clear answer. HEDGES: That’s the police chief from Montgomery County in Maryland, J. Thomas Manger, speaking after a summit on violence organized by the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association. Police chiefs from across the country convened in Washington, DC last week in an effort to address a problem they say has no clear mainspring. SPEAKER: Weaved into every one of these discussions was an acknowledgement of the importance of building community trust through police accountability and transparency. HEDGES: But Manger, along with other speakers at the press conference, did something that municipal leaders have been doing for years, which is to articulate the rage that people in poor neighborhoods feel, and then suggest the same tough on crime policies many say have already failed. DR. LAWRENCE BROWN, PROFESSOR, MORGAN STATE UNIV.: And you know, everything they’re saying sounds reasonable, sounds like it is something that people ought to be concerned with. But I’m very much concerned with the way that police and mayors and city officials look at how criminal environments are created. HEDGES: Dr. Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University and a contributor to Salon says that rather than looking at any new developments that might explain the spike in violence, municipal leaders should be scrutinizing the policies that are already in place. BROWN: Specifically when I think about St. Louis and Baltimore for instance, two of the main cities where we’ve seen spikes in crime, I’m thinking about how these two cities were among the very first to pass segregation laws in the early part of the 1900s. Baltimore passed the first one in 1910 under Baltimore Mayor J. Barry Mahool. And so what you have in those two cities, and other cities like Milwaukee, Flint, Michigan, and other cities around the nation is what you have is hypersegregation. And hypersegregation creates redlined disinvested black communities. And those communities, when you take out resources, when you extract wealth, you’re creating crimogenic environments. So I think that’s really missing from the discussion. HEDGES: However, despite the uncertainty, city and state officials are saying the rise in homicides must have something to do with gangs and the drug trade. Even Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby told Baltimore’s WBAL that the reasons for this summer’s violence were indisputable. BALTIMORE STATE ATTORNEY MARILYN MOSBY: It’s time to develop a strategy, not research how or why homicides are taking place. We know it has to do with drugs. We know it has to do with gangs. We know it has to do with turf wars. Let’s start concentrating and really going after these individuals. BROWN: But I think it’s fundamentally flawed. We don’t know why, when we have a clearance rate of 45 percent in Baltimore City. There are 55 percent of murders that we don’t know who did it, why they did it. We don’t have a suspect. We’re not able to identify their motive. HEDGES: Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, who was present at Monday’s press conference gave a very different explanation for his city’s rise in homicides, which are the highest in the country this year. EDWARD A. FLYNN, CHIEF OF POLICE, MILWAUKEE: Circumstances are clear. It was some kind of stupid fight. It’s a typical phenomenon here. Somebody gets in a fight. Somebody picks up a cell phone. Cavalry comes with guns in their cars. Time after time after time the leading cause of homicidal violence with guns in this city is arguments and fights. HEDGES: Here in Baltimore the mood is similar. Residents of dangerous areas in East and West Baltimore say that the atmosphere isn’t one of warfare between gangs; it’s instead one of desperation and confusion, anger and frustration at living conditions that often exhibits itself in petty ways. MACK JONES, BALTIMORE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: Out here I’m gonna rob, I’m gonna steal, I’m gonna shoot, I’m gonna kill and do whatever I got to do to survive on the streets. And that’s how they feel out here. They feel as though they have to do that. HEDGES: Mack Jones and Alex Long both live in East Baltimore, a neighborhood that’s been riddled with violence recently. In May five people were shot outside of the Rose Street Community Center, where Jones and Long work to prevent street violence among youth. ALEX LONG, BALTIMORE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: Most of the kids that’s in our program, and I deal with about 30-40 kids in a day, easy, once they get through their little cleanup with us to make their little 10 hours, you know where they’re at? Sitting on these stairs. Standing on the corner somewhere. Ripping and running around the block, busting out windows and stuff because they got nothing to do. So you can blame drugs, but what’s the excuse for that? Ain’t nothing, no kids getting high. HEDGES: Jones and Long, who actually encourage kids to fight as long as they use just their fists, say it isn’t difficult to understand the increase in violence if you’re from the place where people are being killed. LONG: Whenever they come and deal with us it’s never as if we’re citizens, like we’re taxpayers, or anything like that. They come like we just escaped from Alcatraz. And yeah, I’m saying like [inaud.] join ISIS, and all of that. They really come at us as if we’re a threat to America. So when you have a police system that’s set up to protect you and they block you out and turn you into an enemy, and so you have the [inaud.] world that basically tells you there is no hope. And then I can’t find a job to save my life. What you think going to happen? BROWN: We spend over $444 million on policing in this city, which is more than health, arts, community, and housing combined. HEDGES: For Brown there’s a source of anger beyond policing that explains the feeling of powerlessness. Water shutoffs, school closings, the dismantling of social programs and public services that have escalated since the massive budget cuts of 2011 known as sequestration. These forms of soft violence are more difficult to identify than police brutality, but they matter just as much. BROWN: That’s what hypersegregation does. Hypersegregation takes wealth, extracts wealth and income-earning opportunities from low-income black and Latino families. So that’s what we’re seeing all across America. But in Baltimore City it’s playing out in a very savage fashion because we have policies where our mayors have invested heavily in the Inner Harbor, up to $2 billion in [tifs] and pilots and tax breaks for wealthy corporations, but only pennies comparatively speaking for redlined disinvested black communities. LONG: It’s not 191 dead caucasians. So they’re not concerned about stopping murder. Because none of them cares or family members are getting murdered. I say it’s just to make it seem like they care and they’re doing something. If you really care you’re creating jobs for these people to get them off the corners. You stop shutting down schools, putting them on the corners. When you look at Baltimore City right now it’s a goldmine for anybody that want to come in here and build anything. As bad as this city is, so they say, all the murders we have, every person on Wall Street would love to build a business down here.


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

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Thomas Hedges is a freelance photographer, videographer and writer based out of New York/New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, Demos, The Nation, NowThis, Brut. Media, Thrillist, and CBS. Hedges formerly worked as a producer for TRNN. Follow him @TAHedges.