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Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen responds not only to Trump but looks at why America’s Baltimores exist and how you fight back and respond politically

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MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Over the weekend, my wife came up with this name, two names actually— Elijah and Ratso— describing the events that began with these Trump tweets. It struck me that Elijah Cummings, son of sharecroppers who imbued their children with the American dream, going to college, believing in this democracy whose reality for them was oppression and terrorism against the black community, were the real Americans. The ones who represent the best of who we are. Ratso is the man in the White House, given millions by his racist father who was mocked by Woody Guthrie, who represents all that is the worst within us. But what is the real Baltimore and how does the Trumpian debasement of our city figure into the plan, his plans to be re-elected? What’s this really all about? And we’re going to talk about that and more and this city with Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the 1st District, which is on the east side of this town. And those of you around the country and world who don’t know where that is, that’s not important. But, Zeke, welcome. Good to have you with us.

ZEKE COHEN Thank you. It’s good to be here.

MARC STEINER So let me begin this way. You know, when you— What really struck me is how deep this goes to the heart of both human emotions and race and racism and what it does to people. Let me play this first clip here. And this first clip is from a news anchor at CNN who was born and raised in Baltimore, Victor Blackwell. And let’s watch this for a moment.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN NEWS ANCHOR The president says about Congressman Cummings’s district that “no human would want to live there.” You know who did, Mr. President? I did from the day I was brought home from the hospital, to the day I left for college. And a lot of people I care about still do. There are challenges, no doubt. But people are proud of their community. I don’t want to sound self-righteous. But people get up and go to work there. They care for their families there. They love their children who pledge allegiance to the flag just like people who live in districts of congressmen who support you, sir. They are Americans too.

MARC STEINER So that really struck me when I saw just how emotional that was and on the heels of this, of Trump’s tweet, “Why is so much money being sent to the Elijah Cummings district when it’s considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States? No human being would want to live there. Where is all this money going? How much is stolen? Investigate this corrupt mess immediately!” Trump tweets. It’s a real dichotomy here. So I’m curious, Zeke, just  for you to weigh in here. You represent a very multiracial district.


MARC STEINER Mostly white, multiracial, Latinos, blacks, white folks, some of the new younger people moving in, young professionals. It’s a really mixed community.


MARC STEINER What affected you by all this? How did you react to it? And what did the people say to you that you represent?

ZEKE COHEN Yeah. So you know, let me begin by saying that I’m also one of those people who has chosen to spend my life in Baltimore. This is a city that I was not born in, but they really adopted me. They took me in and it has made me the human and the person and the man that I am. It’s where I fell in love with my wife. It’s where I had my child. It’s where I feel incredibly proud to be raising a baby who is a product of a multiracial marriage. And so, I think what President Trump does when he tweets that we are rodent and rat-infested and that no human would choose to live here, is I think he’s tapping into a really deep and really old well of hatred and bigotry and dehumanization that’s been used. I mean, the trope is not new. It was used — it was deployed against us as Jews, calling us rats and rodents and vermin. The, sort of, same choice was used against Tutsis during the genocide in Rwanda.

To me, it is a really dangerous and alarming first move to dehumanize people and to draw an us versus them. And I think the president assumes that this can be a rallying call to his base and that it can really rile up some folks too who also share in his dislike of predominantly black cities. But my fundamental belief is that it will not work. The fundamental decency of Baltimore and Representative Cummings, who I consider a hero and a mentor of mine, will win out. And this country will prove to be better than what this president is, I would say, effectively deploying against his own countrymen.

MARC STEINER So you said that you don’t think it’ll be effective and I’m going to talk about that in a minute or two. But I mean, this, we are at a—We’re living in a city that clearly has a lot of issues of deindustrialization and poverty and those things run very deep.


MARC STEINER You know, one of the things that struck me when I watch this, I remember the article that ProPublica published in 2017, I think it was, where they talked about his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. His 9,000 homes, whatever it is that he owns in Baltimore and rents, are the very ones that are rat-infested.


MARC STEINER I’d love to be able to say to Trump, “What about your son-in-law? How many rats live in the homes that he owns in this city and other cities in this country?” How do you get to the bottom of that? How do you use that to raise consciousness and fight back?

ZEKE COHEN That’s right. And I think he is profiting off of the very misery that his son-in-law—He is politically profiting off of the same misery that his son-in-law has financially and economically profited off of. The creation of slum dwellings, what Alec MacGillis in that piece called “Kushnervilles,” where we have folks living in essentially tenement conditions with not only rats and rodents, but mold and lead and all sorts of other uninhabitable conditions. Just the irony, the cruel hypocrisy of this man wielding the conditions that his own family helped to create as a cudgel against our city I think is astounding. But I think that there is also a danger in, sort of, the impulse toward civic boosterism, which I think is important and I think we should stand up and celebrate our city.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to minimize the pain that so many communities, particularly communities of color, really are feeling in Baltimore— the generational poverty, the white supremacist public policies, like redlining, like the War on Drugs, like mass incarceration. The pain is real in our city. And I don’t think that we who love Baltimore should, sort of, try to tweet ourselves out of this or create some hashtag in order to say we’re not the thing that the president says we are. I think that we need to define ourselves and we need to do the work of really confronting the types of policies and the types of slum landlords like Mr. Kushner that still inhabit so much of our city.

I think one point that sometimes gets left out is that Jared Kushner isn’t the only slum landlord in Baltimore who’s profiting of misery. We have tons of them. I have them in my district where folks in Bayview, in Highlandtown have multiple families, usually immigrant families, living sometimes four or five to a room, who are not doing any sort of upkeep, who are not taking care of their property, who still have lead and mold. And so, while I think Trump gives us just a vile sort of example of someone to resist against, I also think we need to look internally and think about the policies that we as a city have deployed, and where we are, and not just gloss over and pretend like West Baltimore and East Baltimore aren’t suffering.

MARC STEINER I absolutely could agree with that and I want to play this one piece before we conclude. And this is Rush Limbaugh on Fox News and I think it goes to the heart of what you’re saying about how you respond to this. Let’s look at this. This is an important piece for us to watch.

RUSH LIMBAUGH This is what you get if you elect Democrats and there’s no opposition. There’s no pushback. There’s no balance of power. This is exactly what it—Because the Democrats want people in need. The Democrats need people unable to provide for themselves. The Democrats need a permanent underclass of people that are incapable of self-reliance. And so these situations are allowed to fester. The Democrats get to claim that they are compassionate and that they care, but they never do anything that actually improves the quality of the lives of their constituents. Their constituency is unhappy today as they were 50 years ago. The Democrats take every one of these minority groups votes for granted and it’s about time somebody pushed back against the real human misery that results from unchecked, Democrat leftist control and power.

MARC STEINER All right, so I want to focus on two quick things here before we have to go. A, is what he said. This to me is, A, the argument they’ll be using in this election: If you want America to look like a rat-infested Baltimore, vote the Democrats who don’t care about people of color in this country. And the second part of that question is, how do you fight back against that? It seems to me in some ways have the Democrats lost their ability to fight, to respond, and not just tweet?

ZEKE COHEN Right. Yes. So you know, I think to begin with, it’s worth acknowledging that we actually have a Republican Governor who through his public policies has slashed funding for mass transit— the East-West Red Line that was a big $3 billion investment in truly like a transit-challenged city— who’s cut funding for education, for youth jobs, for rape kits. So I think it’s important to situate that we do have a Republican Governor in the State of Maryland who is very powerful. But this is not a partisan thing because I do think that Democrats have not always served this city well either. It was under a Democratic mayoral administration that we mass incarcerated over 100,000 of our citizens, that we fought and lost the failed War on Drugs. Democrats have often participated in policies that have harmed working-class and poor black and brown people in some ways just as much as Republicans. So I really don’t think it’s about partisanship or party.

I think it’s about what kind of a city do we want to live in and what are the policies that can get us to a Baltimore where everybody— not just my family, but every family— feels proud to be here. And to me that’s about prioritizing racial equity. President Brandon Scott has a racial equity bill that we passed that’s about identifying and grappling with the trauma that so many of our children and families face. We know that 56% of kids in Baltimore have experienced one or more major trauma. It’s why I’m proud to be working on the Baltimore Trauma Responsive Care Act, a law that will actually make us a trauma responsive city. We need to prioritize affordable housing. Councilman Bullock just did a big bill to charge a surcharge on development to fund our affordable housing trust fund. I really think it’s a time where we need to put up in a big way. And when we say, “We stand for Baltimore,” that has to really mean something. That has to mean we stand for our black and brown communities that have long been left off the map as our city has moved forward.

MARC STEINER So very quickly because you have to run and you have a press conference coming up. You got to get out of here and we have to end this anyhow. But I’m curious, very quickly, how you translate that to the national campaign? I mean, you are a Democrat. You’re part of the Democratic Party. There’s going to be a battle coming up in 2020 for who’s the next president. What happens in the next four years is critical to this country. So how do you translate what you said into a pushback and build in this election coming up? What do you think?

ZEKE COHEN Yeah. So I think first off, it cannot be about soundbites, it cannot be about sort of meaningless tweets, and it can’t just be defining ourselves as not Trump because I think that’s the—That was part of the mistake that the Hillary Clinton campaign made was that they didn’t really have a message. They didn’t—I wasn’t clear, and I paid pretty close attention, what the vision was and I think that we need an affirmative positive vision that again really prioritizes our base, which is working-class people, which is black and brown people, which are the same immigrant communities that President Trump has relentlessly attacked in my district in southeast Baltimore. I think that through policy— not just through words and soundbites and tweets— we need to define — redefine ourselves as a party. And that’s what I’m looking for in the national presidential election, is who is serious about pushing back on behalf of our most vulnerable and marginalized citizens and community members in this country. Because that’s who I’m going to stand with on election day.

MARC STEINER We’ve been talking with Zeke Cohen. Zeke Cohen is the 1st District Councilman here in Baltimore. This is a companion piece really to the one done by my colleague, Taya Graham, with Dr. Lawrence Brown as we look at these Trump tweets about this city that we broadcast from and what they mean. Thank you for joining us, Zeke. Thank you for being with us. Appreciate you taking the time.

ZEKE COHEN Honored to be with you, Marc.

MARC STEINER Good to have you here. And I’m Marc Steiner here of The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please let us know what you think. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.