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COVID-19 is felt differently in cities like Baltimore where police act like an occupying force.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors; it will be updated.

Speaker 1: For real. [crosstalk 00:00:00] fucked up.

Speaker 2: [crosstalk 00:00:07].

Speaker 3: Hey. Yo, it’s the friendly with the shiny cheeks.

Speaker 4: A viral video captures a Baltimore police sergeant coughing on residents of a public housing complex. The police say he’s under investigation, but the clip speaks to the impact of coronavirus in cities like Baltimore where law enforcement is best described as an occupying force in the so-called war on drugs.
Now joining us to discuss this is Brandon Soderberg. He’s the author of the new Filter Magazine piece, Baltimore Harm Reduction Grapples With the Crisis, co-author of the forthcoming book, I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. So Brandon, thanks for joining us. Your response to this latest viral… just the latest viral incident captured on film with the Baltimore Police Department, and in that vein, the Real News’s own Cameron Granadino captured this footage of the Baltimore police harassing an Amazon delivery worker during the pandemic.

Brandon Soderbe…: This video of police is outrageous. I believe it’s in Perkins Homes from the look of it. I haven’t actually checked. I should have. But you see a police officer approach a woman in Perkins Homes and they’re kind of giving each other the business the way people often do to Baltimore police. He kind of walks by and sort of dramatically coughs at her direction. This sort of language that a lot of people have used I guess to cover their ass of being like it appears he’s doing this or not. I mean, I guess it appears he’s doing that, but it’s pretty clear that’s what he’s doing. I certainly don’t know. I think it was probably meant in the sort of darkest jest of the Baltimore Police Department have a lot of contempt for Baltimore citizens, and then it comes at a time where a whole police station has been sort of quarantined for a few days because of a potential outbreak of COVID-19.
It just shows another example of a lack of police respect for the community and even the basic protocols that the rest of us have kind of all absorbed already, which is wearing masks, not coughing on people, maintaining distance, those kinds of things. And of course, on top of all of the problems Amazon workers have right now because they work for Amazon, that a police officer would engage someone who’s essentially delivering a package is… it’s outrageous. It’s not a surprise though.

Speaker 4: So medical cannabis dispensaries, which are legal in Maryland, are open because they’re considered essential businesses. But you cited a tweet from Baltimore, Councilman Leon Pinkett on March 24th. He said, “Yesterday the gov shut down all nonessential biz. Meanwhile, this morning at Penn and North drug dealers are wearing gloves and masks. Forgot dealing is an essential business, at least in some parts of Baltimore. While we’re flattening the curve, how about we enforce the law? #accountability.” You started off your new article with this scene, setting up this scene. Can you respond to that?

Brandon Soderbe…: Sure. I mean, maybe the first place to begin would be like the clear implication here, whether you’re from what I wrote about in my Filter piece about seeing drug dealers wearing masks and gloves or what Councilman Pinkett saw and was offended by is, my immediate thing is that they seem to be doing a better job than Baltimore Police Department who’s not wearing masks, who’s not socially distancing and is sort of vindictively coughing on people in contrast to drug dealers who we all vilify who seem to be at least the ones I’ve been speaking to for the piece, including one on the record and a few on background that harm reduction, which does not seem to be as important to the Baltimore Police Department, is still very important to even drug dealers to kind of use the language of council person Pinkett.
I mean, the major problem with Counselman’s take there is he wants to put people in jail and we shouldn’t be enforcing the drug war. We certainly shouldn’t be enforcing the drug war during a pandemic. What I saw is another example of how the most vulnerable people, people who use drugs, people who deal with drugs, which often intersects, are surprisingly being very mindful at doing the best they can at harm reduction while a larger organization such, again, as the police are not.
I would say that, yeah, the idea in Maryland right now, and we have legal medicinal cannabis, is medicinal cannabis dispensaries are open because people need it for medicine. The most extreme cases… I mean, there’s people who just need to relax, they have PTSD or anxiety. But the most extreme cases are severe, intense pain, or it’s the only way they can eat. That’s why dispensaries are open. Same reason liquor stores are open. They’re open because if you have people that need liquor and they’re withdrawing, they then are going to get sick. You can die from alcohol withdrawal. It also isn’t crowding hospitals, in a moment we don’t need to crowd hospitals.
In that vein, I would argue actually that drug dealers are totally essential businesses because they’re doing the same thing. They’re providing people with something that people need that if they don’t get it, they’re going to get more desperate, get more sick, cause more problems. Just the simple disruption of the drug supply, which my article kind of deals with, has created a lot of concern and a lot of panic within the community, both with people who use drugs and people who deal drugs. They don’t know when the next sort of supply’s coming in. They don’t where their money’s coming in.
Also, I learned from talking to people that there’s people from the county that are kind of coming in and trying to buy bulks, sort of the white face of the opioid crisis kind of coming in like it’s a Costco or something and trying to scoop up as much dope as they can to go back to their county because they don’t know when they’re going to be able to get it or whether or not we’re going to leave our house.
So in that sense, I think that if you think of drug dealing as an underground economy, as an economy with customers and buyers and a market that arises and fluctuates, that market has been disrupted just like all aboveground markets are, and we need to think about that and the problems that causes, I think especially, which kind of the second chunk of my article kind of deals with is, especially if people who use drugs, the most vulnerable people who use drugs are often people experiencing homelessness who now don’t have even the basic access they once had. They are social distancing in vacant homes as best they can, which is almost an impossibility. That’s all this sort of thing that the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, who I spoke to for the piece and kind of got a sense of how they were doing their outreach amid COVID-19 were doing.
As they’re going to people, [inaudible 00:06:31] with information, giving them safe supplies, also just giving them water, and sometimes just listening to them. There’s a lot of misinformation out there because of COVID-19 especially when you think about if you’re someone experiencing homelessness, the Starbucks bathroom is not accessible to you right now. The Barnes and Noble that’s playing CNN, that might be one of your rare chances to see the news or charge your phone and get the news on your phone, all those things are eliminated and it creates misinformation and fear.
I just kind of wanted to address that mostly from a economic perspective from this is an economy that’s destroyed right now and really disrupted and we need to kind of think about that.

Speaker 4: Yeah, and it’s especially workers in a precarious condition that are losing their job right now that don’t have the privilege to social distance or to work from home as the numbers bear out. But you also note how countries like Canada, who have taken very different approaches to the war on drugs, are also approaching this crisis very differently and putting forth some, what might sound like radical ideas in the US, but are actually just common sense. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Brandon Soderbe…: Sure. I’m going to be one of those guys who cites a country other than the United States who’s doing a better job at all of these things, and we should just be more like Canada. But in this case, we should totally be more like Canada or Europe or a lot of other countries because, in particular, Canada has, what are often called, safe consumption sites and overdose prevention sites. They’ve had those for a very long time, which are essentially sites where people are allowed to come and safely inject or use drugs.
There’s been a fight in America for a while to get these. We kind of had a couple earlier this year, moments of hope. There are some tension between the… Philadelphia’s been trying to open one. They want a federal ruling. And then there’s sort of this neighborhood nimbyism against it. In Baltimore, there was a bill to look into it. There was a state bill in Maryland to look at it to start these safe consumption sites in Maryland up because of the opiod crisis. All of that’s sort of been dashed away because of the pandemic.
I mean, that’s another thing is when Maryland legislative session ended, they kind of prioritize certain bills they felt like they needed to get through before they ended the session. To me, inexplicably starting safe consumption sites was not one of those bills and kind of just got pushed to the side. Why that’s important is because what you’re seeing in Canada right now, especially in parts of British Columbia… This is just what I’ve read and talked to. I’m not an expert on this side of it, but I’m learning from Canadian Harm Reduction as they’ve been reporting this out.
What they’re doing there is they’ve been turning their safe consumption sites into mobile services, so therefore no people crowding inside, no people lining up outside. You encourage social distancing and you still give people a safe place to do drugs, which they need to do or if they want to do. Then what you have, even kind of more radical than that is in British Columbia there has been a launch of safer supply, which is essentially doctors providing prescription drugs, like such as opioids or amphetamine or anything to people who need them because they’re dependent on them. So you have this idea that you don’t want the supply to be tainted. You don’t want someone who has COVID-19 to touch. You don’t know where your drugs are coming from. The transportation of drugs puts people more at risk of being arrested.
So there’s been this kind of radical launch in British Columbia that’s just getting started to introduce a safer supply and provide people with the drugs they need or a variation of the drugs they need. So they’re not going to get pure heroin from the government. They’re going to get some kind of opioid. That’s been kind of a smart way to hopefully fix some of the problems that a disruption of the drug market does, especially during a pandemic.
Then in British Columbia, because they have supervised injection sites or safe consumption sites, there’s just kind of nice marriage between medical professionals giving safer supply and providing a space to use it. So it’s actually allowing people who use drugs to have more freedom and more autonomy and less fear and do the drug they either need to do because it keeps them up and they can function or want to do, which I think is another thing. We shouldn’t sort of underrate or dismiss people’s desire or interest in doing drugs for even recreational reasons if they want to do it. We should make that as safe as possible.

Speaker 4: That makes sense because in Baltimore alone, hundreds of people die of overdose. More people die of overdose than homicides, which grabs all the headlines. But there’s been no fatalities in safe injection sites, like we’ve seen around the world. But just hopefully coming to the US soon because that would be treating this crisis as a public health crisis instead of criminalizing most vulnerable populations.
Brandon Soderberg, thank you so much for joining us. You’re going to stay with us for a second part of this interview. So our viewers should stay tuned for that, too.

Brandon Soderbe…: Thanks.

Speaker 4: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

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Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.