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A Real News Town Hall with high school students discussing the murder epidemic in Baltimore

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

One of the things we’re going to be doing as we unfold our work in Baltimore is ask the community to kind of be our editorial committee. We’re going to ask people, different people from the community the kinds of stories we should be covering, how we should be covering stories, asking their opinion about the issues, so we know what we should be investigating, reporting, and debating and what are going to become weekly town halls. So today we’ve asked a group of students, mostly high school students, I think some college students, too, to participate with us in discussing one of the main themes we’re going to be covering, and that’s how to have a safer city in Baltimore.

Baltimore, as everybody knows, is a fairly violent city. We’re already over something like around 100 murders so far this year, and last year it was something in the range of 214 murders, I believe. And in previous three years it’s reached even as high as 300, which per capita is one of the highest murder rates in the country–not the highest, but one of the highest. We’re going to talk today quite frankly about violence in the community in the schools, and most importantly we’re going to talk about what to do about it.

Most media tends to treat these kind of crimes–I mean local television media–as just a number, just a statistic, a little story that will help spice up your newscast, but not very much in terms of dealing with people as humans, both the victims and the perpetrators. And everybody knows these kinds of crimes and this kind of culture that has such violence is the product of a whole set of social conditions. And if you want to actually understand it and you want to have a safer city, then it’s those social conditions that need to change. But you don’t hear that very much on local TV news, and it’s where our focus is going to be.

So with all that being said, we’re going to start asking questions mostly here of the students, and we’re going to get started now. So we haven’t even figured out who’s going first, so I think we’re going to–whoever’s going first is the one who’s holding the microphone.

So start with this question of why you think there’s so much violence in the community and has it and how has it affected you.

DOMINIC (SPL?): Okay. So my name is Dominic. I think there’s a lot of violence in the community now, because, for one, there’s a lack of jobs, there is lack of love in the community.

JAY: What you mean?

DOMINIC: Honestly, from what I’ve been seeing around the world, not just in Baltimore but around the world, that no one cares that much about each other. That’s like me saying if I see a homeless man–not homeless man; I see someone that fell down the steps, and sad to say it, but I would just walk around, I mean, just walk past him, because there’s no love in the community no more. My grandparents tell me stories about how the family, their neighbors used to look out for each other and things of that nature. That doesn’t happen anymore.

JAY: Why?

DOMINIC: I really don’t know. I guess when poverty hit, things started to change around it. And I’m still–I’m a person–I still think and talk to my grandparents about those type of things, but I think it was when poverty hit, no one cared anymore.

JAY: You know, start–keep going, but tell us again. Tell us your first name and your age.

DOMINIC: Oh. My name is Dominic. I’m 19.

JAY: Okay. When you say “when poverty hit,” when was that?

DOMINIC: That’s a good question.

JAY: And what was it before that?

DOMINIC: Well, okay. So I’m going by what my grandparents tell me. So back in the day when my grandparents were younger, I guess around the, what, aroundthe ’50s or the ’60s, around the area therefrom, that’s when they talked about poverty started to hit, that people started to move out of their homes, I guess after the riots and things of that nature. But people started to move out their homes, people started to lose jobs, this whole thing with HIV and AIDS started to come around. And it was just, I guess, once it hit, it hit hard. And a lot of people couldn’t deal with it because they didn’t know how to deal with those type of things.

What was your other question about it?

JAY: How did it affect–how has violence touched you personally?

DOMINIC: I mean, I’m a person in his heart–people may think I’m a hard-core person, but I don’t–I had death in my family due to violence, but I’m a person that it’s just another–I’m so used to it now. It’s like, it could be worse; as long as I’m still here, it’s all right. But I seen how it affected my grandparents and my aunts and my cousins.

I had one cousin who I was really close to. He was killed down in Georgia. And I think that was the first time she got emotional about talking [about it], I mean, when David was killed due to those type of things. And I just think it was a process. You know, he was found in his car killed dead. And it was a process. I actually went to counseling with my grandparents, because just to visualize how he was murdered or how those things happen, it really played with, it really messed up my mind.

JAY: How old were you?

DOMINIC: It was, like, two years ago, so I guess I was 17, going on 17.

And then another murder that happened that hit home with me was a friend when I was at Northwood Elementary School, when Marciana Ringo was murdered by her stepfather. And this was a man who came by, he came to the school, picked her up, and I went over to his house. We ate dinner together, things of that nature. And he murdered her. And I guess when I was younger I was–it’s not the death; what plays–what runs through my mind is how they were murdered. And I’ll never forget when she was killed, they told us and stuff. I actually went in my room and I closed my door, and I [incompr.] see–I had a wall, at my old house I had a wall, and I could just visualize her just running from him and doing those–just running from him. And that really played with my mind mentally. And I think after a while, after going into counseling and stuff, I was the type of–I’m just now at the point where it’s like, I’m just not going to allow to get to me anymore.

JAY: You get numb.


JAY: You’ve got to get numb [crosstalk]

DOMINIC: Yeah. It’s like, we know it’s happening, but then how can we change it? And until that answer comes around–’cause I don’t even have the answer, but until we can find that answer or find that change is really, like, I’m not going to get into that–just, like, you know, really get there.

JAY: Yeah. Who else?

DEANNA (SPL?): I have–I can say something.

JAY: Yeah. Go ahead.

DEANNA: I think violence has become kind of a social norm in Baltimore. We’ve gotten used to hearing the stories about people getting shot and murdered, and we kind of just–it’s just a normal thing that you hear all the time. I mean, on my first day of my new job that I started back in September, the very first day, I was going out into the field to do a shoot, going to a school, and getting out the car of my coworker–.

JAY: This is a video.

DEANNA: Yes. Getting out of the car, we ended up being in the crossfire of someone shooting at a young man running towards me. And, I mean, I’m excited for my new job, and this is what happens on the very first day. And when I get back to the office and we tell everyone what happened, someone made the comment, welcome to Baltimore City. And for them to say something like that, I felt, was tragic, because that shouldn’t be how you welcome someone here.

And, granted, I grew up here, and that was actually my third time experiencing something like that. As a child, twice that happened, where I witnessed or was right in the crossfire of someone shooting at someone else in a drive-by. Twice that happened.

So I think it’s just crazy that it’s kind of become the normal thing that we’re used to hearing about. You know, we see it on the news, we have family members and cousins and sometimes brothers and sisters who we know who have experienced it as well, or maybe their life was taken from something like that.

JAY: And why do you think it’s happening?

DEANNA: It’s–I don’t know. It’s just it’s kind of a part of the culture. And, I mean, violence is not just a Baltimore thing. It’s a human thing. And I think, commenting on what Dominic said about poverty, when people are just struggling just trying to take care of themselves, just trying to take care of their own families, their own children, I think we’ve become so used to just wanting to care for our own–and like you said, people don’t care for each other in the communities anymore. You see someone who may need help, and we’ve become kind of selfish in a way, where we only think about our own, taking care of me, taking care of my family. And doing things for other people, it’s like, oh, well, that’s extra; I don’t have time for that.

JAY: Dominic describes that back in Baltimore, say the ’50s, ’60s, and earlier, it wasn’t like that. And I’ve heard the same stories. What changed? And why do you think it changed? Yeah, go ahead.

DEANNA: I don’t know. I mean, I feel similar. Like, my grandparents and my godparents who were here in Baltimore at that time, they have expressed the same kind of–I don’t know, the same type of changes, with just the community being united, like everyone on your block, you look out for their children. If you’re sitting on your steps, you know you’re watching your kids and you’re watching the other kids that are playing with your children and, you know, you speak–.

People don’t even speak to each other anymore. Everyone’s so plugged into their phone or tuned out with the headphones or they live their lives thinking looking down at their phone. No one’s interacting with people anymore, talking. How was your day? How are you doing today? Is everything okay with you and your family? You know, I feel like those types of just personal interactions aren’t happening anymore as we’re more into social media and technologies like that. I think that probably plays a part in it, too.

JAY: Back in those days, there certainly weren’t so many boarded-up houses. There were communities.

You were going to say something else?

DOMINIC: Yeah. And also, I don’t know how true it is, but my grandparents also talk about how the culture has shifted at the time to when we talk about music and TV shows and things that we watch now, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but back in the day they used to have–you couldn’t show certain things on television or you couldn’t say certain things on the radio, where now we can just see anything, and we hear it. And I’m a person who believe if you hear it or you see it, you end up doing it eventually. So that’s probably another reason why.

JEREMIAH (SPL?): You asked the question, why is there so much violence in Baltimore. I would like to agree with both their statements about how poverty and the lack of care for other people and, I think, the new wave of media, or, I would like to say, mostly with music nowadays, they kind of portray that doing all these violent things or doing all these illegal things are good, and people are very–like, they can be molded by it. So I think–and, of course, the youth can be molded very, very easily by other–aside from their parents, other factors that play into their daily lives, like school and what they listen to, who they hang out with, what they see in TV, what they see in their own neighborhoods. So seeing all these boarded-up houses, seing people get shot, seeing people–you know, parents not being there, listening to music that explicitly describe these violent events or these violent things, can really mold a person to live a lifestyle that equate to what they see or what they view their whole childhood or their whole lives. So I think that’s why there’s a lot have violence in Baltimore nowadays.

And to go back to why there was so much more peace in Baltimore back in the day of his grandparents, I think there’s more jobs, ’cause there was a lot of manufacturing in Baltimore back then. So when they all moved out or when they went abroad to cheaper places where they can manufacture the same things, I think that the lack of jobs then equated to poverty. Then, from there on, people kind of tried to fend for themselves.

RICARDO (SPL?): I think there’s so much violence in the community–growing up in the Berea neighborhood, I can see how black youth my age or any youth, they don’t really have a recreational facility no more. They don’t have nothing to do. And like how other people say it, the stuff they see on TV and the stuff they hear in music or radio, that’s what they’re going to do. And the streets is all they have right now, ’cause there’s not that many mentors that will, like, really come in the communities and taulk to young people like they should be doing.

And back in–how they said, back in the day, yeah, there were more jobs, and people looked out for each other more often, and they just took of care of people, and they wanted to make Baltimore a great city. And now I think they gave up on that dream, because they don’t have a solution. And that’s what we’re trying to find, a solution to build Baltimore back to how it used to be or how we can make it even better of how it was back then.

So I just think that we should have more facilities where youth can come, they can learn, they can get knowledge, they can be told what to do and what don’t they do, ’cause believe it or not, people, there’s some youth out there that doesn’t know right from wrong. We might be that age where people will think you would know, but then some of them really don’t know, and then, like, just people that was already in the street, what they told them, that’s what they know. And that might not necessarily be right. So somebody has to come in there, come in, tell them, this is what you need to do, this is what’s going to get you a better life. This is not going to end you up in jail or being killed in the street.

JAY: This issue of knowing right from wrong, I guess it’s all within a given context. If you’re fighting for survival, I guess it seems what’s right is what helps you survive.

Who else? Well, someone who hasn’t spoken yet. We’ll start there.


JAY: Yeah. Go on.

JENNIFER: I think that crime level is up in Baltimore because the humanity level is down. When you raise the humanity level–people let kindness, as everyone before me just said. If you’re just–humans have, empathy and sympathy. If we bring those emotions back instead of being technical, like technology and things like that, they drain those emotions totally away. If we bring back pure emotions, then I think things in the community will be better, ’cause if I better myself and I go out into the community on my daily day, I go from my house to work, that’s, like, ten neighborhoods right there. So if I go from my house all the way to Douglass High School and on the way I portray myself as a better person, if I go out in the community and say, hello, hi, how are you, then I feel as though the person I said that to, that might inspire them to go to the person they’re on their way to, which might be another ten blocks and, like, say hi. And I think it’s a domino effect. So if I change myself and I better my community, maybe the people that I touch and that I speak to, they will do the same thing. That’s what I think, that the humanity level is down.

JAY: But why do you think there’s so much violence? It can’t just be about cell phones and music. Take the county. The county’s close to 850,000 people, and last year there were 19 murders. In Baltimore, there’s six hundred and fifteen or so thousand people, and there were something like 214 murders. Now, same music, more or less, same kind of culture. And, frankly, I don’t think people are all that much more human. In fact, in some ways, in the county there’s a lot of inhumanity that they can see what’s happening in the city and kind of turn their eyes away and ignore it. That’s pretty inhuman too. But it doesn’t get at why there’s so much violence here.

JENNIFER: Can I think about it?

JAY: Yeah, of course you can think about it.


DOMINIC: [inaud.]

JAY: Yeah, go ahead. Yeah.

DOMINIC: And, plus, I also think it’s a mental thing. Now, this day and age, I always hear people always talking about that when there’s, like, mass murder done by one person, they say that they suffer from or they suffer from these different type of mental illnesses. And so I really think this could be one of the reasons.

And a lot of the killings in Baltimore and around the country, I think it’s a setup. Like, poverty and all this stuff, I think it’s a setup, because there’s no way in crap that you can sit here and say that we’re trying to find this and we’re trying to do this, but there’s still–ten, five years later you still haven’t found the murderer.

And everything is about numbers in the City of Baltimore, from what I’m getting it from. Every time a murder’s happened, oh, that’s just number 1,600 of this year, and no one really cares. And I’m not downgrading the system or trying to make any excuses for people in poverty, but these things, I mean, if you make jobs available and you, the city, go out and help invest into more things to find more solutions for our community, than I could see us doing things. I feel like if the city can sit here and they can make up one of these big–what’s the big race they have every year?

UNIDENTIFIED: Indiana race–.

DOMINIC: With the car racings and all that. If they can spend all this millions of dollars on the racing and all that, why you can’t go and invest that into communities?

JAY: What do you think the answer to that is?

DOMINIC: I honestly believe it. And I’ve always felt this way for the past three years, when I got into social advocacy work, that it’s a setup. I mean, we–about this thing with the youth jails, where they come around and they’re talking about, we’re going to do this, build up a $100 million jail, but then you still have schools that don’t have buildings–you know, everything is not up to par, I really believe it’s a setup, honestly,and no one can tell me different until I see some changes happening.

JAY: By “setup” you mean deliberate.

DOMINIC: Yeah. Honestly, I really believe that. Like, this whole thing with the music and the stuff we see on TV, it is a setup. I mean, I really believe that. Now even young kids I see, the young females, they watch–what’s that show called?

JENNIFER: Love & Hip Hop.

DOMINIC: Yeah, love and hip-hop. They–girls are starting to dress like that now. I mean, my farewell–I mean, not farewall–yeah, farewell and [incompr.] girls starting to dress and wear those type of things, fine, but leave something for the imagination. I really believe that all that stuff that I’m–that–what’s happened in the status quo is a setup. I think that it’s formed by the government for these things to happen. I really believe that.

JAY: Why would they want that?

DOMINIC: I don’t know. I don’t know if it could be overpopulating, or they could be doing–I don’t know what could be the reason. But I really believe it’s a setup. And no one can tell me different. My grandparents tell me I shouldn’t say that, but, I mean, you–.

JAY: So what would you like us–let’s say you take that as the premise and we’re going to offer investigative journalists to you, and you’re now our editor. What do you want us to investigate? What do you want to see debated? Along the lines of what you’re talking about.

DOMINIC: The things I want to see happening: I want to see–.

JAY: Like, what questions do you want answered?

DOMINIC: Why are you letting these things happen?


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Paul Jay was the founder, CEO and senior editor of The Real News Network, where he oversaw the production of over 7,000 news stories. Previously, he was executive producer of CBC Newsworld's independent flagship debate show CounterSpin for its 10 years on air. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with over 20 films under his belt, including Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows; Return to Kandahar; and Never-Endum-Referendum. He was the founding chair of Hot Docs!, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and now the largest such festival in North America.