Tavis: Just over three weeks ago in Baltimore, 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody following what is being called an unlawful arrest and transport by authorities. Mr. Gray, as we all know by now, died just days later. On Friday, the case was officially ruled a homicide and all six officers involved have been criminally charged.
This latest example of blue on black violence has sparked massive protest in Baltimore and, for that matter, across the nation. Joining us tonight from Baltimore to discuss these developments is Congressman Elijah Cummings. Congressman, as always, thank you for your time, sir.
Elijah E. Cummings: Good to be with you.
Tavis: How do you respond to those who say that these charges on Friday are premature, maybe too far-reaching and maybe in fact done in part to quell the violence in Baltimore?
Cummings: Well, as a criminal lawyer who knows our State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby–and I voted for her–Marilyn Mosby is a woman of high integrity, an outstanding attorney and one who understands the law. The key here, Tavis, is that she had already conducted her own investigation.
I said, even before she rendered her opinion, that she should go forward with the charges. I had said that, you know, no matter she decided, it would be fine with me. And the reason why I said that is because I knew that she would apply the law to the facts and would make a fair and just determination.
Keep in mind, this is the daughter of two police officers, mother and father. Her grandfather was a police officer. She decided at 14 years old after seeing a loved one shot down that she wanted to be a prosecutor. The young lady is filled with integrity. I have the utmost confidence in her. So she made a decision after, again, based on her own investigation.
Tavis: Indictments are one thing. As you know, being a lawyer, convictions are another. How much more difficult is it going to be to convict as opposed to just indicting?
Cummings: Well, it’s going to be difficult because–in other words, difficult to probably get convictions on all counts, but that’s not unusual. The standard is much lower for–it’s a probable cause standard when you are filing these charges as to, you know, beyond a reasonable doubt standard when you go to court. And, of course, you’re going to have a jury of 12 men and women chosen from the voters list.
And it’s quite possible that the defense attorneys will ask that it be taken out of the Baltimore City courts, and that’s significant. Because that happens all over our country whenever defense counsel feel that they cannot get a fair decision within the City of Baltimore or wherever the case may have taken place.
So it’s going to be a challenge, but, again, I know that she’s up to the job. She has an outstanding staff. But right now, Tavis, the main thing is that the people of Baltimore and people throughout our nation, when African American men and others die or are injured at the hands of the police, they’re not even used to any charges being filed.
So now at least there’s a chance in this egregious case to have the facts put out there so that the public can actually see what is going on and so that the officers can come forward to present their defense. But the public will have that opportunity and that’s important.
Tavis: As you well know, Congressman, in 1968 when there were riots in Baltimore and, for that matter, Newark and Detroit and Watts before then, Dr. King 50 years ago warned of what he called the triple threat facing our democracy, racism, poverty and militarism.
50 years later, we see racism, poverty and militarism on display in these cities. At least there seems now to be a real conversation, at least a conversation starting to take root, about the effects of poverty on these kinds of issues in the City of Baltimore.
I note this front page story that so many people are talking about, front page above the fold today in The New York Times about poverty and the City of Baltimore and how of the top 100 major cities in this country, Baltimore ranks number one for living in poverty and trying to escape poverty, the difficulties associated with it. How much does poverty have to do with these kinds of issues, these uprisings and riots and police misconduct and mischief across the nation?
Cummings: Poverty has a lot to do with it. Keep in mind, Tavis, back around 1970 the number one employer in Baltimore was Bethlehem Steel. So one out of every three jobs was Bethlehem Steel for African Americans. Now the number one employer is Johns Hopkins University and Hospital and it’s one out of every 15 jobs.
So a lot of the jobs have left our city and left other cities, by the way, the same thing. When people do not have jobs and if their education is not what it needs to be–and we all can do better with regard to educating our children–and if those children are not prepared to take on the Johns Hopkins site jobs, we’ve got a problem.
It’s impossible to address the problems of our society in the African American community without addressing the issue of black male and female unemployment, and it’s a major factor here and it’s a factor throughout the country.
Tavis: And finally, Congressman, what role ought the federal government, the national government, be playing in this? I mean, these are crises across the country in city after city after city. At some point, it seems to me that there’s got to be a national conversation, maybe even a state of emergency, but what role–since you are a member of the Congress, of course–what role ought the federal government be playing, the White House on down?
Cummings: The federal government needs to play a major role. I think that, clearly, we have got to–first of all, we got to have a conversation that acknowledges the problems that so many cities and African American communities are suffering from, and the urgency of trying to deal with those problems. But then, we’ve got to make sure that we put in policies and put in the finances, the money, to help to address those problems.
Just this weekend, Speaker Boehner talked about how the education was poor because of certain Democratic policies over years, but he never said that he’s slashing special ed funding by billions in his budget. He never said he’s slashing WIC funds, Pell grant funds, letting them stay right where they are and not increasing them at all. I could go on and on.
So there has to be a national conversation and we’ve got to look this in the face and understand that, if we don’t address this issue, all of us will suffer, and I think that’s the message I’m trying to bring to my colleagues.
By the way, 81 of my colleagues have already called me and said, “Elijah, we can see the same kind of things happening in our jurisdictions, so we are looking to you in Baltimore to address this issue.” Clearly, our young people spoke and, when Freddie died, it was a situation where he created, in his death that moment, he created a movement and now we’ve got to act.
Tavis: We’ll see what comes of this movement, whether it becomes in fact a movement. Congressman Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Baltimore, thank you for your time, sir, for your leadership. Good to have you back on this program.
Cummings: Thank you.
Tavis: More from Baltimore with the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, CEO Adam Jackson. Stay with us.
We continue our conversation now in the developing situation in Baltimore with Adam Jackson, CEO of the Baltimore-based advocacy group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Members of the group have recently published a volume titled “The Black Book: Reflections from the Baltimore Grassroots”. Adam Jackson, good to have you on this program, sir.
Adam Jackson: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Let me start by asking what role you think the protest played in these indictments that were announced by State’s Attorney Mosby last week. I saw in her comments, as we all did, her make specific reference to the fact that she had heard the cries of “no justice, no peace”.
I’m sure in the days to come, there’ll be a debate about whether or not that statement was appropriate or inappropriate when it comes to a prosecutor bringing charges. But what role do you think the protest in fact did play in getting these charges brought last Friday?
Jackson: Well, the protest had an instrumental part of making sure these charges were brought against the police officers because, moreover, what black folks are used to in this country is, you know, when we cry out for justice, usually the response back is no justice at all for us.
So I think that the people of Baltimore responded to injustice appropriately, so now they put pressure on all the public officials and all the folks here in Baltimore that they were not going to tolerate not getting justice for Freddie Gray. So I think it had a very instrumental part in ensuring that we could move this case forward.
Tavis: To those, Adam, who see what happened in Baltimore and are concerned about whether or not violence becomes the answer when there are crises like this, your response is?
Jackson: Well, people shouldn’t moralize on black people whether or not property destruction is good or bad. People should be moralizing on the police officers who kill black people in places like Baltimore. So people need to stop talking about our response and talking about the origins of the violence and the pain in the first place.
Tavis: Is it either/or or both/and?
Jackson: I think it’s a combination of people–well, the problem is, people can’t talk about the violence propagated against black people and then say, well, we’re wrong for destroying property. I think that it’s an inappropriate question for people to ask.
Like is it cool for us to, you know, destroy property? Is it cool for black people to be killed by police? That is where we should start because there wouldn’t be no violence if there were no black people being killed by police in the first place.
Tavis: For those who ask the question they’ve been asking for 50 years since the riots in Watts and Baltimore and Newark and Detroit, for those who’ve been asking for 50 years the question why African Americans would destroy property in their own neighborhoods, how do you respond?
Jackson: It’s the same exact question because, when we look at the history of black people in the United States, when you go from slavery to Jim Crow, mass incarceration, you know, the war on drugs, and you look at the combination of systemic violence that’s been put on black folks throughout the United States.
And you look at the current context we’re situated in where we have no access typically to the criminal justice system in terms of it getting justice for us, and then people expect black people to be pacifist in that process.
So my thing is, at least the violence got the conversation started and now we can actually move towards systemic change. But without that, the cameras wouldn’t be here. Me and you probably wouldn’t be talking and we wouldn’t be talking about the ways in which systemic violence has impaired our ability to get justice for black people in these situations.
Tavis: So to your point then, what does it say that so many people in Baltimore and beyond, for that matter–this is not just Baltimore centric–but for those in Baltimore and beyond who think that, if their suffering is going to be given voice, that violence is the only way that voice can be heard, what does that say then about the state of the suffering?
Jackson: What it says is that people who are living under the conditions of racism and white supremacy often feel like that violence is the only thing that they have, so that’s what people resort to. So what we need to figure out is how do we transform that violence and the pain and suffering that people have?
What we need to do is transform that into productive energy that moves us toward systemic change. But the problem is that there’s too many people invested in maintaining the current structural systems of domination that exist in this country.
So that is the conversation that’s more poignant and potent because, when you look at that, then you can look at the ways in which people have accumulated power and privilege over time and are not interested in transformation, but interested in maintaining racism and white supremacy in its current context.
Tavis: You and I would be both, I think, remiss if we didn’t point out that the majority of the protestors, indeed those watching right now, were not violent in their protests. So what do you say to those who were protesting because they wanted to be heard, but don’t want their message to be muted by the conversation about those who were in fact violent?
Jackson: I mean, I think that people should be allowed–black people should be allowed to express their frustration and anger however they see fit, especially in these situations. So if people are worried about them being confused one way or the other, my thing is, everyone’s frustration deserves to be heard in whatever forum that’s necessary.
So if it was violent, then it was violent. If it was peaceful, it was peaceful. But the fact of the matter is that Freddie Gray is still dead and he was killed by police. So that is the issue.
So whether or not people’s response is acceptable or respectable in the United States and, you know, to the media, that’s not the issue. People should be more worried about getting justice for Freddie Gray and not worried about whether their protest was violent or peaceful.
Tavis: Are you hopeful then, finally, Adam, that the voices were heard and that those voices are going to lead to some kind of systemic change in the City of Baltimore?
Jackson: Absolutely, because in this city, what we’re used to, we’re not used to systemic change in Baltimore. We allowed Martin O’Malley, when he was mayor of Baltimore between ’99 and 2007, to illegally arrest 757,000 black people. But now we’re in a position where people are talking specifically about structural change and the ways in which we can transform the society that we live in.
So black people are not going to tolerate that anymore and Freddie Gray really gives us a context to talk about systemic change. And I’m extremely hopeful working on the ground with all the black people here. So, yes, I’m extremely hopeful.
Tavis: Do I take your comment to mean now that Martin O’Malley has no business announcing that he’s going to run for president in the coming days?
Jackson: Absolutely not. Martin O’Malley has no business talking about the black communities specifically when he’s talking about–he wrote an op ed recently that talked about we need to stop treating black people as disposable citizens. Martin O’Malley tried to build a $100 million youth prison in East Baltimore.
He needs to shut his mouth when he’s talking about black folks because, when he was here, he ignored our concerns, he did not take our concerns into consideration, and most of the time, he enacted policies that directly denigrated our communities, and it’s extended to the current administration.
So Martin O’Malley and his presidential bid, I mean, it’s a long shot anyway. But he’s mostly a joke, so he needs to get out of the black community and get out of the national spotlight when he’s talking about his presidential bid because his public policies speak to the contrary.
Tavis: Well, I can assure you that if Martin O’Malley does decide he’s going to run and comes on this program, we’ll play that clip and see what Mr. O’Malley has to say about that. In the meantime, Adam Jackson, thank you for your work in the City of Baltimore.
Jackson: I hope you do.
Tavis: I will indeed. Trust me. Good to have you on this program, sir.
Jackson: Thank you for having me.
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