STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis, and I’m a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore.
Since the announcement by city State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby of charges against six officers for the killing of Freddie Gray earlier this month, the onslaught of negative media has been unrelenting. Terms like rush to judgment and overcharging of officers have been prevalent, and no other organization has been more outspoken in their criticism than the Baltimore City Police Union, or the FOP. Not only have they led the media barrage against Mosby, but they have asked the federal government to investigate the mayor. Add to that their characterization of protesters as a lynch mob, and you have what some say is a group that is adding unnecessary fuel to an already volatile fire.
And now one very influential organization has put those concerns in writing. The local chapter of the NAACP has written a letter to FOP president Gene Ryan arguing the FOP’s rhetoric amounts to threats against both the mayor and Mosby, and is ultimately distasteful. Here to discuss the letter are two representatives from the NAACP. Tessa Hill-Aston has served as president of the Baltimore chapter for several years, and has been a longtime advocate for civil rights in the city. Hassan Giordano is a well-known commentator on city politics and columnist along with chairman of the branch’s criminal justice committee.
Thank you both for joining us.
TESSA HILL-ASTON, PRESIDENT, NAACP BALTIMORE BRANCH: Thank you for having us.
HASSAN GIORDANO, CHAIRMAN, NAACP CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMITTEE: Thanks for having us.
JANIS: So first just discuss with me why you decided to send this letter. What sort of precipitated this?
HILL-ASTON: Well, we opened up a satellite office in the Sandtown community as a result of Freddie Gray’s death, and we’re working, we’re reaching out to the community and the residents there, and bringing in resources and services. And we’ve been having meetings there and little discussions with the community, and they’ve been coming in.
Hassan is the chairperson of our Criminal Justice Committee, and we had a meeting last week, we’ve had two meetings with the whole committee. And it was decided upon that we needed to take some action. We were going to do a rally or demonstration, but we felt all of us together that writing a letter and having a document would be more effective. So that’s what the committee came up with under the leadership of Hassan as the chairperson.
JANIS: Hassan, what were your main concerns? What’s the thrust of this letter?
GIORDANO: Well when you look at the documents that were sent by the FOP, one, Marilyn Mosby raising the conflicts about Billy Murphy, of course. Trying to get this case taken out of Baltimore City. As well as the letter, as you alluded to, in terms of against the mayor regarding the DOJ’s patterns and practice investigation, what was supposedly specifically for the police department. They kind of turned it into an investigation of the mayor when they knew absolutely well that it has nothing to do with that, along with the allegations it’s a lynch mob. That I know Gene Ryan at one point walked back.
But a lot of the people in that community were upset about this. Our community justice members as well as a lot of African-American women were upset due to the fact that they elected both of these African-American women, the mayor and the state’s attorney, and it feels like they weren’t getting their just due to be able to do the process. To let the process work itself out without the influence of this very powerful police union.
JANIS: Well it raises a good question. Why is the police union so powerful and why do you think the media is sort of taking their cue on almost all these issues? Especially in terms of the personal attacks on the mayor and the state’s attorney.
HILL-ASTON: Well, I think that they’re very powerful because they’ve had good leadership and they say focused on what they’re doing. Any organization is going to be powerful if they stay focused. And I think that they’ve had a strong arm in the community, and with the police department, and defended the police. So right now is one of the first times that a state’s attorney has prosecuted, or attempting to put charges on some police, and I think they take offense to it. Which they should, that’s their members. But the process has to work, and our state’s attorney did the right thing.
JANIS: Hassan, you write: your intended goal is clear. To all but subtly threaten these women who are merely doing the job we elected them to do, while making borderline racist statements that you know will provoke negative perception in the minds of those in full support of law enforcement in order to tear down the fabric of our elected leadership.
That’s pretty powerful words. What do – I mean, I kind of know what you mean. But give us some sense of why you wrote that.
GIORDANO: Well, I think when you look at the entire dynamic, from Freddie Gray and that whole incident that happened, and it precipitated after his death, to even before that. We have a community, a culture especially in the African-American community of distrust with police officers. Then when you add on top of that, number one, a police officer hasn’t been charged in the death of many African-American – Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson, going back from 2006 when you had 69 people murdered by the hands of the Baltimore City police, not one of them has been charged. As a matter of fact, only five have been charged in the past three decades, four of them found not guilty. The one who did get found guilty got it overturned on appeal.
People are distrustful with the police and the process. So when Marilyn Mosby stepped up and said, I’m going to do what’s right in terms of the law, not so much the justice. But the law, which would give the community justice. People felt that it was somewhat of a threat to the process when you have the FOP kind of taking that power away from the state’s attorney which they elected them to do.
People have full support, the NAACP has full support in our, in our law and order. In our police officers. Men and women who really sacrifice their lives every day. But at the same time, we have to also realize that we have a problem that exists between the African-American community and the police department. And Gene Ryan’s words, from the lynch mob to these two letters, does nothing to build the bridge that we have to do in order to get past what we saw in the past couple weeks in Baltimore.
JANIS: Given how fraught the relations are, the fact that we’ve had these protests, is there a way to rebuild a relationship with the police department given the history?
HILL-ASTON: I think eventually. It’s going to take a long time. I think this case right here with the Freddie Gray case will make a big determination. People want someone to pay for what they do. And when an average citizen gets locked up for something they have to pay for it. And that’s why people are upset, because no police, like Hassan just said, has paid a debt for harming or someone dying at their hands.
So we, I wouldn’t want to be in any city without the police. I have the utmost respect for the fine work that our police do. But still, like in any profession, there’s some bad apples. And when bad apples do wrong things to the citizens, then this is what happens and they have to pay for it.
In our communities, we need young people and children to see justice. That when someone dies and they feel that it was unjustly, that police even did it, that they need to go through the court process. We want, and I want, children, young adults coming up and them to have children that they grow up learning to respect the police that they see and not hate them. Some of the young children in communities now will probably be an officer one day. So we have to learn that we respect the police. But when someone does something unlawful, even if they have a uniform on, that they have to go to court and pay the price.
JANIS: Hassan, let me ask you this. I attended a press conference with the Vanguard for Justice speaking out in support of Officer Sergeant Alicia White, who has been charged. At the same time they were talking about the fact that they believed – and they wouldn’t even come out and say this. But it seemed they were suggesting that the department is inherently racist, and that black officers face racism which had much to do with what happened to Freddie Gray. I mean, how can you resolve that conflict if the department, the institution itself, has issues with racism that are unresolved?
GIORDANO: Well, I think first we’ve got to recognize the problems that exist and stop sugarcoating. Our political leaders have got to stop trying to spin the problem that exists. People know it. People who don’t even work in law enforcement know that we have racism in anything. Especially within the Baltimore City Police Department. We have it within even some of the networks that we have within the city of Baltimore.
So we have to address that problem, and that’s part of the letter. Though it’s strongly worded, and rightfully so, it also asked Gene Ryan to come to the table and sit down with the oldest and boldest civil rights organization in the world, which is the NAACP, and let’s start the healing process. We’re never going to get there by the rhetoric that’s used either by Mr. Ryan or even some of the words that are used in that letter, to be quite frank. But if we can come together and say, okay, here’s the issues at hand. Because we know racism exists not only in that department but throughout the city of Baltimore we see it. It’s a city of neighborhoods, and it’s a reason. Baltimore has a very long tradition of racism. Then we have to be able together to be able to do that.
Now, if Gene Ryan is not willing to do that, then I don’t see how we begin to rebuild that confidence and that trust between his officers and the Baltimore City Police Department and the African-American or any community member in the city of Baltimore.
JANIS: Now, there was a raid on the offices. Was that a –
HILL-ASTON: I don’t want to talk about that. I’m in litigation with someone who caused that.
JANIS: I understand. Do you think it was retaliation?
HILL-ASTON: It wasn’t a raid. It was not a raid. It was outside.
JANIS: And the reason I’m asking this question is because we see these kind of tactics occur during these kind of conflicts. Do you think it was polit –
HILL-ASTON: No. No, it had nothing to do with that. I have already been to court and litigation with someone who had something to do with that. But it was not a raid. The police didn’t have a warrant to come there, and it wasn’t police.
JANIS: So do you think it was retaliation?
HILL-ASTON: No. No, no, no. it was just another nut.
JANIS: Okay. No, and I just wanted to ask –
HILL-ASTON: There’s lots of them out there.
JANIS: Right. I totally understand. I mean –
HILL-ASTON: The word raid was kind of, is not – it wasn’t a raid.
JANIS: Right. And that’s how they publicized it, so that’s why I wondered about that. And I wanted to –
HILL-ASTON: Yeah. I know, yeah, I know. It was not a raid. They were outside, and…
JANIS: Well let me ask you then, going forward, what can the NAACP – have you heard from Gene Ryan? Has he reached out to you?
HILL-ASTON: Yes, I’ve spoken to him over the phone.
JANIS: How recently?
HILL-ASTON: Just this week.
JANIS: And so what, how do –
HILL-ASTON: Yeah, I spoke to him on the phone. Before this letter. Before he received this letter.
JANIS: So since the letter, yeah. But how as the conversation?
HILL-ASTON: It was very pleasant. I’ve had interaction with him months ago before the Freddie Gray thing. I have not talked to him during the, while we were going through this process, but I did talk to him about having a meeting. And we both agreed that we would talk. So no, it was very pleasant, and we both agreed that we should sit down and have communication.
JANIS: So what do you want to see come out of this letter? What do you hope will happen, going forward?
GIORDANO: Well, I hope number one that the Department of Justice’s investigation is thoroughly done, number one. And it’s focused on the police department and their patterns and practices, not the patterns and practice of the mayor. She’ll be held accountable in April of 2016. that’s called elections and that’s what voters are for. Not for the Department of Justice and not for Gene Ryan.
But I think that now that we’ve gotten past all this, we have to begin to rebuild and heal Baltimore. That’s the job of the NAACP. That’s what we’ve been doing, that’s what we’ll continue to do. And we would hope to bring Gene Ryan, members of the FOP and the Baltimore City Police Department on board to help heal and rebuild Baltimore. Because there’s a level of distrust not only just with officers, but with government officials and with leaders who have been around the city for a long time, but the people in the communities are not seeing what’s being told on news publications about how much they’re doing for the community. They don’t see that. They see the NAACP because we’re in their community. They don’t see all these other people. So we would love to bring them on board to be able to have a co-op that all of us are lending a helping hand to whatever we can provide to the citizens of Baltimore.
JANIS: Great. Well, let’s hopefully keep up to date with you on everything that’s happening. We very much appreciate you coming and talking about this. Thank you very much. Thank you.
HILL-ASTON: Thank you. Thank you.
GIORDANO: [inaud.] Thank you.
JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis, I’m a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore, and thank you for joining us.