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“Thugs,” “Hooligans” and “Riots,” Challenging Narratives With Dominque Stevenson

Stevenson witnessed the events that precipitated Monday’s uprising.

See The Real News Network’s website for both earlier in-depth reporting and current coverage of events in Baltimore, where The Real News Network studios are located.


JARED BALL, HOST, I MIX WHAT I LIKE: What’s up world, and welcome to this edition of I Mix What I Like for The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball, and today with [inaud.] We are down here in the Gilmor Homes community in Baltimore, Maryland. Right here at the spot where on April 12th, police took Freddie Gray to the ground and caused injuries that would a week later cause him to die.

Today we’re going to be talking with members of the community and including Ms. Dominque Stevenson of the Friend of a Friend Committee. So Dominque tell us, you were – you have been involved with this community, this spot where Freddie Gray was, where he sustained injuries that would eventually kill him. You worked in the Gilmor Homes community for a long time prior to this incident and will continue after this incident. Tell us about the conditions in this community that precipitated that and about the work that you were doing already. And then tell us a little bit about what you saw last night with the uprisings, your perspective on that, and what’s going to come next.

DOMINQUE STEVENSON, FRIEND OF A FRIEND PROGRAM: One of the main things we’ve been doing here for at least a year is really trying to build a relationship with members of this community. We call it accompaniment. You know, being there, being present. We knew about some of the issues that were going on with police prior to Freddie Gray’s death. We also in talking to people understand the situations that they’re living in, the financial constraints that people are dealing with. They’re, you know, look around you. There are no jobs, there are no really thriving businesses in this community where folks are employed.

So we have been for a long time doing food programs. In the summer we got started maybe three years ago doing a free lunch program one time a week for children. And the brothers I work with, we just go out, walk through the community and hand out bag lunches. And then that kind of stepped up a little bit more to doing regular food giveaways, but also just engaging members of the community and talking about what they need.

Because what we find is people in Baltimore have been overrun by nonprofits. There’s not a lot of trust. And so it’s been really critical for them to just see us here with no agenda bringing resources when we can. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do. When talking to some of the brothers earlier today about the situation with Freddie Gray one of the things they said is, okay, this is not the case where this is somebody who’s really on the street and characterize him as a ladies’ man. And were like, you know, they feel like because he made eye contact with the police, that created a problem as far as the police were concerned. You’re not supposed to look us in the eye.

They’re also talking about –

BALL: Which itself has its own long history in terms of black relationships with white people, and particularly that whole eye contact concern has its own long, troublesome history connected with lynchings and all kinds of other acts of violence. So unfortunately, this is nothing new. That particular thing is nothing new in terms of what precipitates hostility from the state. Yeah.

STEVENSON: Yeah. It’s nothing new. I mean, what the brothers were talking about is just the regular police harassment that they deal with. One of them, the men we spoke with, he after this, after the protest started he was walking across the street. I think they stopped him for jaywalking, and they stunned him. They used a stun gun on him. And so they’re talking about just the regular harassment that they have to deal with in effect that – when all of this publicity dies down, and publicity is, as essentially what it is. Okay, I mean that literally. Like, when all the cameras are gone, they’re like, we’re still here and we’re fearful because they’re gonna retaliate. They’re gonna come back on us.

And so really what we need to be looking at is who’s going to stay here with these folks? Who’s going to continue to accompany them through this, and who’s going to help bring resources into this community?

BALL: You know, you also live right across the street from Mondawmin Mall where a lot of the uprisings that took place last night were centered. But there’s a perspective that you have that is not getting a lot of coverage of that incident on major media. So a lot of the narrative in popular media is these are young thugs, these are hooligans. These are, you know, people who are disrespecting the memory of Freddie Gray and his family, who are calling for peace, et cetera. But tell us what you saw actually taking place down there yesterday.

STEVENSON: At the mall? Or –

BALL: Yeah, at the mall. What precipitated the uprising and the police response.

STEVENSON: Initially what I saw – I got there at around 3:30, which is the time that one of the high schools we do work with lets out, Connexions. My son works there so he had told me that they had been on lockdown for about two hours, and that some of his students were fearful because they were hearing so many stories. But the primary story that they were being told is they’re on lockdown because white supremacists had made threats, okay?

So they had these students in that area, in all the schools, on lockdown for a couple of hours. The police in the meantime went and they set up at Mondawmin, okay, they had riot gear, there were armored vehicles. They were there already. Then they –

BALL: Before children had gathered. Before the young people had gathered.

STEVENSON: Yeah. So they’re letting them out, the students come out, they head to Mondawmin. And from what I understand from what people were telling us, then they tell them, you know, get off the buses. They shut down the buses, they shut down the subway, so people were stuck. People who had actually left the mall because the stores closed were also stuck, because none of the buses or anything was moving. So folks were kind of standing around.

We were standing around and watching it. Apparently something kicked off between the police and the kids. And some of the kids I guess ran, probably toward Pennsylvania North. And it seems like at that point it probably swelled into a larger group of people. But from where we were watching, we’re seeing police jump out of vehicles with M16s, and they’re running after kids. And we know these are kids because they’re in school uniforms. And so it was like, they escalated the situation, and it spun out of control.

And then – so this, mind you, I’m talking about it was there at 3:30, and outside for a number of hours. By the time people showed up at the mall it was probably, it was getting dark. So it was much later. So the situation at the mall occurred later on. And honestly, people were casually driving up. I was like, it looked like the mall was open, you know.

So even for the way that it was portrayed, the free-for-all, it wasn’t quite that hectic. It was like, the police left. I guess they went further in to Pennsylvania Avenue and North, and they left. In the mall there were no police there at that point so people decided we’re going to go up in these stores. And they did.

BALL: Now, one of the things I saw on social media and Twitter in particular was that people were making the point that the police had shut down, or the city had shut down the bus and the train, trapping those young people there. And what a lot of people who were not from this area don’t realize is that this is not like New York where you walk up a block and catch another train. They were stuck. So it created a cauldron out of which they could not escape, and the police could then do their, their business. Yeah.

STEVENSON: And the other thing people don’t understand is like, we have what are called city-wide schools. So you might go to Connexions but you might live in East Baltimore. Okay? So that’s not, you’re not gonna be able to walk from school over to East Baltimore, you know what I’m saying? So it’s like, they – I heard Elijah Cummings this morning on the news admit that the city government made a choice to escalate the situation, which is what they did. They escalated it. They were circulating rumors all day long, and those kids in the school were hearing different rumors than the rumors that the police were circulating outside, where they’re talking about the gangs threatening them. Kids in the school were being told, like I said, that white supremacist groups were coming up there. So they created this environment of fear.

Mondawmin already is a tinderbox in terms of the MTA police and students. They, in February and March they made a number of arrests of students up there for trespassing. So it’s already – there had already been conflict and things going on. They knew this, and so I felt like it was a setup. It was a very bad situation that didn’t have to happen. Just like they can call preachers and folks out in the street for peace now, they could have sent folks, they could have made a call for people to go up to Mondawmin as these children are coming out of school to stand there. You know, stand vigil, make sure that the kids are all right, make sure that they’re getting on their buses.

That call could have gone out. But no, you send not just Baltimore City police. Before they declared a state of emergency there were state troopers there, there was armored equipment from Prince George’s County. I saw all of this stuff, took pictures of this stuff.

BALL: One of the things I also wanted to ask you about was one of the pieces in this media narrative that’s being generated. I heard Governor Hogan say that he was concerned about roving gangs of thugs and criminals destroying or hurting the community. Something to that effect. Now, at first I thought he might have been actually talking about the police. But of course he wasn’t.

So if you could, having done the work, being from here in Baltimore and doing all this work all these years, talk about that narrative. Who are the thugs that Hogan is talking about, that the Mayor has made reference to? Who are actually the ones causing all of the problems that we see bubbling over and getting all the attention at the end, but who’s causing all of these problems?

STEVENSON: First of all, the way that people are using thug and the way that that term is coming out of their mouth it sounds like a euphemism for nigger, to me. That’s my personal opinion. When I talk to the brothers in this housing project, what they will tell you is they’re like, look. Those were schoolchildren. They’re like, first of all, we are on edge, we’re scared. Those are the worlds they’re using. And it’s not like they’re scared of the police in like a, a man-to-man way. They’re scared because they know that these folks have – are [armed to] them, they know what they’re capable of. They know that they can manufacture charges.

So it’s like, you’re right about that. I also made that assumption to, that okay, we’re talking about the police in a real way now. We’re talking about roving groups of thugs. You know, these were children who were let out of school who, in some ways, the police escalated the situation and had already set the stage by spreading rumors about these attacks. And their interactions with the children were such that it created a situation where it could only escalate out of control.

BALL: So let me just ask you finally here, we’re hearing a lot about – well, obviously this is drawing a lot of attention to the city, to these communities. What would leadership look like if it really genuinely cared about changing these situations and these relationships, and the conditions that start all these issues in the first place? What would it look like, what would you like to see happen?

STEVENSON: First of all, it would not come out in times of crisis. People would know and see these people all the time. You would be with the folks when there is no crisis. ‘Cause the reality is, Baltimore is one big crisis in terms of the poverty, the policing, the mass incarceration, all of that stuff lends to folks living in a continual crisis. These folks come out and actually, what they’re doing in criticizing parents and trying to place the blame, it’s just making the situation worse. Leadership looks like taking responsibility for your shortcomings, for your failures. To me that’s what leadership looks like.

Leadership also would care about folks. You know, would be concerned with the fact that children are not getting the education that they should be getting, that the police are killing young men like Freddie Gray, and that they’ve continually gotten away with it. And true leadership would have made sure that there was an indictment for murder. That supersedes the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. You don’t, that – if the State’s Attorney chose to charge them with murder, they wouldn’t be concerned with the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. That’s something that they can do right here right now.

BALL: Dominque Stevenson, thank you again for joining us. Thank you for checking us out here at I Mix What I Like for The Real News Network. We’ll catch you in the whirlwind. As Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. Peace, everybody.

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