Roland Martin talks to Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings about the decision to close schools in light of the Baltimore riots due to the death of Freddie Gray.
Roland: We are all obviously watching what’s happening in Baltimore as they go through this next phase. Who made the decision to cancel school today? That’s 80,000 kids who are not going to be in school today. Isn’t that the best place for them because it’s structured and organized and they’re not out on the streets today?
Congressman Elijah Cummings: “I think the Mayor and Superintendent of schools made the decision. If I would’ve been consulted I would’ve made the decision to have our children in school. I want them to be learning something. Hopefully that will not be the decision for tomorrow. I will be talking to the Mayor and the head of education to see what we can do about that.
Roland: A lot of these kids get free or reduced lunch so they’re not going to be able to eat today. Look at my Twitter feed, I’m re-tweeting a lot of those pastors who are opening their church doors. We have the governor taking shots at the Mayor. What do you think of people who are trying to strike a political tone as opposed to a focusing on the issue?
Cummings: We have to go to realize that the underlying issue is the tremendous distrust between the public and the police. We have a situation where this young man is taken into custody without ‘incident and without force.’ He ends up with a crushed larynx and a severed spinal cord, 80% severed and then he died. But it’s not just the Freddie Gray piece. I live in the inner city. I live in the area where The Wire was filmed. I’ve been here 33 years. I live here and I can tell you, there’s a tension. You have a lot of people who don’t have jobs. You have a lot of people who can’t get jobs because of police records. Back in 2006, in the O’Malley administration, you have arrests of 100,000 people in a city of 650,000.
I gotta tell you, there’s a lot of anger with our young people with the police and there’s a feeling of desperation. A young man in my neighborhood talked to me and said ‘This is why we’re doing this. We don’t have enough recreation centers, we don’t have a good education so where we gonna go? The next thing is we get arrested and then we die.’ We try to work with the school to make sure the school are what they are supposed to be. We have an African-American head of schools. We try to help them get jobs and we identify employers who will tell us that they will hire people who may have a record. But it’s a lot to do.
Roland: Language matters. I want to deal with a comment made by the Mayor in referencing thugs and that set a lot of people off.
Cummings: I think if I had had an opportunity to advise the Mayor, I would have begged her not to use those words. If you look at the people who live in my neighborhood, these are good people I swear. A lot of this acting out like this is frustration. They don’t have a job, they can’t get a job, they feel like they had a poor education so they’re up against the wall. On the other hand, they go to a stadium and I was out there trying to keep the peace and most of those people have never been in that stadium.
You know why? They can’t afford it. To call people thugs is demeaning and you’ll be more inviting and get more cooperation if you understand where they’re coming from. We met with the gang leaders last night and they’re telling us they are the ones standing in front of these buildings telling these folks not to break into them. They are working with us, encouraging people not to do this. The gang leaders are saying ‘You’ve got to speak our language and we want to help.’
Tom Joyner: So, there’s no truth to the rumor that the gangs are getting together to fight the police?
The gang leaders in Baltimore just finished meeting with our minister. We know people are saying this and we know people are thinking this about us, but that’s not where we are. We hate this. We’re not about that.
Roland: I heard the police commissioner talking about he wished parents would take control of their kids but then I heard people say “Well, commissioner, take control of your police officers. There’s a demand for the citizens to stop the violence but when are you going to demand your officers stop the violence?
Cummings: I was in a meeting where activists were advising young people how to treat the police. And a young brother got up and said ‘When are you going to tell the police how to treat us?’ And I thought about that a lot. I think most of the people in this neighborhood treat the police with respect, even when they feel that they haven’t been treated fairly. Baltimore is one city but this could happen anywhere.
Sybil Wilkes: A lot of people think it can’t happen in their city. But it can.
Cummings: I had to leave the funeral early but you could feel it. I had people coming up to me telling me the kids who were going to the mall. They’re telling me because they know me. Mondowmin mall was the first mall built in the Black community. It’s probably 95% of its employees and patrons are African-American and its smack dab in the African-American community. And that’s the first place that was hit.
Sybil: So as the sun comes up this morning and you are the Mayor of Baltimore, what do you do?
Cummings: I do what she’s already done which is get crews out to help clean up and then I take the President up on his offer to get Loretta Lynch, our new Attorney General and her head of civil rights and the head of the cops program in here to meet with leaders to assure the community that there will be an up and down investigation of our police department like they did in Ferguson because people have to feel some level of accountability. Then I would make sure I got the schools open tomorrow. Then I would meet with the religious leaders and the gang leaders to address some of the systemic problems.
Roland: If there is not a decision to charge these officers –
Cummings: There’s going to be a problem.
Roland: It will now be a week and these officers just can’t stay on administrative leave. Someone has to make a decision to charge them or not.
Cummings: We have a young, brilliant, African-American state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, and we have a lot of faith in her. She will get the information on Friday and then she has to make her decision.
Catch Tom Joyner’s Right Back at Cha every WEEKEND: starting at 6am ET Saturday – 5:59am ET Monday.