After a Black Cop Was Convicted Of Killing a White Woman, Minnesota Activists Say Focus Should Be Police Reform

Originally published in The Intercept on May 2, 2019.
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ON WEDNESDAY EVENING, outside the Hennepin County government building in downtown Minneapolis, a few dozen community activists gathered in the cold to process the rare and polarizing conviction of Mohamed Noor, a Somali American and former police officer. A day earlier, a Hennepin County jury found 33-year-old Noor guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who had called the police to report a possible sexual assault in her neighborhood in the summer of 2017. Noor shot and killed her, and at trial, he claimed self-defense.

The case has galvanized local activists, some of whom embraced the verdict and others who say that, in a criminal justice system where cops are rarely held accountable for on-duty killings, Noor was unfairly targeted because he is a black man who killed a white woman.

At the rally, Leslie Redmond, the president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, said the case was a “scapegoat” against a man of color to fool residents into thinking “the police force is in tact.” Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and local racial justice leader, said Noor’s conviction reveals how the court system treats white people differently compared to everyone else.

Family members of other police shooting victims gave speeches, including Kimberly Handy-Jones, a mother who lost her 29-year-old son to St. Paul police in 2017, and Don Amorosi who lost his 16-year-old son to Carver County deputies last summer. Activists held up signs for other local victims of police shootings, like Tycel Nelson, a 17-year-old shot and killed in Minneapolis in 1990, and Philip Quinn, a 30-year-old shot and killed by a St. Paul police officer in 2015.

Noor’s conviction marks the first guilty verdict for a fatal shooting by an on-duty cop in Minnesota in decades — something that brings both relief to advocates who seek greater accountability for police shootings but also anguish, as residents wrestle with the racial realities of the conviction. Meanwhile, in recent police killings of unarmed black men in the Twin Cities, white cops involved were either not charged at all or acquitted of charges. According to data compiled by the Star Tribune, Noor’s case marks the first conviction out of 179 police-involved deaths in Minnesota since 2000.

“There would have been no trial if Noor’s victim was African American or Native American, and I think the vast majority of people in our movement believe that,” said Jess Sundin, an activist with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar; the group is named after 24-year-old Jamar Clark, a black man shot to death by Minneapolis police in 2015 and whose killers faced no criminal charges. “There also would have also been no conviction if it was a white police officer.”

The July 2017 killing led to a number of shuffles within the police department. Following Damond’s death, then-Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges requested the city’s police chief step down, leading to the appointment of Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first African American police chief. Noor was fired shortly after being charged in March 2018.

In the wake of the verdict, a broad swath of activists are seeking to build on their multi-year efforts to reform the police and use Damond’s case as a way to highlight racial disparities in the criminal justice system. There has been global interest in the case because Damond was Australian, and the activists are leveraging that attention to make their concerns and demands known to a wider audience.

A GROUP OF Damond’s neighbors, who started organizing under the banner of Justice4Justine shortly after her death, planned the rally with the backing of local groups, including the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar, Black Lives Matter Minnesota, and Communities United Against Police Brutality.

Todd Schuman, an activist with Justice4Justine, told The Intercept they planned the rally because “we’re not afraid to say that in the dozens of other examples where white officers shot black victims, there wasn’t anything close to the level of investigative rigor, anywhere close to the level of media coverage, or a result in a conviction.” Schuman emphasized that his group is “not afraid to name that disparity, and we want to create a space where families of police violence victims who did not receive justice have their opportunity to share their perspective.”

Noor’s guilty verdict has had reverberations throughout Minnesota, galvanizing not only the activists who held the Wednesday rally, but also prompting reactions from elected officials and the local Somali community.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose legislative district includes Minneapolis, released a statement on Wednesday morning calling Noor’s guilty verdict “an important step towards justice and a victory for all who oppose police brutality.” Omar also said it cannot be lost that Noor’s verdict comes in the wake of other acquittals for officers who took the lives of people of color, and called for “the same level of accountability and justice” for all officer-involved killings. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement that the city must come together, and that Minneapolis stands with both the Somali community and the local police. “Wherever a person’s beliefs may part ways with today’s decision, we should find comfort in knowing that not one person in Minneapolis hoped for what transpired that July night,” he said.

Other members of the local Somali community said Noor was wrongfully convicted. Community leader Omar Jamal told local news outlet WCCO that many Somali people had called him to say they feel Noor was innocent. Noor’s cousin, Goth Ali, told the Star Tribune that the decision was “shocking” and that he thought Noor “didn’t get a fair trial.”

The Somali American Police Association, or SAPA, released a statement saying it “believes the institutional prejudices against people of color, including officers of color, have heavily influenced the verdict of this case.” The “aggressive manner” taken by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, the group said, “reveals that there were other motives at play other than serving justice.” SAPA, which expressed condolences to Damond’s family, said it fears the “differential treatment” given to minority officers will “have a devastating effect on police morale and make the recruitment of minority officers all the more difficult.”

The incident is reminiscent in some respects to the 2014 killing of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, a black man shot by a Chinese American police officer while in a Brooklyn public housing complex. Gurley’s death came just four months after Eric Garner, another black New Yorker, was killed after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer. In Gurley’s case, NYPD cop Peter Liang was indicted in 2015, a rarity for police-involved killings, and in 2016, a jury found him guilty of manslaughter — another extremely rare outcome. The charges sparked some of the largest Asian American protests in decades, as Liang’s supporters accused prosecutors of scapegoating Liang due to his race. (Two months after Liang’s conviction, a judge reduced the charges, sentencing him to just five years of probation and 800 hours of community service.)

Reached for comment, Minneapolis Police Union President Lt. Bob Kroll said his union “respects the legal process and the findings of the jury.” He said this has been an “extremely unfortunate situation for all involved” and that his union sends condolences to Ruszczyk’s family, and that “our thoughts are with former Officer Noor.” At the rally on Wednesday evening, activists said Kroll threw Noor under the bus by firing him and only nominally speaking up in support of him; they argued the union would have more vigorously defended a white officer. Justice4Justine criticized the police union’s statement on the verdict as “empty and vapid.”

The Minneapolis Police Department did not return request for comment, but Arradondo, the chief of police, released a statement on Tuesday to say he “respect[s] the verdict rendered” and will “ensure that the MPD learns from this case and we will be in spaces to listen, learn and do all we can to help our communities in healing.” Through collaboration and partnerships, he added, “I am hopeful that we will strengthen our community wellness and safety.”

WHEN JUSTICE4JUSTINE FIRST formed, neighbors focused primarily on supporting Justine’s grieving fiancé, Don Damond, and the Ruszczyk family, who are based in Australia. Over time, according to Schuman, the group began shifting their energies toward police reform and police violence more broadly.

“We have a lot of mixed feelings,” Schuman said of the verdict. “We said from almost day one that for us, this is more than just one trial and one verdict, and while we wanted a conviction, in this case, the real justice that we’re looking for is a comprehensive reform of the police. Our commitment is to a justice system where what Justine got is what everyone gets.”

One of the concrete policy changes racial justice organizations in the Twin Cities have pushed for is ending so-called “warrior-style” police trainings, which activists describe as a fear-based approach that encourages cops to believe they are always under threat. Last May, about four dozen people staged a protest outside the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, to call for the mall to stop sponsoring the trainings and for local police departments to stop using them.

Last month, in a victory for activists, Frey, the Minneapolis mayor, announced that the city’s police officers will no longer be allowed to use the warrior-style training. “Chief Medaria Arradondo’s police department rests on trust, accountability, and professional service,” the mayor said in his recent State of the City address. “Whereas fear-based, warrior-style trainings like ‘killology’ are in direct conflict with everything that our chief and I stand for in our police department. Fear-based trainings violate the values at the very heart of community policing.”

Sundin of the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar told The Intercept that her group remains focused on prosecution for Jamar’s killers, hoping to see the case reopened. Sundin said her group is also focused on getting community control over the police through an elected board of community representatives. “Our experience has been that the mayor and the city council—both those presently in office and those before—have been unwilling to fire abusive police officers, and we want that to change,” she said. “We think the community has every right to decide who policies our communities and how.” Community control would go beyond just disciplining officers when something goes wrong, Sundin explained, and would also include “writing the rule book” for police officers and negotiating contracts.

When asked to reflect on how things have evolved since 2015, Sundin said she thinks there is a greater recognition of police brutality among residents of the Twin Cities and a deeper understanding from the media to not “parrot the police’s story without looking into it first.”

Sundin also says the Minneapolis police chief being asked to resign following Damond’s death marked a significant development, because a police chief “had never before been held accountable for the police killings that happen under their watch.” Arradondo replaced Janeé Harteau, who stepped down in July 2017.

The last difference, Sundin said, is that she thinks there’s a much greater awareness surrounding the “shoddy investigation work” conducted by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state agency that helps law enforcement agencies prevent and solve crimes. In December 2017, a video surfaced of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman telling a group of union members that the BCA was doing a poor job of collecting evidence that could lead to charges against Noor. While Freeman later apologized for his remarks and said he didn’t know he was being recorded, he also extended the time for the BCA investigation, something Sundin says has never happened before.

“Every family we’ve ever talked to has had the experience of the BCA botching investigations, but in Justine’s case, it came to light because Mr. Freeman was caught on tape criticizing the BCA for its bad investigatory work,” Sundin said. During the trial, which was held in April, prosecutors also criticized the BCA for its initial handling of the investigation, citing things like waiting three days to interview the only witness and refusing to investigate the source of the screaming that prompted Damond to call the police in the first place. On Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that his office was looking into the allegations surrounding the BCA’s investigation.

Chuck Laszewski, a spokesperson for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, told The Intercept his office is not taking individual interviews on the case until Noor is sentenced on June 7. At a press conference after the trial, though, when Freeman was asked about the allegations that he worked harder to charge a black officer who killed a white woman, Freeman denied that he would have behaved differently in the case of a black person shot by a white cop. “Race has never been a factor in making any decision and never will be,” Freeman said. “We have charged white cops with crimes, and we will again.”

Rethinking School Discipline

Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect

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On a Friday morning in early September, all the middle school students at Hampstead Hill Academy, a pre-K–8 school in Baltimore, filed into the gym. The Ravens were playing on Sunday, which meant that students could take a day off from wearing their navy-blue collared uniforms if they wanted to dress in purple in support of the city’s football team.

The roughly 240 students sat on the gym floor, forming a big circle. Each week, all sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders come together for this half-hour event—to formally recognize the good deeds of their peers and teachers, to offer apologies to those they had wronged, and to share upcoming personal announcements. Matthew Cobb, an eighth-grade science teacher, helped facilitate the morning’s community circle. Encouraging students to make eye contact with one another and to project their voices, it was an exercise in public speaking as much as it was in relationship-building.

Matthew Hornbeck, the school’s principal, has been leading Hampstead Hill for 14 years. For the past nine, he and his staff have actively incorporated “restorative justice” into their school’s culture, a model that involves holding structured conversations to facilitate relationships and reconciliation. While Hampstead Hill still has suspensions and detentions, Hornbeck says restorative justice has dramatically reduced the need for them. Hampstead Hill holds school-wide circles, class-wide circles, and when someone misbehaves, teachers hold circles that include the offending student, the victim, and anyone else who may have been affected. “It’s not a silver bullet, it’s not going to save the world, but it’s a huge piece of the puzzle and I think principals would be crazy not to check it out and take it seriously,” Hornbeck says. “It’s not a fad.”

Every teacher at Hampstead Hill is required to lead at least three class-wide circles per week. These don’t take very long, perhaps 10 to 12 minutes, but the idea is to regularly create the space for students to share their feelings, ask each other questions, and build trust.

Later that Friday morning, Mr. Cobb led a restorative circle for the 20 students in his science class. The day’s question was a silly one: Would you eat a worm sandwich if you could meet your favorite TV star or musician? One by one, each student went around the room and answered the question. “No way,” Nyya told her classmates. “It would depend on how much time I’d have with the stars, but I would probably do it if I could meet the Dolan twins,” said Hannah. Taras said he’d eat a worm sandwich if Drake were waiting for him at the end.

“I would eat a worm sandwich to meet who, class?” Mr. Cobb asked his students.

“Beyoncé!!!!” they all yelled back, laughing.

IN THE ERA OF BLACK LIVES MATTER, the movement that has spotlighted racist policies afflicting black Americans, a new national focus on school discipline disparities has taken hold. Activists point to staggering statistics—for instance, that the number of high school students suspended or expelled over the course of a school year increased roughly 40 percent between 1972 and 2009, while the racial disciplinary gaps also widened. During the 2013–2014 school year, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reported that black students were 3.8 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension. Similar disparities held true even for black preschoolers. Advocates have pressured school officials and policy-makers to end these suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests, which they say push too many students into the criminal justice system—a process commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Many districts have responded to the calls for change. By the 2015–2016 school year, 23 of the 100 largest school districts in the United States had implemented policy reforms requiring limits to the use of suspension and/or the implementation of non-punitive approaches to discipline, according to Matthew Steinberg, an education researcher and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Some cities have banned certain types of suspensions, while others have reduced the length of suspensions, or curtailed the types of penalties students could receive for lower-level offenses.

When it comes to exemplary models of discipline reform, Hampstead Hill stands tall. Yet the racially integrated public charter is rather unusual in its ability to devote meaningful resources to implementing restorative justice. The school employs a full-time psychologist, social worker, guidance counselor, family therapist, and a director of restorative practice. Many cash-strapped schools have none of these, but are still being asked to revamp their policies, and fast.

Much of the liberal and education establishment has thrown its weight behind school discipline reform. In February, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the stage in Harlem to discuss societal barriers facing African Americans—among them, the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in police involvement in school discipline, especially in schools with majority-black students,” she declared. “We’re seeing an over-reliance on suspensions and expulsions.” Investments in school districts, Clinton said, will help leaders reform their school discipline practices. She pledged to commit $2 billion to the effort, and promised to push the Office of Civil Rights to intervene if schools and states refuse to change their ways.

Five months after Clinton’s Harlem speech, the Democratic Party platform adopted at its convention included language to end the school-to-prison pipeline, and to oppose discipline policies that disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Embraced by the highest echelons of Democratic politics, the battle against the school-to-prison pipeline has traveled a long way since researchers first coined the term back in 2003.

But challenges remain for progressive reformers. Research has well established that removing students from class has negative impacts on their academic achievement, and there’s broad recognition that suspensions and expulsions do very little on their own to address the underlying issues that cause most students to misbehave. However, good evidence on potential alternatives is fairly thin, and the linkages between school discipline and the criminal justice system are also less clear than advocates tend to acknowledge. While there’s a lot of energy to move forward, to do something about the glaring racial inequities, this same pressure threatens to produce policy change that could inadvertently hurt other students, teachers, and schools. Tackling such deep structural inequities as segregation and resource allocation is likely necessary to really address school discipline disparities—lest we face yet another instance of educators being asked to throw local solutions at systemic problems.

LONG BEFORE HILLARY CLINTON gave her speech on the school-to-prison pipeline, activists, lawyers, and researchers were figuring out how to raise public awareness about the harms of punitive school discipline.

“It’s been incredible to hear the Democratic candidate speak specifically about the school-to-prison pipeline. That really didn’t just come out of the year; it was through a movement that has been built over the past decade and a half,” says Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of Advancement Project, a civil-rights group.

Critics describe the school-to-prison pipeline as the policies and practices that push American public school students—particularly students of color and students with disabilities—out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The American Civil Liberties Union says the pipeline begins with overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, and a dearth of funding and supports like school counselors and special education resources.

Advocates point to “zero tolerance” policies—which automatically impose predetermined punishments for certain types of student misconduct—as another major factor contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Judith Kafka, an education historian and author of The History of “Zero Tolerance” in American Public Schooling, traces the phrase “zero tolerance” back to a U.S. Customs Service antidrug program from the 1980s, which was soon adopted by states and districts for school discipline. The idea was elevated into federal law in 1994, when Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, requiring schools to expel for one year any student found with a gun. Since 1994, most jurisdictions have passed additional zero-tolerance policies that extend well beyond those mandated by federal law.

By 1997, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 94 percent of all schools had zero-tolerance policies for weapons or firearms, 87 percent had them for alcohol, and 79 percent had them for tobacco. Critics say that these nondiscretionary policies are regularly used in response to low-level, nonviolent student misconduct. And the greater the number of suspended and expelled students there are, they say, the greater the likelihood there is that unsupervised young people will engage in negative behaviors, leading them ultimately to the criminal justice system.

The school-to-prison pipeline is also linked to the growth of police assigned to work in schools—known euphemistically as “school resource officers.”According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy nonprofit, between the 1996–1997 and 2007–2008 school years, the number of public high schools with full-time law enforcement and security guards tripled. Advocates say this has yielded an increase in school-based arrests, many of them for nonviolent offenses.

Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ideally wants to see no police in schools, because they’re too often used to handle disciplinary problems traditionally managed by school administrators. But, Dixon says, if they are going to be in schools, then they should be evaluated annually on their effectiveness, based on clear data on who is getting arrested, the reasons why, and what available alternatives could have been used. One analysis of federal data revealed that more than 70 percent of students involved in school-based arrests or referred to law enforcement in 2010 were black or Hispanic.

More than four decades of research has shown that black students are suspended at two to three times the rate of white students. These disparities have been consistently found in all sorts of studies, across and within school districts.

In 2008, an American Psychological Association task force released a literature review on zero tolerance, concluding that not only do such practices fail to make schools safer or improve student behavior, but they also actually increase the likelihood that students will act out in the future.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a sense that our schools were becoming more violent,” says Russell Skiba, a long-time researcher on school discipline issues, and the lead author of the American Psychological Association report. “A careful examination of the data, though, showed there never really was an increase in youth violence in schools. But it made for a good sound bite for policy-makers to say we’d be tough on school crime.” When better data emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Skiba says it became clear that zero tolerance was ineffective.

After the release of the American Psychological Association’s report, along with the advent of scandalous news stories featuring students expelled for infractions like bringing nail clippers to school, more focus was directed at finding alternatives to zero tolerance. Citing districts like Oakland and Indianapolis, which have revised their codes of conduct to emphasize more preventative approaches to school discipline, Skiba says there’s been tremendous interest in reforming punitive policies over the past three years.

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Restorative Circle at Hampstead Hill Academy | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

THE 2014-2015 SCHOOL YEAR marked the first time white students no longer comprised a majority of the nation’s public school students. And after Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice were killed by police officers in 2014, followed by subsequent police killings in 2015 and 2016, an increasing number of activists and political leaders began drawing connections between the disproportionate discipline black youth face in school and the unequal treatment of black adults by law enforcement.

This national focus on racism prompted attention from teachers unions, too. In the summer of 2015, the National Education Association passed a resolution committing the nation’s largest labor union to fighting institutional racism. The NEA pledged to provide support for programs that end the school-to-prison pipeline, and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.”

The American Federation of Teachers also took action following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, forming a Racial Equity Task Force to outline how the union could move schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reform discipline practices, and create more supportive environments for youth, especially young black men.

Individual districts prioritizing school discipline reform, like Denver and Baltimore, also began to attract national attention. In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who worked to overhaul the district’s discipline policies. He scaled back the scope of offenses that could warrant out-of-school suspensions and expanded the number of non-punitive discipline measures to keep kids in class. The results were dramatic: During the 2009–2010 school year, Baltimore issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004.

The federal government took notice. In 2014, then–Education Secretary Arne Duncan and then–Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore to unveil the first-ever set of national school discipline guidelines, calling on districts to “rethink” their policies. The joint guidance from the U.S. Justice and Education departments instructed schools nationwide to examine their discipline data and to end racial disparities.

The government’s rethink was also informed by a key report, the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, released in 2011 by the Council of State Governments and Texas A&M University. This study tracked school records for all Texas seventh-graders in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and analyzed each student’s grades for at least a six-year period, comparing this information to the state juvenile justice database.

“That particular study made it crystal clear, it gave a clear vision of what the school-to-prison pipeline really looked like,” a Department of Education official says. “It made clear that when a child is suspended or expelled from school, their risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system goes up, as does their likelihood of dropping out of school, and repeating a year.”

The discipline policy shifts by a range of governments have yielded real change: In 2014, California became the first state in the nation to ban “willful defiance” suspensions for its youngest students—a category of misconduct that includes refusing to remove a hat, to wear the school uniform, or to turn off a cell phone. Consequently, the number of California students suspended at least once during the 2014–2015 school year declined by 12.8 percent from the previous year. Similarly, in Chicago, out-of-school suspensions fell by 65 percent between the 2012–2013 and 2014–2015 school years after the district revised its policies, while New York City, after a policy shift, issued 31 percent fewer suspensions in the first half of the 2015–2016 school year than it did in 2014.

In July 2015, the White House convened a “Rethink Discipline” conference, highlighting progress made by the school districts of Oakland, Los Angeles, Broward County (Florida), and others. This past June, Education Secretary John King went to the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville to urge charter school leaders to “rethink” their discipline policies. And this September, the Departments of Justice and Education released the first-ever federal guidance for districts that employ school police officers.

In terms of concrete alternatives, advocates point to models that focus on improving relationships within the school building. Supporters of these approaches—that have names like “Social and Emotional Learning” and “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports”—say that teaching students positive social skills can help prevent or eliminate such risky behaviors as drug use, violence, bullying, and dropping out.

Another popular reform, backed by teachers unions and civil-rights groups, aims to train educators on ways to overcome any racial biases they may harbor. Many worry that middle-class white educators in particular lack the cultural understanding that could help them work more compassionately with poor black and brown students.

The last major alternative is restorative justice, the kind of climate-based improvement program that Matthew Hornbeck has been building in his school over the past nine years. The amount of high-quality research on the effectiveness of restorative justice is limited, but academics at the Johns Hopkins School of Education are currently engaged in a rigorous evaluation of schools implementing the model. Cities aren’t waiting around, though: From Chicago to Los Angeles to New York City, many districts have already moved to implement restorative justice pilot programs.

Kathy Evans, an education professor at Eastern Mennonite University, helped start the nation’s first graduate program focused on training teachers to use restorative justice. “It’s not just that I think restorative justice is more effective, it’s that I think suspensions and expulsions hurt a lot of kids,” she says. “They experience suspensions or expulsions not as a deterrent, but as just one more message that ‘You’re not worthy,’ ‘You’re not important,’ and ‘You don’t matter.’”

“I think reform really comes down to leadership, and how well we’ve managed to get information in the hands of leaders that are willing to take on this challenge,” a Department of Education official told me. “And it is a challenge. You have had educators who for so many years may not have been trained to manage classrooms without the use of exclusionary discipline, and have become reliant on their ability to send children out of the classroom.”

BUT EVEN AS DISTRICTS TURN away from the harsh disciplinary policies of recent decades, few studies exist on alternative approaches. This is partly because so many reforms are only just emerging, and it will take time for academics to evaluate their impacts. However, some researchers also question how much we can really conclude based on the studies we currently have.

There is, for instance, little evidence that black students and white students within the same school receive different kinds of school discipline. In 2011, Josh Kinsler, an education economist at the University of Georgia, ran a study that looked at roughly 500,000 students across 1,000 elementary, middle, and high schools in North Carolina. He found that within schools, black and white students were treated similarly, but that student disciplinary outcomes varied significantly across schools.

Another recent study released by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research echoes some of these findings: Researchers found that the specific Chicago public school students attended was a much stronger predictor of whether they would be suspended or expelled than any individual student characteristic, including race or gender. Chicago schools with high rates of suspensions and expulsions served extremely vulnerable, segregated populations, while those with low levels of exclusionary discipline did not.

There are also limitations to the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, which produced correlational, not causal, findings. “The Texas study … would fail the Department of Education’s own research evaluation tool,” says Kinsler, referring to a rubric for high-quality research by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Nevertheless, the immediate challenge for school leaders is figuring out how to balance the harm a disruptive student would face from losing more class time with their responsibility to effectively teach the rest of the class. We already know that those students who arrive at school with the most serious challenges, those who need the most instructional support, are also among those who are most likely to be suspended.

Academics with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA say that softening disciplinary practices would be minimal and manageable, and that resolving unequal discipline is necessary to reduce the racial achievement gap. They point to the Denver Public Schools, a district that has made concerted efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Researchers found that at the same time that Denver’s punitive discipline went down, the district showed “a steady and substantial increase” in the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in nearly every subject for six consecutive years. Another recent study found that the impact of Chicago shortening the length of suspensions for more serious misconduct from ten days to five did not seriously disrupt or harm other students.

“We summarily reject this narrative that if you just identify the kids that don’t deserve to be in school then everyone else is going to thrive,” says Kesi Foster, a coordinator with the Urban Youth Collaborative, a youth-led group focused on the school-to-prison pipeline in New York City. “Communities thrive when [people] see that everyone in the community is valued and supported. This theory that some people are disposable is what has led to mass incarceration and continues to ensnare young black people.”

ROBUST AGREEMENT IN FAVOR of exploring less-punitive disciplinary measures has not prevented the emergence of controversy, however, especially as elected officials and districts move to implement broad policy changes quickly.

When the federal government released its school discipline guidelines at the start of 2014, the American Federation of Teachers praised the effort, but warned that new policies would succeed only if additional resources were made available.

It’s been difficult for teachers like Kimberly Colbert, an English teacher in Saint Paul, who feels passionate about social justice and reducing exclusionary discipline. Colbert has taught for 21 years, and has helped lead her local union to push for reductions in suspensions and expulsions. In their recent round of collective bargaining, her union negotiated increased funding for restorative justice pilots. “We’re looking at racism, we’re calling it out, and we’re trying to interrupt it,” she says.

Colbert remains hopeful about change, but also worried that the expectation to fix everything will fall, as usual, on the shoulders of under-supported teachers. She notes that not every public school has a librarian or a school nurse, and Minnesota has one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the United States. Last year, a series of violent school incidents in Saint Paul served as harsh reminders of the daunting challenges that persist. In October, a student showed up to one Saint Paul high school with a loaded handgun in his backpack. Two months later, a student at Colbert’s own school slammed a teacher against a concrete wall, choked him unconscious, and ultimately gave him a traumatic brain injury. A few months later, at a third Saint Paul school, two students assaulted a teacher, punching him in the face, and throwing him to the ground.

“It was really difficult for everybody,” recalls Colbert. “We don’t want to see our colleagues hurt, we don’t want to be hurt, and at the same time we understand that we have students who get angry and have needs.”

These concerns extend beyond Saint Paul. Several years into various efforts across the country to scale back suspensions and expulsions, more and more teachers are saying they feel they are being put in untenable situations.

In 2013, the teachers unions in California initially opposed the statewide “willful defiance” suspension ban, which many felt went too far in limiting teachers’ discretion. “Some legislators don’t understand, they haven’t been in the environment, so when they say let’s eliminate all suspensions and expulsions, we’ve had to work to make sure the teacher still has authority in the classroom,” says Jeff Freitas, the secretary treasurer for the California Federation of Teachers. “And we need doctors, mental-health specialists—you’re going to take away this [disciplinary] tool without providing strategies? That’s been our struggle.”

Teachers aren’t the only ones worried about losing their discretion. Mark Cannizzaro, the executive vice president for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union representing New York City principals, says that while the renewed focus on school discipline has been very welcome, his members worry about the degree to which school leaders are losing their authority. He cites a new rule the city’s education department implemented last year, requiring principals to seek permission to suspend students for infractions related to “defying the lawful authority of school personnel.” Local political leaders are also considering a citywide ban on suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade. Both Cannizzaro’s union and the New York City teachers union have raised objections to this proposal.

“The school leader is the person who knows the community, knows the circumstances, and that person is in the best position to make that discipline call,” says Cannizzarro. “You can’t legislate every type of social interaction into a code of conduct. We agree that suspensions should be extremely rare, but there are cases where something egregious happens, and there are often few other tools in a principal’s toolkit.”

Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a school safety consulting firm, says the push to ban all suspensions is just zero tolerance by another name.

“Suffice to say that suspending and expelling students from school certainly is not a real solution to the underlying negative behaviors and problems of individual students,” he says. “That said, there are very legitimate cases when student misconduct poses a serious threat to other students and even the student demonstrating the unsafe behaviors.”

Trump also thinks the public should be more critical of districts that tout dramatic drops in school suspensions. “Have school officials reduced negative behaviors or have they just reduced their discipline numbers? Rarely does behavior change overnight, nor do even the most successful programs have dramatic drops of 30, 50, or greater percent in one year,” he says.

Reports have been surfacing of teachers who say they feel they can’t discipline out-of-control students because their district wants to “keep their numbers down.” Relatedly, many educators are saying they feel unsupported, and even unsafe, as they try to keep up with new school discipline policies.

Los Angeles was the first city in California to ban suspensions for “willful defiance” and was also hailed for its commitment to roll out restorative justice pilots. But last fall, the Los Angeles Times reported that teachers at only about a third of the district’s 900 campuses had been trained in restorative justice, and that the district was failing to budget sufficient funds for its implementation. The report cited one Los Angeles middle school where teachers felt overwhelmed by their inability to respond to students who pushed, threatened, and cursed at them. Two teachers took leaves of absence as a result.

Change always brings resistance, but finding ways to sustain support from teachers and school administrators will matter greatly moving forward. That means figuring out how to engage local stakeholders so they don’t feel that a series of unfunded mandates are descending upon them.

One challenge will be to find the dollars necessary to invest in non-punitive policies and practices. To be sure, as some advocates point out, when districts need to expand the number of school police officers or implement expensive testing programs, somehow there seems to be far less anguish scraping up the funds. Redirecting school budget line items to better reflect progressive priorities will no doubt be a critical aspect of discipline reform.

But to truly overcome racial disproportionality in school discipline, leaders will need to do more than just shuffle local dollars around. It will require more than just sending individual teachers to anti-racism trainings. Important though those things are, the evidence suggests that systemic problems like the concentration of racially and economically segregated schools must also be addressed if the real, if narrower, issue of racial school discipline disparities is to be resolved.

Baltimore’s Next Mayor Doesn’t Want to Talk About Racism

Originally published in Slate on April 29th, 2016.
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Following Tuesday night’s primary, Catherine Pugh is now the presumptive next mayor of Baltimore, having captured 37 percent of Democrats’ votes. Hers is a city that remains deeply impoverished and racially segregated, and in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray it has become central to the growing national focus on police violence. Yet race is the one topic Pugh has shown herself strangely hesitant to talk about.

Last month, Pugh’s campaign released an ad featuring a supporter—Francis X. Kelly, a former Maryland state senator—discussing why Pugh would be the best candidate to lead the city. Kelly enthused about Pugh’s ability to bring people together. “There’s too much talk of racism going on now,” he told voters. “The word racism has got to be erased from our vocabulary.”

Pugh’s campaign was criticized for the ad—including by upstart mayoral candidate and Black Lives Matter figure DeRay Mckesson, who asked Pugh on Twitter if this meant she was afraid to talk about racism. Whether or not she fears it, over the course of her campaign, Pugh, who is black, demonstrated clearly that she has little desire to directly confront the racism afflicting the city. While other candidates spoke about the need to reduce racial bias among Baltimore’s police force, Pugh’s policy platform was filled with platitudes like “recognize the uniqueness of each community and provide strategies for reducing crime that offers results.”

Aside from being a Maryland state senator, Pugh leads a public relations consulting firm and has said one of her top mayoral priorities is to improve Baltimore’s image. She’s advocated for a marketing campaign to “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate the greatness that is Baltimore.” She wants to “help us understand” that every neighborhood and person matters. She wants us to champion the city’s “diversity.”

There’s a lot that’s wonderful about Baltimore, but the fact is that almost every major issue facing the city today is a racial one. Not even a PR professional like Pugh can expect to avoid that. When she likely becomes mayor of this heavily Democratic city—where being born black correlates with significantly worse life outcomes—she’ll have to contend with the growing anger and frustration that’s been percolating across the city.

Baltimore’s not an outlier, but in some ways it experiences economic inequality and racism more dramatically than other cities in the United States. More than 7 percent of the city is unemployed, but for young black men, that figure hits 37 percent. Baltimore had a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, one of the highest murder rates in the country. New research released last spring by Harvard economists found that of the nation’s 100 largest counties, Baltimore ranked dead last when it comes to facilitating upward mobility. For every year a poor boy spends growing up in Baltimore, the economists said, his earnings as an adult fall by 1.5 percent.

This week, Baltimore commemorated the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s funeral, and the notorious riots that scarred the city that very same night. The criminal trials for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray are set to resume next month and continue until at least October. There will likely be more protests if locals feel justice hasn’t been sufficiently served in the courtroom. If ever Baltimore needs leaders who can talk frankly about racism, it will be when those verdicts come down.

As Baltimore faces a critical juncture, with residents still reeling from the riots last spring, Pugh has largely ignored these realities. She claims running for mayor is her “calling”—but her campaign platform is vague, her political record is unclear, and her notable lack of interest in reckoning with racism is worrisome. It’s a trait that won’t just hamper her on highly visible issues like police violence.

Pugh had few words to say on the campaign trail about the abandoned light rail project that Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, canceled last summer—a mass transit initiative that was widely anticipated to improve mobility for some of Baltimore’s most poor and isolated residents. In December, the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that canceling the light rail was racially discriminatory, as the governor diverted funds intended for the project to roads and bridges elsewhere. But Pugh has said she wants to “take the politics out of transit funding”—which has never happened for Baltimore and probably never will.

Catherine Pugh wants to make Baltimore a more “business-friendly” place and “promote [the] downtown core”—the same downtown core that has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies over the decades, with little profit trickling back into Baltimore’s black and beleaguered neighborhoods. Thus far, Pugh has not demonstrated that she plans to alter the city’s inequitable approach to development, which matters as city leaders will soon have to decide if they should issue more than half a billion dollars in tax increment financing to apparel company Under Armour, which wants to construct new headquarters in the city.

There are still seven months before Pugh is expected to win the general election, and one hopes she will continue to face pressure from voters and the press about her record and her intentions. Does she really think we should “erase racism” from our vocabularies? Was it ethical to collect campaign contributions from lobbyists who appeared before her as she served on the Senate Finance Committee?

A year ago, Baltimore’s current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, called those protesting Freddie Gray’s death in West Baltimore “thugs” who were “trying to tear down what so many have fought for.” Catherine Pugh hasn’t used such explicitly ugly rhetoric, but she also she hasn’t convinced the public that she wouldn’t.

For a country that has been largely absorbed in presidential politics over the last 15 months, paying attention to a mayoral race in a midsize city might not seem so important. But if inequality is one of the most significant issues facing America today—and 75 percent of voters who lean Democratic say it is—and if concerns about racism and race relations in the U.S. are rising—which they are—then there may not be a city more important to watch than Baltimore, Maryland.

Why DeRay Mckesson’s Mayoral Candidacy Will Be Defined Far More By Education than Policing

Originally published in Slate on February 12th, 2016.
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N
ews of mayoral runs usually don’t merit the attention that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson got when he announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s top job last week. His campaign had leaked the story to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian in advance, and within 24 hours, he had already crowd-funded $40,000.

National publications began speculating how Mckesson’s candidacy would elevate police reform onto Baltimore’s political agenda, the implication being that it wasn’t already a top priority in the race. It absolutely is: Nearly 10 months after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and after one of the most crime-ridden years Baltimore’s seen in decades, few topics are more prominent. So what, exactly, will Mckesson bring to the election?

Mckesson joins 12 other Democrats competing in April’s primary, the winner of which will almost certainly go on to win in November. But though Mckesson’s large Twitter following may be eager to see how he’ll carry his national Black Lives Matter work into Charm City, I suspect they’ll be in for a surprise. What’s going to distinguish Mckesson probably won’t be policing and criminal justice at all—it’ll be education.

Nationally, school reform is an issue that confounds political partisans, opening fault lines among progressive allies and uniting constituencies that typically never agree. Reform is even more complicated in Baltimore; the city stands as a distinctively unusual landscape for education politics next to other, similar urban centers.

Already, Mckesson has signaled that he plans to campaign on education, which isn’t surprising since that’s where the 30-year-old cut his professional teeth. After graduating college, he spent two years teaching sixth graders in Brooklyn followed by several stints with education nonprofits, reform organizations, and administrative district jobs. But Mckesson brings to the race some national baggage, which he’ll have to confront as he tries to make his case to Baltimore voters. Specifically, residents have already raised questions about his ties to national reform groups like TNTP and Teach for America, as well as his enthusiastic support for charter schools.

So far, Mckesson has largely dismissed these concerns. He’s reminded the public that he’s spent several years working with the Baltimore school district as an administrator focused on staffing personnel. Still, he’ll have to reckon with local education politics that have changed substantially since he left his job back in 2013.

For example, a few months ago a coalition of charter operators filed a lawsuit against the school district over funding—a highly controversial move that’s divided Baltimore public school families. The city is also in the midst of closing down more than two-dozen schools, and the next mayor will need to determine what becomes of the vacant buildings. Will they be sold off? Will they be leased to charter schools? Will they be repurposed into some other civic entity? These decisions are sure to intensify an already-fraught K-12 landscape.

The main thing to grasp about Baltimore’s education environment is that it’s pretty unique. All charter teachers are unionized, unlike most charter employees in other states. Moreover, Maryland charter schools—which are predominately mom-and-pop institutions, not larger charter-school chains—are subject to more oversight and regulation than charters elsewhere. While reformers say they’d like to see Maryland charters freed from these legal constraints, supporters of the status quo say that tougher oversight explains why Maryland charter schools have never wrought the kind of fraud, mismanagement, and abuse found in other jurisdictions.

What Mckesson will soon have to decide is whether he is committed to keeping Baltimore’s charter sector as is—with unionized teachers, a close relationship to the school district, and substantial oversight—or join the coalition of charter operators and national education reform groups that seek to significantly revamp chartering in Maryland. That decision may also force him to choose between competing groups that may try to back him. Some national charter networks have expressed disinterest in setting up shop in Baltimore, namely because they don’t want to work within the school district and employ unionized teachers. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a D.C.-based organization, consistently ranks Maryland as the worst charter school state in the country, largely for these same reasons.

Yet within Baltimore, both traditional teachers and charter teachers alike strongly support Maryland’s charter law—and rallied together last year to protest reformers’ attempts to change it. The Center for Education Reform, another national group, hired lobbyists to push for loosening Maryland’s regulations. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the fight is expected to resurface again soon.

On Friday, Mckesson released his education campaign platform—a substantive list of proposals ranging from expanding early childhood education to strengthening college and career readiness programs. He calls for increasing the school district’s transparency (a common theme among all the candidates) and more equitable state financing. He notably doesn’t mention anything about unions or charter schools, but Mckesson won’t be able to shy away from that charged debate for long.

When news broke that Mckesson would be running, some Baltimore activists, particularly those who have been fighting for police reform, protested on Twitter—a surprise to some outside the city, given his national stature within Black Lives Matter. Among other things, locals argue that Mckesson lacks sufficient relationships with the communities he now seeks to lead.

In many ways, their critiques mirror those that veteran public school educators level at Teach for America—that outside young teachers without roots in the cities they work in displace those who have more of a right, and need, to be there. And despite Mckesson’s early campaign efforts to brand himself as a “son of Baltimore,” some local activists have said they’ve rarely seen him fighting alongside them in the causes they’ve been invested in for years, like building independent black institutions and weakening the Maryland police union. (Mckesson defended himself against these charges, saying “there are many ways to engage in the work.”)

A few weeks ago, 11 Democratic candidates gathered together for a mayoral forum to discuss their political vision for Baltimore. One audience member asked the candidates, “How will you stop police from killing black people?” Answers varied somewhat, but all in all, they were broadly similar. The candidates spoke of strengthening civilian review boards, getting body cameras on all police, transforming the way Baltimore recruits and trains officers, establishing more transparent accountability systems, pushing for more police to formally live within the city, mandating cultural diversity training and regular psychiatric evaluations, and calling for convictions for those who break the rules.

In other words, Mckesson is entering a crowded field of candidates who likely share many of his police reform policy goals. Some hope that Mckesson’s candidacy will encourage others to articulate even sharper campaign proposals. Perhaps, and that would be a good thing. But it was already an issue that no candidate was really ignoring—and certainly one that no future mayor can expect to avoid.

So despite to Black Lives Matter’s national work, that aspect of his candidacy is unlikely to be too disruptive in the race. It’ll be where his campaign intersects with the school-reform movement, and specifically how local education politics rub up against his national ties, that could really shake things up.

Can Baltimore Recover from Its 2015 Murder Wave?

Originally published in VICE on January 6, 2016.
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For criminal justice activists, 2015 was an exhausting year. After high-profile police brutality incidents captured the public imagination at the tail-end of 2014, America had a new national conversation about racism to contend with. Protesters took to the streets across the country, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!”; fresh instances of death and pain inflicted by police officers on (mostly) black civilians spread across social media every week; newspapers compiled databases of the number of people killed by cops; presidential candidates were asked to distinguish between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” on nationally-televised debates.

One of the responses to these protests from the law-and-order crowd was to ask if all this campaigning against police brutality was contributing to an increase in crime. This is the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” a theory suggesting that anti-cop rhetoric was creating a climate in which police could no longer effectively do their jobs. It remains a theory—the statistical evidence supporting a rise in crime rates is thin; last month, the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute affiliated with New York University, published a report finding crime was roughly the same last year as it had been in 2014 in America’s largest cities.

That report, however, was scant comfort to Baltimore, a city where mistrust between the cops and the people they serve may have created some serious challenges. Charm City saw a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, the highest total since 1993, when the city had 100,000 more people living in it, as the Baltimore Sun reported this month. In April, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody, sparking weeks of Baltimore protests and unrest. In five of the eight months following Gray’s death, homicides surpassed 30 or 40 a month. Before the unrest, according to the paper, Baltimore had not witnessed 30 or more homicides in one month since June 2007.

All told, there were some 900 shootings in Baltimore last year, up some 75 percent from 2014—a violent crime spike unparalleled among the 30 largest cities in America, according to the Brennan Center’s analysis. Though Baltimore’s police and political leadership insist they are determined to make last year’s crime statistics an aberration, whether they’re planning to do so through tougher policing in 2016 remains to be seen. And with high-stakes local elections coming up, along with a legislative season where police reform will most certainly be on the table and months of trials left for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore residents are not expecting closure to the unrest any time soon.

Speaking to the Sun, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis recently said he plans to pressure the state legislature to make possession of illegal firearms a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, and for police to hunt down gun traffickers. He also said he’s ramping up recruitment efforts for 200 vacancies in the police force, and trying to coax retired cops to come back to the department. Davis wants to increase street patrols, focus more on residential burglaries, and partner with other city agencies to prevent and solve crime. These priorities reflect some ugly statistics: The BPD’s homicide clearance rate dropped sharply in 2015; police solved only about 30 percent of all cases, and according to theSun, their 2015 clearance rate was less than half the 2014 national average—as well as some 15 percentage points below the BPD’s own average in recent years. Experts suspect that the lack of trust between the police and the community is a major contributing factor behind the low clearance rate. (The Baltimore Police Department did not return repeated requests for comment for this story.)

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thinks that until the cops on trial for Freddie Gray’s death are acquitted, the BPD is not going to be able to do its job effectively. “It isn’t that these officers did something bad and got caught. It’s that they did exactly what they were told to do and are being prosecuted for it,” he says. “As long as cops feel like they can get criminally prosecuted for doing their job, you shouldn’t expect cops to be proactively policing.” He adds that winter offers a sort of natural reset button for communities, since crime tends to go down when the temperature drops. “It gives them an opportunity to feel like, OK, we’re starting over,” he says. “But the department is still understaffed and morale is in the tank.”

Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Programs at Baltimore’s Open Society Institute (OSI), says her organization has been working closely with Commissioner Davis and Baltimore’s police to help them identify and reduce discriminatory practices within their department. This would hopefully help to restore some trust between the police and Baltimore residents. OSI will also be providing seed funding for a policing pilot program this year where officers will send people who appear to be suffering from an underlying drug addiction into a community-based treatment center rather than arresting them. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, (LEAD) was first developed in Seattle, and it helped to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system while also getting them the aid they needed.

When asked whether she thinks the city has responded in a serious enough way to the unrest and its aftermath, Huffman acknowledged that there’s “a lot of talking” going on, including dialogue between people who don’t normally speak to each other. “There is room for progressive ideas and solutions that wouldn’t have gotten the same audience eight months ago,” she told me. “But we’re not seeing the fruit yet. I think we still have a ways to go until we see the fruit.”

The question of whether the city and state will be willing to make serious investments in poor Baltimore communities, a critical factor for reducing gun violence long-term, remains an open one. Just last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal complaint over the cancellation of a long-planned transit project in Baltimore, which would have primarily benefitted low-income blacks who lack quality transportation options. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cancelled the project and diverted money to roads and highways elsewhere in the state. The city also massively underfunded its Operation Ceasefire program, a violence-reduction initiative that proved highly successful (if also controversial) in cities like New York. Baltimore’s Operation Ceasefire director resigned last spring in protest, citing insufficient resources and support. In addition, following the Freddie Gray protests, Governor Hogan cut Baltimore City’s public education funding by 3.3 percent.

Yet on Tuesday the governor traveled to West Baltimore to announce a nearly $700 million plan to tear down vacant buildings throughout the city and bring in new development over the next four years.

“I don’t see us policing ourselves out of this crisis. That has never worked before,” says Alex Elkins, a visiting historian at the University of Michigan who studies the police. “We need sustained engagement with hard-hit communities in order to establish a different pipeline, toward civic inclusion rather than banishment to jail and prison. To achieve that, a policy that attacks root causes is essential, ethically and strategically.”

“People are generally angry about a variety of things, and we have a community that makes promises but no real substantive investments,” adds Dayvon Love, co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore. “This year we’re gonna see a lot more of what we saw in 2015. It won’t be an anomaly. We’ll continue to see a lot of the same.”

City residents are not expecting an end to the unrest any time soon. The six officers on trial for Freddie Gray’s death will take the stand over the next several months; the first officer’s first trial, which ended in a hung jury, has already been rescheduled for June. The pretrial hearing for the second officer, Caesar R. Goodson Jr., began Wednesday. Goodson faces a number of charges, including second-degree depraved heart murder, a crime carrying a maximum 30-year sentence.

On top of the trials, 2016 is set to be an intense year for state and local politics. The state legislative session kicks off in Annapolis next week, and activist leaders will be pressuring legislators to pass police reform measures, like body cameras and changes to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights—or a list of ways cops can evade scrutiny. On top of that, a new Baltimore mayor and City Council will be elected in November; Huffman thinks the current City Council could turn over more than 50 percent in the next cycle.

Love says he and other activists will continue to pressure leaders to invest directly in the people living in the beleaguered communities—a more effective and sustainable way, he argues, to create safe and thriving neighborhoods.

Elkins agrees. “Anything we try will be expensive—rather, anything that is worth trying ought to be expensive,” he says. “The spike after Gray’s death and the riots does seem anomalous at the same time that it is cause for concern. Yet we shouldn’t be distracted by the dispute over the Ferguson Effect—which essentially asks, who’s to blame? That’s a sideshow to the real issue of economic justice. Because of the way our criminal justice system favors the rich over the poor, we should be trying to empower the poor.”

OSI’s Huffman adds that it remains to be seen whether the powers that be are ready to do what the city needs.

“There’s definitely political will to stop the bleeding, but whether or not there’s a real recognition of what the underlying problems are, I’m not sure,” she says. “The city is still in transition, but we have a lot of opportunities right now to get this right.”

How Baltimore Is Reacting to the Start of the Freddie Gray Trials

Originally published in VICE on December 1, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel M. Cohen

It was cloudy and chilly outside the Mitchell Courthouse in Baltimore on Monday morning at the opening of the trial for William G. Porter, one of the six police officers charged for the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. The other five implicated officers will have their own trials over the next several months; the prosecution reportedly sees Porter as a “material witness” who could be useful against the others. Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged the six officers in May after weeks of protests and riots that upended the city.

The trials begin at a fraught time for the city, as Baltimore has seen a dramatic spike in homicides this year, with 311 murders so far in 2015—100 more than the city saw in all of 2014. Meanwhile, police killings of people of color continue to generate outrage across the country, leaving Baltimore activists to wonder exactly how much they’ve accomplished since Gray’s death and the tumult that followed.

The “Baltimore Uprising”—as local activists call it—began just over a year ago, on November 25, 2014. That’s when protesters gathered downtown to protest Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, not getting indicted. Local activists recognize that the death of Freddie Gray carries as much significance for the national Black Lives Matter movement as other high-profile killings, and on Saturday, they held their own rally in solidarity with activists in Minneapolis and Chicago.

It’s been challenging for Baltimore activists to keep up their energy and momentum over the past seven months, but residents and public officials are bracing for a new wave of energy as the trials for the officers accused of ending Gray’s life heat up.

“The people from West Baltimore’s poorest communities are still reeling from how the Freddie Gray incident was handled by the powers that be,” says Perry Hopkins, an organizer with Communities United, a local grassroots organization. “The majority want justice, but openly say [that] if officers only get a slap on the wrist, this city had better be prepared to experience another thwack on the hand. They mean it.”

When I asked Hopkins if he thinks that means the community will begin protesting again if the officers are not convicted, he said, “Yes they’ll protest…and in many different fashions.”

A few handfuls of activists convened with signs and banners at the courthouse Monday, where metal barricades blocked off the areas protesters typically use to congregate. Some grew angry at what they felt were attempts by city officials to thwart their First Amendment rights. Still, those within the courtroom could hear protesters’ chants from the street.

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Photo Credit: Rachel M. Cohen

Sharon Black, a leader with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly, told me that it feels like there’s a great deal of confusion right now, even among some of the most committed activists in town. “We’ve been phone-banking, and our sense is that people are a little bit confused about what’s actually going on,” she said. This makes sense given the complicated legal process, and the fact that the presiding judge imposed a strict gag order last month on the lawyers involved in the case.

“People are sort of saturated with news, and there’s a bit of wearing down in terms of energy,” Black said. “The bigger response from the public may only come after the trials have concluded.”

Legal experts have expressed doubt that the officers will be convicted, and city officials are preparing for the likelihood that residents could revolt if they feel justice isn’t served. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says his department has spent nearly $2 million on new police riot equipment—including vans, protective gear, shields, and helmets—since the unrest over Gray’s death this spring. Davis replaced the former Baltimore police commissioner, Anthony Batts, and the police department underwent a significant reorganization over the summer.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told the Baltimore Sun that city officials are having “constant conversations and planning sessions” to prepare for, and prevent, potential riots. “Community members certainly don’t want the city to erupt in violence again,” she said. More than 250 businesses were damaged after the April protests, almost 150 vehicles were burned, and roughly 60 buildings were set on fire.

“People in Baltimore still want to see justice for Freddie Gray, that has not changed one bit since April,” said Andre Powell, a protestor who stood outside the courthouse Mondaymorning. “Yes the mood was much more heightened directly after the incidents but people are closely watching what’s going on.”

Porter, the first officer on trial, has been charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. Officer Porter reportedly asked Gray if he needed a medic while traveling in the police van, but thought he might be lying to avoid going to jail when Gray said yes. The officer is a 26-year-old Baltimore native who’s been on unpaid leave from the Baltimore Police Department since posting his $350,000 bail earlier this year.

A spokesperson for the Baltimore police union on Monday told VICE they were unavailable to comment on the trial. In general, however, the union has expressed outrage at the indictment of the six officers, and has called on State Attorney Marilyn Mosby to recuse herself from the case. The president of the union, Gene Ryan, called the city’s $6.4 million settlement deal for the family of Gray, approved in September, “obscene.”

On Monday, the court proceedings were focused on selecting a panel of impartial jurors for the case. Porter’s attorneys have argued that finding a truly fair jury will be impossible in Baltimore, and that the trial must be held elsewhere.

There is new evidence to suggest that Marylanders outside of Baltimore hold rather different views on the Gray protests than those who live within the city. A recent pollfound that Baltimore voters are more likely to say that racism and the lack of jobs are the biggest reasons for the unrest after Gray died. Voters across the state, on the other hand, are more prone to saying it was due to residents’ “lack of personal responsibility.” The same poll found that 63 percent of Baltimore voters supported Mosby’s handling of the case, compared to 38 percent of voters statewide.

The presiding judge, Judge Barry G. Williams, a black man who previously prosecuted police misconduct for the federal Justice Department, said he would reconsider moving the trial out of town only after the court makes a serious effort to find a fair crop of jurors within the city. Williams made clear that he thinks it’s important for people to be tried by “their peers.” And trying the officers within the city, many have noted, should help lend the court proceedings greater legitimacy. “One way to ensure that a community accepts a jury’s verdict is for the jury to reflect the entire community’s diversity,” University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert told the Sun.

Residents and civil rights leaders will closely monitor the proceedings, and the local NAACP chapter plans to have a court watcher in attendance for the full duration of the trial. A great deal is riding on the outcome of these trials, and for better or for worse, everybody in Baltimore knows it.

 

Baltimore Is Bracing for the Freddie Gray Trials After a Deadly Summer

Originally published in VICE on September 3rd, 2015.
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On Wednesday, a local circuit court judge denied motions to drop the charges against the six officers indicted in the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, and declined to recuse State Attorney Marilyn Mosby from trying the case.

Defense attorneys argue Mosby acted inappropriately when she dramatically announced criminal charges on May 1, but Judge Barry Williams dismissed that argument. He also ruled that each officer should be tried separately.

Next week, another hearing is scheduled to determine whether the trials—set for mid-October—will take place in Baltimore or in another jurisdiction.

The court proceedings come at a fraught time for Charm City. Nationally, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to flex its muscles. Activists held their first national conference in July, have been successfully pressuring presidential candidates to speak more directly about criminal justice reform, and just last week, the Democratic National Convention passed a unanimous resolution in support of the movement.

Locally, Baltimore activists have also continued to organize themselves since the Freddie Gray protests ended in the spring.

Amidst all this, the city has seen sharp increases in homicides over the past several months; 215 had been killed by the end of August, up from 138 at the same time in 2014. Forty-five people were murdered in July alone, the bloodiest month the city has seen since August 1972. Concerns about violence and unrest threaten to derail political momentum around criminal justice reform.

In the days leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) cancelled officer leave in order to ensure that as many police officers as possible would be present throughout the day. Some police showed up in uniform, and others dressed in plainclothes to work undercover. Activist Kwame Rose was arrested in the morning,and one officer suffered minor injuries while assisting with the arrest, but by and large the demonstrations were relatively calm. Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, both prominent figures within the national Black Lives Matter movement, attended the demonstration as well.

Speaking at an afternoon press conference, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said demonstrators were “peaceful and respectful and an example of democracy in action.”

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says he expects the community protests to remain fairly calm in September, but that “the real shit is going to hit the fan” when the court issues its final verdicts for the officers. Charges range from second-degree assault—a misdemeanor—to the rather unusual charge of second-degree depraved heart murder. Moskos does not expect that the cops will be found guilty.

Though the community response is likely to escalate following the October trials, activists say they plan to ramp up protests relatively soon. Duane “Shorty” Davis, an activist with Baltimore BLOC, a local grassroots organization, told the Baltimore Sunthat they’re encouraging people to engage in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience over the next two weeks, particularly in the wealthier and whiter parts of town. “We’re not just going to go in the black community and wave our hands. We’re going to the white communities,” he told the paper.

City politics also remain chaotic. Mosby, who has been cleared to continue working on the Freddie Gray case, will be campaigning and fundraising for her own re-election at the same time. Her husband, Councilman Nick J. Mosby, has also announced that he is “seriously considering” a run for mayor. And in July, Rawlings-Blake fired the city’s police commissioner, Anthony Batts—citing the rising city violence. “We need a change. This was not an easy decision, but it is one that is in the best interest of the people of Baltimore,” she said at the time. The interim police commissioner, Kevin Davis, has been significantly reorganizing the police department over the past two months.

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, tells VICE that he anticipates “a plethora of politicians and organizations” will try and use the Freddie Gray trials as a way to advance their own personal careers. “So that sucks,” he says. In the meantime, his group will continue to push for reforms to the police union contract, which they were doing well before Gray’s death. Specifically they have been focusing on changing the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, (LEOBR), which they see as a significant barrier to transparency and accountability. Other groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU of Maryland, have rallied for similar changes.

The police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, strongly opposes changes to LEOBR and worked hard to fight proposed reforms this past legislative season.

In the face of all the political maneuvering, the city’s activists will be waiting on the verdicts to determine whether justice has been served in a case being watched closely by reformers around the country.

On International Women’s Day: Baltimore Marches

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on March 9th, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

When global corporations such as BP and Accenture become vaunted sponsors of International Women’s Day, it’s easy to worry that the holiday—first organized by early 20th-century socialists—has lost its radical roots. But for the 50 Baltimore citizens who convened on Sunday to celebrate, commemorate, and mobilize fellow women activists, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well.

The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organized the three-hour event, which included a march that began at the corner of Hillen and Fallsway and ended with a rally outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gathering at 3 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, the organizers were clear about their objectives for the day.

“We have to remain vigilant about reclaiming and remembering the black female victims of police brutality because black women and girls’ lives matter too,” said Lynae Pindell, a 23-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We have only framed [police violence] as a black male problem.” Pindell spoke of the need to “move beyond that sexist lens” which renders invisible the racial profiling, sexual harassment, strip searches, rape, and other acts of gender-based violence that women and girls are regularly subjected to. Reading off a list of black women and girls who have died at the hands of police—including Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, and Aiyana Jones—Pindell pointed out that all of these women received far less media attention than Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

Colleen Davidson, an activist with FIST, reminded the crowd that their International Women’s Day march was coinciding with the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The fight against racism, she stressed, is deeply intertwined with their battle against patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and police brutality. “More communities are mobilizing, and the struggle is growing,” Davidson said enthusiastically.

Before the march began, the crowd was encouraged to shout out names of women who are important to them. “Ella Baker! Mother Jones! Nina Simone! Coretta Scott King! Harriet Tubman! Leslie Feinberg! Billie Holiday! Sojourner Truth! Audre Lorde!”

When the diverse crowd finally began to march—with women leading in the front, and men instructed to hang in the back—activists lifted banners and bright green picket signs, chanting, “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

Jessye Grieve-Carlson, a sophomore at Goucher College, was there with fellow members of the Goucher Feminist Collective. She said she was looking to do more off-campus activism and engage with local organizers. Another marcher, Ellen Barfield, said she dreams of a time when there will be an International Men’s Day because that will mean that women will have gained power. Barfield, an army veteran and longtime peace activist, co-founded the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace, but notes that the group is largely male. “Even though they’re well-meaning for the most part,” she says, “they’re still pretty blinded by the patriarchy.”

When the group arrived outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center, standing beneath the tall barbed-wired fence, activists took turns making speeches, reading poems, and singing songs. Central to the speeches were calls for economic justice—specifically for better jobs with living wages, increased access to affordable housing, and an end to mass incarceration.

According to the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative, “Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City.”

“We are not just out here marching for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights,” said Sharon Black, a 65-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We are here for our real liberation.” Pointing her finger at the bleak-looking detention center, Black urged, “People don’t need to be locked behind bars and treated like animals. Our sisters deserve better.”

After the rally concluded, the activists left East Baltimore and relocated to the church hall of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, marching along with chants like, “No justice! No peace! No sexist police!”

Waiting for them in the church was a big buffet of chili, macaroni and cheese, salad, sandwiches, desserts, and other snacks prepared by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and IWW union members. Local activists, like Tawanda Jones—the sister of Tyrone West and a leader in Baltimore’s fight against police brutality—were recognized by the organizers and given awards. Other honorees included Palestinian activist Laila El-Haddad, Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sara Benjamin, and Tiffany Beroid, a leader pushing for Wal-Mart to grant pregnant workers their rights.

So what’s next for these women and men?

“We’re not looking to form a new organization, because a lot of us are already involved in so many groups,” Black told me. “But we want to help unite everyone, so that next year we’ll be more poised to take collective action.”

Black reiterated this sentiment when she addressed the crowd, suggesting that maybe everyone would consider reconvening quarterly, to strategize for more sophisticated city and statewide efforts. She also made a plug for the Fight for 15 movement’s next national day of action, which is scheduled for April 15. Though the Fight for 15 movement has not been as strong in Baltimore as it has been elsewhere, the organizers hope to at least plan a march in solidarity with the fast food strikers in other cities.

Tawanda Jones also encouraged everyone to come to Annapolis March 12, where the Maryland legislature will be considering several bills that address police accountability reform. “We can’t bring Tyrone back but we can stop another family from feeling the same,” said Jones. “That’s why we do what we do—justice for all victims of police brutality.”