Matt Taibbi on Baltimore, Freddie Gray and How Legal System Covers Up Police Violence

StoryMay 21, 2015
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Matt Taibbi

award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. His most recent book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is now out in paperback.

New cellphone video sheds light on Freddie Gray’s fatal journey in a Baltimore police van. The footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows Gray lying motionless as several police officers shackle his ankles and load him into the vehicle. It appears to contradict earlier police claims that Gray was "irate" and "combative." One of the officers, Lt. Brian Rice, reportedly threatened to use his Taser on the eyewitness who was filming. We are joined by Matt Taibbi, whose latest article for Rolling Stone is "Why Baltimore Blew Up." He writes, "Instead of using the incident to talk about a campaign of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of illegal searches and arrests across decades of discriminatory policing policies, the debate revolved around whether or not the teenagers who set fire to two West Baltimore CVS stores after Gray’s death were “thugs,” or merely wrongheaded criminals."

NEXTWho Goes to Jail? Matt Taibbi on American Injustice Gap from Wall Street to Main Street
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: New cellphone video sheds light on Freddie Gray’s fatal journey in a Baltimore police van. The footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows Gray lying motionless as several police officers shackle his ankles and load him into the vehicle. It appears to contradict earlier police claims that Gray was, quote, "irate" and combative." One of the officers, Lieutenant Brian Rice, reportedly threatened to use his Taser on the eyewitness who was filming. The footage raises fresh questions about the officers’ handling of the incident and their motive for shackling Gray in the first place.

Gray died from his injuries on April 19th. His family and attorney say his voice box was crushed and his spine was, quote, "80 percent severed at his neck." His death sparked massive protests nationwide. Earlier this month, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against six police officers in connection to Gray’s death.

AMY GOODMAN: Baltimore is the focus of Matt Taibbi’s latest article in Rolling Stone. It’s headlined "Why Baltimore Blew Up: It Wasn’t Just the Killing of Freddie Gray—Inside the Complex Legal Infrastructure That Encourages and Covers Up Police Violence."

So, take us inside that, Matt. In fact, you’re writing a book on this subject right now.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I first came onto the subject because of the other subject we were just talking about. I was—I had been writing a lot about why people from Wall Street don’t go to jail, and I was interested in who does go to jail in this country, and I wanted to make that comparison. And in doing so, I had to learn a lot about community policing, stop and frisk, you know, what they call zero-tolerance policing tactics.

And a lot of that, I think, is behind the anger that we’re seeing spill out in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, because these new modern policing strategies that we’ve instituted in the last couple of decades, most famously beginning here in New York with Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, you know, the "broken windows" theory—what happens with these policing strategies is that it forces police to go out into neighborhoods and do what one police officer described to me as self-initiated contacts. In other words, you have a different neighborhood, you have the affluent white neighborhood, where police only showed up—show up when they’re called. You know, if somebody falls out of a window, somebody shoots a gun in a building, they’re going to show up. But in Bed-Stuy or in the South Bronx, police are getting out of their squad cars, they’re stopping people on the street, they’re questioning them, they’re patting them down, and it creates this endless stream of hostile interactions that over time become more—that creates more and more animosity and more and more room for corruption of the process. And I think that is definitely the background for what we see in places like Baltimore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So could you say what was the origin of the broken windows policy? And what exactly have its effects been?

MATT TAIBBI: So, broken windows was a theory that was espoused by a couple of academics in an article in Atlantic magazine in 1982, and the idea was, if you leave a broken window in a neighborhood, then, very shortly after, all the other windows nearby will also be broken. And visible signs of public disorder will lead to more public disorder. So if you crack down on the visible signs of disorder, like people jumping turnstiles, like graffiti, like, you know, the small things, it will have two impacts. Number one, it will obviously crack down on the visible signs of public disorder. People will feel safer walking around in those neighborhoods. But it will also discourage people from walking outside with a gun, and it will discourage fugitives from walking around in the streets, because they know they may be stopped for even the most minor things, and so they’re less likely to commit crimes. That’s the theory.

And the tactic that they used to employ this theory, which was stop and frisk, encouraged officers to go out in huge numbers into neighborhoods and essentially, without probable cause, stop people, question them, sometimes pat them down, empty their pockets, and it created, you know, thousands and thousands of interactions. Out of those interactions sprung hundreds of thousands of summonses per year. And a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have had criminal records ended up in the system because of this new policy. Now, you might argue that it curtailed crime, but it also created this other thing where lots and lots of people ended up in the system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But is that actually the case, that crime went down in the cities where these policies were implemented?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, so, criminologists are very divided on this point. Crime did go down. Violent crime went down all across America from the early '90s on. But it went down in cities where these policies were employed, and it went down in cities where they weren't employed. The origin of the drop in violent crime is basically an academic mystery in America. And so, it’s been debunked, this idea that the drop is linked to these policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Late last month, Baltimore police union attorney Michael Davey told reporters the officers were right to chase Freddie Gray after he ran away when a lieutenant made eye contact with him.

MICHAEL DAVEY: They pursued Mr. Gray. They detained him for an investigative stop. Had he not had a knife or an illegal weapon on him, he would have been released. They know what role they played in the arrest of Mr. Gray. What we don’t know and what we’re hoping the investigation will tell us is what happened inside the back of the van. He was placed in the transport van. Whether he was seat-belted in, I don’t believe he was. Our position is: Something happened in that van; we just don’t know what.

REPORTER: Do you think any of the six officers committed a crime that day?


REPORTER: Unequivocally. And what makes you say that?

MICHAEL DAVEY: Based on the information that I know, no.

AMY GOODMAN: He said, the police union attorney, that to run in a high-crime area is probable cause for arrest.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I don’t know that that’s true. I don’t know that legally you can arrest somebody for running away. I don’t think that that’s actually the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, clearly, the state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, said it’s not, because the first thing she got them on was illegal arrest.


AMY GOODMAN: At least indicted. They haven’t been convicted.

MATT TAIBBI: And this is what’s unique about the Mosby prosecution, is that not only did they charge the manslaughter or murder charges, but they also slapped on false imprisonment, which essentially said that the whole basis for the arrest was fraudulent. But, you know, dating back to a 1968 Supreme Court case, Ohio v. Terry, police are allowed to stop and question somebody based on what they call the articulable suspicion that the person is committing a crime. Now, what’s happened over the years is that standard of articulable suspicion has been broadened to include just about anything. In Chicago, we have—the ACLU has unearthed instances where cops stopped people just because they’ve arrested the person before, which is, of course, not a reason to actually stop and question and search somebody. It may be a furtive movement—that’s a very overused phrase. They stop people for all kinds of reasons. Studies have shown that up to half of these stops are actually baseless. And out of that results an enormous amount of frustration in the population, because they feel that they’re being stopped and very often brought to jail and made to stay overnight for no reason at all, and charged with things like loitering, that eventually get dropped. And it’s just an endless campaign of harassment. It’s the day-to-day stuff. It’s the day-to-day process of being stopped, dragged to jail, forced to go through the process, forced to sit in a cell with 16 other men, and that’s what really grinds people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you talk in your piece about a number of the people who have been subjected to these policies. Could you say what happened, in particular, the story that you conclude with, Makia Smith?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: The mother, and how she was—what happened to her?

MATT TAIBBI: So, Makia is—she was driving back from a Wendy’s. She had her two-year-old in the back of her car. And she saw police arresting somebody, and among other things, she saw them putting their knees on the person’s head, a young African-American man. She got out of her car and started to film the incident, and because of her getting out of the car and filming, the police got upset. They focused their attention on her. They dragged her out of her car by her hair. They eventually arrested her. They took her away to jail. And they left her baby in the back of the car. She ended up having to get a stranger at the side of the road to take the baby. And she was, you know, calling out her mother’s cellphone number, so that the stranger and the mother could connect.

A jury found the police, in the civil case, not negligent in that instance. But it’s the kind of thing—I mean, you know, when I talked to her, she said her whole conception of the police, the government, everything changed after that incident. I mean, it’s going to be changed forever now. She says she will never call the police, you know, for any reason. And I think that’s what goes on a lot in these neighborhoods, is that people have a bad experience, it colors their perception of law enforcement and the government forever, and then when something like Freddie Gray happens, it gets people worked up into a frenzy, that is totally understandable.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us. We are going to link to your pieces, Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist, now with Rolling Stone magazine. His recent book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is now out in paperback. And we’re going to do a post-show with you, post it online, about another of your pieces, "Forget What We Know Now: We Knew Then the Iraq War Was a Joke," as you go after not just the politicians who are running for president, but the media, as well.

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Who Goes to Jail? Matt Taibbi on American Injustice Gap from Wall Street to Main Street

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