- D. Watkinsa columnist for Salon. He is a professor at Goucher College in Baltimore and runs a creative writing workshop at The Baltimore Free School. His debut essay collection is The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.
- Les PaynePulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor at Newsday.
Unlike during the first two Republican presidential debates, one of the key issues in the first Democratic debate was racial inequality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Candidate Martin O’Malley came under fire early in the night for his record of ramping up policing in Baltimore while he was mayor. CNN’s Anderson Cooper pressed O’Malley on statistics showing that during at least one year, there were more than 100,000 arrests in a city of 640,000 residents. O’Malley contended that the police crackdown was in order to protect black lives. “Martin O’Malley’s love for African Americans surprised me,” said D. Watkins, who grew up in Baltimore while O’Malley was mayor. “I didn’t feel that.”
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests here in New York are D. Watkins—he teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore. He writes for Salon.com, and he’s the author of a new book called The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America. Jill Stein is also with us. She is the Green Party’s presidential candidate. And Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne, who worked for years at Newsday and is writing a book on Malcolm X, also joins us from the table. And we’ll be joined by another guest in Atlanta. But first, Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, at last night’s presidential debate, Martin O’Malley was also questioned about his record as mayor of Baltimore and the protests that exploded in the city after the police killing of Freddie Gray in April.
ANDERSON COOPER: The current top prosecutor in Baltimore, also a Democrat, blames your zero-tolerance policies for sowing the seeds of unrest. Why should Americans trust you with the country, when they see what’s going on in the city that you ran for more than seven years?
MARTIN O’MALLEY: Yeah, actually, I believe what she said was that there’s a lot of policies that have led to this unrest. But, Anderson, when I ran for mayor of Baltimore in 1999—
ANDERSON COOPER: She actually—just for the record, when she was asked which policies, to name two, she said zero tolerance. “I mean, there’s a number of old policies that we are seeing the result of. That distrust of communities, where communities don’t want to step forward and say who killed a three-year-old, it’s a direct result of these failed policies.”
MARTIN O’MALLEY: Well, let’s talk about this a little bit. One of the things that was not reported during that heartbreaking night of unrest in Baltimore was that arrests had actually fallen to a 38-year low in the year prior to Freddie Gray’s tragic death. Anderson, when I ran for mayor of Baltimore back in 1999, it was not because our city was doing well. It was because we had allowed ourselves to become the most violent, addicted and abandoned city in America. And I ran and promised people that together we could turn that around. And we put our city on a path to reduce violent crime, or Part I crime, by more than any major city in America over the next 10 years.
I did not make our city immune to setbacks. But I attended a lot of funerals, including one for a family of seven who were firebombed in their sleep for picking up the phone in a poor African-American neighborhood and calling the police because of drug dealers on their corner. We’ve saved over a thousand lives in Baltimore in the last 15 years of people working together. And the vast majority of them were young and poor and black. It wasn’t easy on any day. But we saved lives, and we gave our city a better future, improving police and community relations every single day that I was in office.
ANDERSON COOPER: In one year alone, though, 100,000 arrests were made in your city, a city of 640,000 people. The ACLU, the NAACP sued you, sued the city, and the city actually settled, saying a lot of those arrests were without probable cause.
MARTIN O’MALLEY: Well, I think the key word in your follow-up there was the word “settled.” That’s true, that was settled. Arrests peaked in 2003, Anderson, but they declined every year after that as we restored peace in our poorer neighborhoods, so that people could actually walk and not have to worry about their kids or their loved ones being victims of violent crime.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was former Maryland Governor and former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. D. Watkins, his defense of his record, your response?
D. WATKINS: So, a lot of politicians like to throw around numbers. You know, I get it. That’s their game—stats and numbers. But I deal with people. So, that 100,000 arrests that Anderson was talking about, these are people that I know. These are people who can’t get good jobs or who can’t really, really navigate through the system because of that, because of whatever his policy was. It’s easy to say crime is down if you’re just locking people up for nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: One hundred thousand of 600,000, that’s one in six people in prison.
D. WATKINS: It was so easy at that—during that particular time period, as a black person in Baltimore, all you had to do to go to jail was walk down the street. People got locked up for the most ridiculous things—talking back to a police officer. Why can’t you talk back to a cop? They’re people, right? I mean, I know they have a badge and a gun and, like, you know, benefits, but they’re people, right? You know, if they disrespect you and you say something back to them, you could go to jail. And it was that simple. And Martin O’Malley, as a mayor, stood behind that.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet you have them talking, for example, about Black Lives Matter and the movement there. I want to go to the clip that we have of the Democratic presidential debate last night in Las Vegas, the part of the debate about the Black Lives Matter movement.
ANDERSON COOPER: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” Let’s put that question to Senator Sanders.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Black lives matter. And the reason—the reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system, in which we have more people in jail than China. And I intend to tackle that issue, to make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells.
ANDERSON COOPER: Governor O’Malley—Governor O’Malley, the question from Arthur was: “Do black lives matter, do all lives matter?”
MARTIN O’MALLEY: Yeah, and, Anderson, the point that the Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color. When I ran for mayor of Baltimore, and we had—we we burying over 350 young men every single year, mostly young and poor and black. And I said to our Legislature, at the time when I appeared in front of them as a mayor, that if we were burying white, young, poor men in these numbers, we would be marching in the streets, and there would be a different reaction. Black lives matter, and we have a lot of work to do to reform our criminal justice system and to address race relations in our country.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, before him, both talking about Black Lives Matter. Both had their campaign rallies in different places interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists. And ultimately, Martin O’Malley originally said, “All lives matter,” but apologized for that, after he got a bunch of flak. Les Payne, their responses, your thoughts?
LES PAYNE: Well, as politicians do, they’ve learned the correct answer to the test question. That doesn’t mean they’ve changed their behavior; it means that they know the correct answer now. And that’s why polling, in my view—and I was against polling, being infallible, as an editor—is suspect, because people learn the correct answer, and therefore they pass. And so, they pass on that. But his record stands up and indicts him, as the young man pointed out here. And I think that mass incarceration, against Clinton—granted, Mrs. Clinton was not the president, but she has supported when President Clinton signed the Omnibus Crime Bill, 100-to-one crack cocaine to powder cocaine, for instance, which was largely responsible for heavy federal incarceration, which the president, Clinton, has apologized for and said he’s going to try to do something, but he didn’t do anything about it when he was president. So I think that these presidents—presidential candidates, you know, who make these statements, the question is—and Sanders said very strongly that he intends to do something about it. That remains to be seen. I mean, I think that the problem is not simply whether there’s zero tolerance. It is whether—I think one of the key problems is the disparate policing. We have it in New York, we have it in Ferguson, we have it in Baltimore—disparate racial policing.