As Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke of Freddie Gray’s funeral last week, he told mourners that “Baltimore police became the pallbearers of an alive man and turned the paddy wagon into a tombstone.” But in his remarks he reminded listeners that Gray was a martyr whose death “has taken the scab off the wound of a cancer that raises bigger questions.” On Tuesday, Jackson spoke to The Nation about the structural violence, inequality and poverty in Baltimore and how Gray’s death and the protests that have followed it should be a starting point for redressing these “bigger questions.” This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Nation: Can you tell us what you’ve seen happening in Baltimore over the past month since Freddie Gray was killed?
Jesse Jackson: Now the media tend to interchange quietness and peace. But quietness is just the absence of noise. Peace is the presence of justice. The people in Baltimore are quiet with the military walking every block, but they haven’t sown peace because there’s no basic justice. With the mayors and officers and officials, there’s a tendency to measure them as “riot stoppers” once the fuel was lit by the killing. But invariably in these urban crises, we know a combination of police excessive force, poverty, humiliation always drive this arrangement.
But what are some of underlying issues behind this?
It’s not just about black and white. It’s investment and disinvestment. For example, in downtown Baltimore, on one side of the great divide, you have access to TIF money and bank loans and investment and pensions and government institutions. On the other side, you do not have those resources. And on the side where you have the deficit, the focus is more on police and containment than it is on growth. On one side of town, you have 35-plus unemployment and 20 to 25 percent living in poverty; you have 18,000 vacant homes after the housing crisis. The banks that drove that with subprime lending and predatory lending were fined. But the fines didn’t correspond to the damage done. And when the banks got bailed out, the people got left out. There was no recovery plan for them. And 80 percent of police don’t come from Baltimore, so the police come in as occupiers; they don’t come in as neighbors. They get choice jobs from the city. A honey bee gets nectar from a flower, then sows pollen where it picks up nectar so that the flower can regenerate. But they get their nectar from the city but sow their pollen in the suburbs or other places. It’s not reciprocal, not regenerative. And they come in with a certain psychology. These people are not their neighbors. And the police are almost inherently corrupt. And they may not be on the take, but the police will not police other police. Then the real estate agents compound it by directing people on where to live and where to buy. It’s not that you can’t live certain places by law, but that you’re directed to certain places by culture and by habit.