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Panel at Reginald Lewis Museum tackles police-community relations

Tyrone Buie, 17, and Latashia Blizzzard, 17, both of East Baltimore, are members of the ConneXions Repertory Company performing "Zombie," a choreopoem, with Dame Gueye as percussionist.
Tyrone Buie, 17, and Latashia Blizzzard, 17, both of East Baltimore, are members of the ConneXions Repertory Company performing "Zombie," a choreopoem, with Dame Gueye as percussionist.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Gail Allen is 52 years old, college-educated and once worked for the FBI. She's lived in Baltimore all her life, and until the Freddie Gray riots, she had never been afraid of the police.

"Now I am," she said Saturday, from her position in the audience at a panel discussion about rebuilding her hometown.

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"I am afraid. And that's not good. I'm not a bad person. I've never done anything wrong. I don't speed, and I obey the law. But, if I am ever pulled over by the police, I will be afraid."

Allen was one of about 100 people who came to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture to take part in a conversation focusing on the fraught relationship between the Police Department and the community.

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The panel was led by her son, photographer Devin Allen, whose iconic shot of the riots landed on the cover of Time magazine. Additional participants were activist Kwame Rose, former Baltimore police officer Michael Wood and community organizer J.C. Faulk.

The discussion was part of a celebration Saturday at the Lewis Museum in anticipation of Black History Month, which begins Monday.

The slate of events included performances by students from two area high schools as well as a presentation by spoken-word artist Kondwani Fidel. In one poem, "Forever Love," he compared his relationship to Baltimore to that of a man ensnared by an alluring but deadly woman.

"Every time I caught her on the news she had killed somebody," Fidel rapped. "She was a crazy girl, and I kept her right by me. Because I was so attached to her, my grandmom started to deny me. She said, 'Kande, you love this girl more than you love me. More than you love life.'"

H. Lovell Smith, an assistant sociology professor at Loyola University Maryland and the panel's moderator, asked the speakers whether they agree with a proposal by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to give a property tax credit to police officers and firefighters who buy a home in the city.

Devin Allen thinks that tensions might ease if more officers lived near the people they're sworn to protect.

"Police officers need to be one with the community," he said. "They need to be walking that beat. They need to learn to love the community. You can't police something you don't understand."

Rose, in contrast, doesn't think a tax credit would convince the approximately 79 percent of Baltimore police officers who live outside city limits to relocate. As an example, he pointed to Wood, who for 11 years spent three hours a day commuting to and from his job as a sergeant from his home in York, Pa.

"There's a growing divide between the police and the community, and a tax credit isn't going to change that," Rose said. "The system is not broken. It was designed this way, so that certain people could be considered three-fifths of a human being and have less access to life, prosperity and happiness than others."

Instead, Rose thinks, the solution lies in changing the minds of individuals, one person at a time, until the community is strong enough to enforce its demands for change.

Wood believes in changing the system. He advocates legalizing drugs as a way of improving community relations almost overnight.

"Before the war on drugs, the prison population pretty much reflected the demographics of America," he said.

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"Seventy percent of the people in prison were white. Post-drug war, those numbers have been completely reversed. It is the tool that allows the worst inhumanity to be expressed through the Police Department by giving officers the legal right to do whatever they want."

But for Faulk, drugs are just a symptom of the underlying ill, which he sees as embedded racism.

"Arguing about drugs is a smoke screen," he said.

"Whether it's about drugs or something else, we continue to get policies that come after black people in this country and that are designed to keep us subjugated. On one level or another, it's always about white supremacy."

There's a war going on, he said, and what bothers him the most is that not enough people are involved in battling injustice.

"People are dying, and we're acting like it's just another day," Faulk said. "What we need to do now is build and build and build and get more people into the game and off the fence."

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