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Wes Moore, others discuss underlying race issues, reforms and societal failures in virtual ‘Five Days’ panel

Several people featured in Wes Moore and Erica L. Green's "Five Days" joined them in a nearly hour-and-a-half-long virtual panel presented by the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Sunday to discuss solutions for the societal failures that have been laid bare after the deaths of George Floyd and countless other Black people killed by police.
Several people featured in Wes Moore and Erica L. Green's "Five Days" joined them in a nearly hour-and-a-half-long virtual panel presented by the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Sunday to discuss solutions for the societal failures that have been laid bare after the deaths of George Floyd and countless other Black people killed by police.

A riot, a pandemic, or any other major crisis reveals the underlying scourge of American society — that the country was built on, and has teetered historically on, a foundation of racism and poverty that many have never fully acknowledged, bestselling author and philanthropist Wes Moore said Sunday.

Five years after the 2015 unrest over the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in Baltimore police custody, and as “Black Lives Matter” chants fill the streets again this year with added urgency, officials in Maryland and across the nation must stop making decisions “about how much other people can suffer, about how much other people can bear, as long as it does not impact us,” Moore said.

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“This city, this state, this country has never been honest about the role that race plays in it,” said Moore, the Baltimore-born CEO of Robin Hood, one of the largest anti-poverty nonprofits in the country.

In his latest book, “Five Days,” co-written with former Baltimore Sun education reporter Erica L. Green, Moore, the bestselling author of “The Other Wes Moore,” tells the story of the 2015 unrest through the perspectives of eight Baltimoreans who experienced it on the front lines.

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They include former Baltimore Police Department Maj. Marc Partee; activist Tawanda Jones, who’s demanded justice for seven years for her brother, Tyrone West, who died in police custody; attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy, Jr., who represented Gray’s family; Greg Butler, a former basketball star turned protester who pleaded guilty to obstructing firefighters during the unrest; state Del. Nick Mosby; Anthony Williams, operator of the Shake & Bake, a popular bowling alley and skating rink; Orioles executive vice president John Angelos; and public defender Jenny Egan.

Most of those featured in the book joined Moore on Sunday in a nearly hour-and-a-half-long virtual panel presented by the Enoch Pratt Free Library to discuss solutions for the societal failures that have been laid bare after the deaths of George Floyd and countless other Black people killed by police.

Moderated by journalist Jeff Johnson, the conversation included calls for more investment in education and other social services; police reform or disinvestment; local control of the Baltimore Police Department; increased oversight and accountability; new political leadership; and a reconsideration of the outsize role police play in society.

Baltimore did not “grab the bull by the horns” after the 2015 unrest, and the trajectory of the poorest neighborhoods on the city’s east and west sides did not improve, said Mosby, the Democratic nominee for City Council president and husband of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to the end of that crisis, things go back to normal, people put their blinders back on,” he said. “If we don’t take bull by horns this time ... then shame on us.”

Murphy, a former Circuit Court judge, said he saw “significant differences” between the 2015 protests and those going on this year — including increased participation by young and white people.

“Young people see, or at least some of them do, that there were failures of follow-through,” Murphy said. “What we’re seeing is a new phenomenon. We’re seeing white folks engage white workplaces, calling out fellow employees, corporate leadership. ... This young generation understands that white folks have a responsibility to end racism.”

Jones, who has participated in “West Wednesdays” protests since her brother’s death in 2013, said she felt like city leadership, in addition to a “corrupt system that’s complicit in all these murders,” has failed her family. Stopping the demonstrations would be as easy as holding corrupt police accountable, she said.

“If you don’t get any kind of accountability, there will always be unrest,” she said. “All you have to do is just hold everybody accountable. That’s it. ... If [city officials] don’t take action in all of this, they all are responsible.”

Partee, a Black former Baltimore police major, who now works as director of public safety at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, said police routinely receive only six months of training for a job that throws them into various mental-health crises and other situations that require years of professional medical or social-work experience.

“Policing needs to be stripped down to the bare minimum of law enforcement and making sure we can enforce what’s going on,” Partee said. “No longer can police be the spear, they need to be the shaft that supports what the community wants to do.”

Officers often find themselves swinging between two mentalities: guardians and warriors, Partee said.

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“It should be a service industry,” he said. “Put the warrior out, and say you are a guardian and a servant. [Protect and serve] becomes a cliche, when in reality it should be serve, first, and then protect.”

City Council President Brandon M. Scott, whose successful campaign for the Democratic nomination for mayor all but assures him the job next year in heavily Democratic Baltimore, will “do something totally different to what we’ve seen in the past,” said Williams, the Shake & Bake owner.

“I’m encouraged by what has taken place now,” he said. “It’s a different energy, a different age group.”

Scott, a native of Northwest Baltimore, will take office during a political moment that calls for “a fearlessness in Black leadership that we’ve never seen before,” Murphy said.

While much of the panel discussion focused on issues on a theoretical level, some of the suggested changes included specific actions, such as reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights and removing Baltimore police officers who have shown patterns of brutality.

Any police reform that leaves untouched the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which provides legal protections for officers in use-of-force investigations, “is not a real reform process,” Moore said.

Egan, the public defender, said the city should take “direct, local action” to hold officers accountable for their misdeeds.

“The officers who have killed and hurt black people in our community can still be held accountable for those crimes,” she said.

Other countries, including Northern Ireland, Chile, Colombia and Canada, have undergone various versions of a national acknowledgment, reconciliation and unity around painful issues, Moore said, “something we haven’t had the courage to do, something that is drastically missing.”

“Part of the challenge of us getting to a collective and a unified set of solutions is that we’re still not working with a unified set of facts,” Moore said. “Now you’re having corporations tripping over themselves to put the words Black Lives Matter into their mission statements.

“But we as a society have to be able to fully and frankly understand: What does that mean and why was that necessary in the first place?”

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