As part of its community focus, Hip Hop Forum Digital Magazine reached out to Mr Changa Onyango, Executive Director at Community Mediation to hear how people in West Baltimore felt about the Officer Nero decision on May 23rd where he was acquitted of all charges over his involvement in the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. At the same time, we took the opportunity to speak to him about the importance of giving the local community a voice via mediation and his work with two local non-profits, OBI and Group Harvest.
Interviewed and written by Madeleine Byrne
‘Apathy is the word I’d use,’ Mr Changa Onyango replied via email when asked how people in West Baltimore responded to the decision that saw Officer Edward Nero cleared of all charges. ‘The people don’t hold out hope for justice in any tangible ways any more. Mainly they were happy to see that the world give them a nod for 15 seconds.’
Twenty-five year old West Baltimore native Freddie Gray died on April 19th after suffering a ‘high-energy injury’ an autopsy report said came from the sudden deceleration of the police van in which he was travelling, shackled and handcuffed, but not restrained by a seatbelt. As a result of his injuries – a severed spine and crushed voice box – Mr Gray fell into a coma and died a week after his arrest.
Baltimore’s former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the officers stopped three times: first, to put Mr Gray in leg-irons, second to ‘deal with Mr Gray’ and then to put another prisoner in the van. He also acknowledged that: ‘We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.’ After a medical examiner’s report ruled Mr Gray’s death a ‘homicide’ six police officers were indicted on charges ranging from reckless endangerment, manslaughter to 2nd degree depraved-heart murder.
Last December a jury failed to reach a verdict regarding one police officer. During the most recent May hearing, Officer Nero was cleared of all charges (two counts of second degree assault; misconduct in office and false imprisonment). Legal commentators claim that the reasons for the acquittal provided by Judge Barry Williams might indicate a higher chance of a conviction in the remaining cases, especially in that he argued Officer Nero’s role was ‘secondary’ so he was not responsible for the fact that Mr Gray was not restrained properly.
The case of the officer driving the van, Caesar Goodson, begins next. He faces 30 years in jail if convicted of a murder charge. Considering the evidence that show Mr Gray’s injuries were caused by the van’s sudden stop and a proven history of ‘rough rides’ in police vans in Baltimore, many believe that the case against Goodson is strong.
And yet, as Mr Onyango explained this raises difficult issues for the local community. ‘A lot of people see it as a color issue or race issue and one of the key defendants is black. People don’t want to see at the end that their protesting etc ends up sending a black person to jail – cop or not.’ Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van, is African-American.
During the first Freddie Gray trial, Mr Onyango organised a series of open mics across the city so people could speak and be heard. ‘A big part of the violence (following Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 27th) happened because people had no place to fellowship. Churches weren’t open,’ he said. ‘There was nowhere you could take refuge from all the negativity. Having places open their doors and posting a sign up that says…”no judgement zone…speak your piece” was a way for us to be cultural relevant in our response.’
With more than 20 years experience working in West Baltimore, Changa Onyango is the Executive Director of Community Mediation and also helped set up two other non-profits in the city: OBI and Group Harvest. He explained the importance of his work this way:
As a mediator I facilitate tough conversations when people have a hard time getting themselves heard. The main thing we do is modelling the active listening skill in the context of conversation. We know through research that the best chance for peace is when both sides feel heard and understood. We train volunteers to do the mediations and we use local spots like conference rooms or churches to have the mediations in the community. Our mediators are trained not to input information or restate people’s position.. we only reflect, listen… listen, reflect. It’s the key to people feeling like they own the solution.
OBI is a non-profit that provides training to local boys and was founded after Mr Onyango travelled ‘around the country doing the training for other groups on contract through the United Way and Youthbuild USA’. While Group Harvest ‘came as a collaboration between myself and Rodney Powell who is now an administrator in Connecticut public schools.’
As he explained: ‘We decided to create a company that would go around and teach teachers through professional development workshops and also engaged directly with students to help build climate that over time could change the culture of student teacher relationships.’
In a series of YouTube videos, Mr Onyango has offered up some interesting perspectives on the best way to motivate young people via a concept of ‘leverage’ without returning to harsh discipline, or physical punishment that can entrench a sense of disengagement. He describes how he tries to motivate his own children to strive for better, while reinforcing a spirit of collaboration, rather than a winner take all mentality.
I asked him to speak about this more:
‘My theory is there are three main ways to motivate people; the first being to influence their preference the second being to introduce a logical idea and the third being violence. If children are people then we have to use one of these three to get them to make decisions that are in line with what we think they should do. If children are not people and they are instead property, then we can just pick them up and manoeuvre them however we wish.’
He continued: ‘I don’t wish to treat my children as property so I have had to retrain myself to treat them as humans regardless of their size I’ve had to retrain myself to respect their logical processes and to introduce to them the reasons behind my decisions and actions as well as the reasons behind what I wish for them to do. I’ve also have to convince myself to be okay with the fact that this will not always work. In our society external influence is pervasive. In poor families it’s even more so.’
The neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived in West Baltimore faces a series of issues, Mr Onyango explained. One of the most important being the lack of good quality housing. This problem is not new. Indeed, Freddie Gray’s mother won a court settlement after laboratory tests in the 1990s found Gray and his two sisters had double the level the State of Maryland defines as the minimum of lead poisoning. The lead came from squalid walls of the home where they lived. While a 2014 Maryland Department of Environment report found that more than 2,600 children in Baltimore had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.
‘West Baltimore is a very complicated set of circumstances. There’s a lot of history that still effects and informs policy at high levels as well as individual decision-making at the lowest levels. There is still plenty of bigotry and hatred between disparate groups,’ Mr Onyango said. ‘The roots if you follow them deeply enough usually go back to resources and territory or property. Everyone wants to build a legacy and in America there’s really only a few ways to do it.’ And yet, ‘the problem with trying to build a legacy (…) is that you must own the means of production. In this case that means of production is usually space.’
‘Baltimore is one of the highest concentration of dissing franchise black folk in terms of real estate meaning that the ratio of people who own is extremely low,’ he explained. ‘The fact is that this was intentional and very evident, yet no effort has been made to reverse the very real and lasting effects so this is the biggest reason that the hate endures.’
In conclusion, Mr Onyango said: ‘Poor education, Black Afluenza, discriminatory hiring practices, and media stigma are all also real contributors to the current climate,’ but in the end, the ‘housing/space ownership dilemma is the biggest piece of the puzzle for Baltimore.’
To find out more about Community Mediation Baltimore, go to http://communitymediation.org/
Thank you Omi Muhammad for organizing this interview.