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VOA Q&A: Ben Carson Discusses Race Relations in Baltimore

FILE - Ben Carson.

Ben Carson, who reports say has intentions to announce a run for President, is a neurosurgeon and long-time Baltimore resident. He is the former chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital Children’s Center, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an author, a speaker and a columnist. He was interviewed by VOA’s David Byrd.

BYRD: As a long-time resident of Baltimore, when you heard of Freddy Gray’s death, what was your first response? What did you think?

CARSON: “Well I was hoping that there wouldn’t be a lot of violence. Having lived in Baltimore for a long time, and interacting with many citizens there, I recognized that the vast majority of people are reasonable and are peaceful. But I also recognize that there are a number of agitators, who look for these kinds of situations in order to inflame people’s emotions and to create problems, and particularly to stoke up divisions between the police and the community. And so I was very much hoping that that wouldn’t occur.”

BYRD: That takes me to my next question: There were protests last Saturday calling for justice for Freddy Gray and criticizing the police response. They were mostly peaceful. What do you think changed/ Why the outburst after his funeral on Monday?

CARSON: “I think it doesn’t take a lot of effort to stoke up angry reaction in a tinderbox like that. I mean, here is a situation that is highly suspicious where you have a young man, otherwise healthy, who ends up dead after being in police custody with no good explanation. And you know that’s the problem: it does take a while to get to the bottom of these things. It’s not instantaneous, but an agitator can come in and make people think that it should be instantaneous and say ‘they’re withholding information and they’re trying to sweep this under the rug.’ And the next thing you know people begin to act in a very irrational way that is actually counterproductive. And it’s hurting their own livelihood and their neighborhoods.”

BYRD: What about the police and the state’s response to the violence? There are National Guard troops on the streets, the Orioles had to play a baseball game in an empty stadium – what do you think about the city’s response and what can be done to defuse that powder keg you talked about?

CARSON: “Well, you know there are many who say that the city’s response was a little too late – that they should have been prepared for this kind of an outcome. And I can certainly see some validity in those kinds of comments. But you know the real question that should be asked is ‘what can be learned from this situation?’

“When we have a death under suspicious circumstances, in today’s environment – which is a tinderbox – you have to recognize that there’s a high likelihood of violence. And you have to be prepared for it ahead of time. And I hope that other big city mayors understand that. But we also as a society have to begin to engage in other kinds of conversations. Why are people so angry? Is it just because of this young man’s death or is there something deeper here?

“And I personally believe that there’s something deeper. I believe that there’s a tremendous amount of frustration over the extremely poor conditions that exist in the economy right now. You know, I think the last quarter the growth rate is 0.2 percent. This is not going to result in the kinds of jobs that allow people to move up the economic ladder.

“It’s going to take extraordinary people to get through that. And we need to start addressing how do we invest in people? What kind of things can we do to begin to create an environment that gives people hope? And people who have hope tend to react in a much more rational way than people who don’t.”

BYRD: I have heard it said that there are actually two Baltimores: there’s the prosperous one with the waterfront and the banks and the restaurants and then there’s the blighted one where people like Freddy Gray live. You mentioned some of the things you think can be done to correct that problem. But the average income in that neighborhood was $25,000 or less and there’s been shutdowns of recreations centers and afterschool centers. What would you do? How would you counsel the leadership to start to help that situation?

CARSON: “First of all I would try to encourage the private sector – business, industry, Wall Street, academia, churches, community groups – to begin to invest in the individuals in their communities. I spoke at an organization in Tennessee recently where successful businessmen adopted boys from the inner city – not officially but unofficially; took them into their world, showed them how things work, paid for their education in private school – virtually all of those kids graduated from high school and went on to college.

“It changed the trajectory of their lives. And what we’ve been doing for decades is just throwing money at the problem. Trillions of dollars we’ve thrown at the problems of poverty, and crime in the inner cities and what has happened? It’s gotten worse.

“So it’s not just throwing money at it; it’s creating the relationships and showing people mechanisms for actually utilizing the gifts that God has given them to climb out of states of desperation and dependency. But we’re all in the same boat; we have to recognize that if we work together we can get people out of the doldrums.

BYRD: President Barack Obama was on the Steve Harvey show talking about this circumstance but also other circumstances – places like Ferguson or Cleveland – where the violence and police related killings are not isolated problems. What can the president do, what would you advise the president to do, or what would you do if you were president on a national scale to deal with these kinds of problems?

CARSON: “Well I would say – look, for instance in the situation that exists in Baltimore – a good leader would explain to the people what has to be done in order to get to the bottom of this; would encourage all the local officials to release as much information as is possible and then would guarantee the people that if a widely agreed satisfactory agreement is not met, then the Justice Department would get involved.”

BYRD: Is there anything we left out?

CARSON: “I think people should know that after the day of rioting large numbers of Baltimoreans came out and helped clean up, and tried to encourage those people who had lost their businesses. And a group of men stood between the protesters and the police to try to prevent any further violence. It’s that kind of responsible activity that is much more characteristic of the city than what we saw.