The Last Word: Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn MosbyFebruary 28, 2018
When Marilyn Mosby was sworn in as the 25th State’s Attorney for Baltimore City in 2015 she was the youngest chief prosecutor in any American city. She again made history by choosing to bring charges against the six Baltimore police officers accused in the murder of Freddie Gray. As a woman of color, she represents just 1% of elected prosecutors in the entire country. She graduated from Boston College Law School in her home state of Massachusetts, where she grew up in a law enforcement family, and participated in the state’s historic METCO Program, the longest running voluntary school desegregation program in the country. Ms. Mosby says that experience, along with the murder of a 14-year-old cousin, set her on the path of fighting for a safe and just society for all people. Ms. Mosby is up for re-election in June and is backed by a large coalition of allies – including 1199SEIU. She’s married to Maryland State Delegate Nick Mosby; they live in West Baltimore with their two daughters.
Q: What was it like being central to the movement for reform sparked by the murder of Freddie Gray?
A: I followed the facts with the law, I did my job and I wouldn’t do anything differently. I didn’t expect to be thrust in the national spotlight, but I wouldn’t do anything different. The backlash was not something I was anticipating. There was this anti-police rhetoric that was coming and was a direct result of what was done.
And this was pre-Trump. The hate mail and the death threats and social media attacks were unprecedented. I had a group called Red Nation Rising that sent all of these hateful racist messages. The one that sticks out in my mind was when we received one at my office describing how my husband would be killed coming outside of my house and no police officers would respond. It was definitely something I had to learn to deal with and how not to internalize. What I realized was that it was not a backlash against me but what I represented.
When you look at prosecutors – the people who decide who is going to be charged and what they will be charged with, what sentencing conditions are going to be – when you look at that you cannot ignore the fact that 95% of the prosecutors in the country are white, 79% are white men. As I woman of color I represent 1% of all elected prosecutors in this country. So a lot of the backlash had to with me doing what I did and challenging the status quo. I look back now and it was extremely difficult. I did get as much support from the community as I got hate mail. People were calling in support of what I had done, but I didn’t do it for accolades or the turmoil that came after. I did it because it was my job and the right thing to do. Looking back, I’m able to understand that accountability and where you apply justice equally regardless of one’s sex, religion, race or occupation, led to exposure.
A week after I charged those officers the Department of Justice came in and exposed the discriminatory policing practices of one of the largest police agencies in the country,this ultimately led to reform. We now have a federally enforceable consent decree. In spite of the federal administration trying to forestall it, it is still on record. That reform required a spotlight on the entrenched corruption of the police department.
Q: Your activism was forged in your youth during your experiences with school desegregation in your home state of Massachusetts. What do you say to today’s young activists?
A: What I can tell you is that having gone through one of the longest standing desegregation programs in the country starting when I was six years old, being the only black child in an entire elementary school, at six years I had to figure out that you can either be offended or you can understand that treatment is not necessarily malicious, but comes from a lack of exposure. I had to realize that very early. Again, I had to learn how not to internalize. I had to learn very early on to learn how to take on the responsibility of being a positive representation for Black people. I was in honors classes, co-editor of the school newspaper. I was the spotlight editor, so every edition had to focus on something pertaining to diversity. I was bringing diversity workshops to school. The one thing I try to emphasize to young people is that you must think long term. Its bigger than you. It’s something I talk about to young people all the time.
Q: Women, and particularly women of color, with any influence are often accused of being ambitious or working for personal gain. How do you answer those charges?
A: We have the Trump Administration that’s touting regression as making America great again on the backs of Black and Brown people, women, and the LGBTQ community.
We have to forge a coalition where we aren’t just marching, but actually strategizing, organizing and implementing. That’s what unions do. That’s what they’re known for. That’s why they were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s scary how much we’ve regressed in a matter of one year. I just spoke at the Baltimore Women’s March. I said we are the backbone of our communities, and it’s time for us to take up the torch and say no. We have to run for office and ensure we’re supporting one another. I get frustrated because it’s about action. Science says women suffer from a confidence gap; we apply for promotions, we run for office when we meet all the requisite criteria, but men do the same when they only meet half. I try to be that example to say yes, we can do this.
Q: How can we encourage a greater involvement in local elections? How do we get more women to run?
A: It’s definitely an issue. The conservative movement has long understood the importance of local elections when it comes to criminal justice reform, bill review, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, etc. We have to understand that even immigration reform is going to come on local level.
Local races have an impact on your daily existence. On the federal level we can see that with taxes and what have you, but your local politicians and your local legislators are the ones who are going to have the most impact on your daily life. We saw that throughout the country when we looked at the division among law enforcement from Ferguson to Baltimore. Prosecutors decide if a person is going to get into the system in the first place.
That is an extremely important role. That awesome amount of discretion not only has an impact on victims and defendants, but it also has collateral consequences in our communities.
Q: Tell us about growing up in a law enforcement family
A: I feel blessed. My grandfather was founding members the first Black police officers’ organization in Massachusetts.
My uncle, mother, grandfather, and great uncles—everybody in my family were police officers, so they referred to our house as the “police house.” We had an indoor pool and a billiards table, so you can guess my house was always occupied. You don’t appreciate it when you’re living in the moment. I met a young man in a coffee shop recently who said to me,
“I want to thank you for Mr. T.” Mr. T. was my grandfather. He said he was one of the kids who always stayed at our house, and my grandfather helped change his life. That he wouldn’t be where he is today without him. My grandfather died a month after I was sworn in, but I didn’t appreciate the paternal sort of figure that he was not only to the family but to the community.
That is something I feel like we lack today. That ideal community police officer. That’s something that was ingrained in me. It helped forge who I am because even in the police house you aren’t shielded. When I was 14, my cousin who grew up with me like a brother was killed right outside of my house. Even in the police house. He was mistaken as a neighborhood drug dealer. He was an honor student in the METCO Program. It was devastating to me. The image is still branded in my mind. If it wasn’t for a neighbor who cooperated with police and testified in court, my family wouldn’t have received any kind of justice. That was my first introduction to the criminal justice system. I’d never gone into a courtroom. At 14 I wanted to understand how we could have gotten to the young man who took my cousin’s life to make change. Overall, I get a lot of support from the police community and minority police community. I think people understand and recognize that I’m not anti-police. How can I be? I’m anti-police brutality. I know what my grandfather meant to our community. I know the sacrifices he made in taking time away from his family and risking his life every day.
What that meant was so much greater than him and that has been instilled in me. We have a small number of officers who have defined the negative perception, but the vast majority are hardworking individuals who protect their communities every day. I come from that and I recognize it.
Q: What’s on the horizon, locally and nationally?
A: I have a lot on my plate. We’ve started a policy and legislative affairs division. Another big thing I’ve been pushing is a serial sexual predator act for the last five years. With the #MeToo movement, it’s extremely relevant. The first time I ran for office there was an 8-time serial rapist breaking into people’s homes. He got off four times in 3 years. The juries were not made aware that he’d been doing this to women the same exact way. I’m pushing to move Maryland standards with federal standards. The truth is that a lot of our successes that have come out of my office have been overshadowed, and all of our success have been overshadowed by negativity. But I’m a fighter and I’m going to keep pushing.