Rep. Elijah Cummings reflects on an empty stadium and a turbulent week in Baltimore

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U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., urges protesters to comply with the 10 p.m. curfew imposed in Baltimore after rioting over the death of Freddie Gray. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

In a nearly empty, lavishly ornate Speaker’s Lobby adjacent to the House floor on Thursday evening, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was locked in a long embrace with state colleague Rep. Chris Van Hollen, trading words of encouragement and back-pats.

It had been a long, emotionally draining week — and the two Maryland lawmakers had a brief moment alone together between House votes to express support for one another.

The moment was a short break from the chaos that has engulfed the city that Cummings represents, Baltimore, where the 64-year-old representative spent much of this week, on the streets, meeting with young people, urging peace among the protests. The demonstrations there in response to the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray have lasted for more than a week.

Quiet moments have been few in Baltimore this week, except where you’d least expect them: in the Camden Yards ballpark, where the Orioles played the White Sox on Wednesday with no fans in the seats, a first in Major League history. In a strange way, the empty stadium was a symbol of the inequality that fueled the protests.

The lasting legacy of the riots won’t be the film of a burned-out drugstore in West Baltimore that played endlessly on cable news but a heightened awareness of issues that have preoccupied Cummings during his 20 years in Congress.

As Cummings pointed out, the fans who ordinarily would have filled those seats at picturesque Camden Yards wouldn’t have come from the neighborhoods just two or three miles away that are the epicenter of the protests. That’s because the average cost of a game for a family of four is $173.39. Cummings himself, growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, saw exactly one Orioles game from the age of 5 until he was 18.

Being at the empty park Wednesday, as Yahoo News was, was a surreal experience. You could hear every pop of a bat, every crack of a ball hitting a glove, every footstep in the press box, every word a player said calling out to a teammate. A reporter almost felt guilty, knowing she was taking refuge from the chaos outside, as even players struggled to justify playing a game at a time when their city was burning.

But it was only a fleeting consideration, a fluke day, in what will be a long process of healing for a city divided, by class and geography, into those who can afford luxuries like a ballgame and those who can’t. Yahoo News caught up with Cummings to discuss some of the bigger issues facing the city — and that bizarre baseball game. The Q&A below has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Wednesday’s game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards in Baltimore was closed to fans — a first in MLB history — due to civil unrest in the city. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Yahoo News: One of the things that were so striking was how empty the Inner Harbor felt, how disconnected it was from where people were demonstrating. … There’s so much inequality there, and is that disconnect troubling to you? Was having a game with no fans appropriate?

Elijah Cummings: You know what they could have done — and I was so upset with myself that I did not call Peter Angelos (he’s a good friend) — if I were Peter Angelos, the owner of the Orioles, I would have invited every kid in Baltimore, schoolkids, and said, “Come on in.” And I would have bought them a hot dog and a soda. And what that would have done for those kids: First of all, it would have made Baltimore look great. His team would have been playing in front of an audience that understands baseball. And so they would have had that opportunity. There would have been a lot of goodwill. And it would have given those kids an experience that would last them until they die. Between the ages and 5 and 18, I went to one baseball game. Most of those kids in Baltimore have never been in that park. You know why? They can’t afford it. That would have been a much better idea.

I asked [Orioles manager] Buck Showalter and [outfielder] Adam Jones if the employees at Camden Yards who weren’t there and not working, through no fault of their own, should get compensated for the days that they missed.

That’s a good question.

And there’s no clear answer.

They won’t.

[Editor’s note: Team COO John Angelos told MSNBC, “We need to do something that will make people whole. … You don’t want individuals to pay the price.” No official announcement has been made yet. Neither the Orioles nor the stadium’s food-service contractor responded to a request about how many employees are missing work because of the games postponed or moved elsewhere.]

A lot of focus has been on criminal justice reform, but there are serious, systemic economic inequality issues that simmered for years before these protests erupted. You are actively involved in constituent work in the area and have been its representative for nearly 20 years. What do you see as some of the bigger-picture issues here?

We’re trying to make sure that we maintain a level of peace because, you know, survival is No. 1 right now. And when I say “survival,” I mean making sure that people don’t get harmed and that we maintain a sense of security.

We have got to make sure that we begin to deal with — and make permanent policy — the things that are really affecting people on a day-to-day basis. One of the things is education. I’ve been really talking to kids and getting a feel for what is fueling anger. And one of the things is education. A lot of them feel like they’re not getting what they need, and they feel that they get to the ninth grade reading at a third- or fourth-grade level.

A young lady was at a forum the other night, and she cried like a baby. She said, “I’m reading from a book, ladies and gentlemen, a textbook that was written in 1973.” You know, in 2015. So we’ve got to look at our education system. A lot of people, they don’t want to touch it because it’s so big. They say, “I’m fine in my little county over here. We got everything.” But they don’t understand that we’re all together. We better look out for each other because we’re going to need workers, we’re going to need doctors, we’re going to need lawyers, and people need to be educated.

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Activists marched from Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood to City Hall to demand better police accountability and racial equality following the death of Freddie Gray. Gray died from spinal injuries suffered while in police custody. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty)

We’ve got to concentrate on training. A lot of people have lost their jobs, and they need to be retrained. We can’t just keep giving tax breaks to super-rich corporations and tax breaks to the rich. We’ve got to figure out how we share so that all of us are lifted up. You know, some people jump up and say — what do they call it when you talk about shared prosperity? — “class warfare.” It’s not about class warfare. It’s about making sure that people pay into a system that they’re benefitting from and that they pay in a way that makes sense.

So education is a top priority?

We’ve got to look at education. We’ve got to look at job training. We’ve got to look at our prison system. Right now, we’re sending kids to jail — and I hear this all the time in my district — they tell me, “Mr. Cummings, I’ve got a son who’s serving time in jail for marijuana sales, and then I turn on my television and they’ve got people buying marijuana in Colorado right over the counter with cash, in plain view, and nobody’s doing anything about it because it’s lawful.” And you know, people, they’re tired of it. And they feel, you know, one boy said to me, “Mr. Cummings, I feel like I’m in a casket, clawing, trying to get out.”

And then we’ve got to figure out, how do we rebuild America and do it so that people can have jobs?

What kind of job training should be a focus, given how the city is evolving?

In Baltimore, a few years ago, the No. 1 employer was Bethlehem Steel; today, the No. 1 employer is Johns Hopkins University hospital — big difference. Bethlehem Steel, you only needed to have a third-grade education. You get what I’m trying to say? Not at Johns Hopkins. So we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s going to take foundations. It’s going to take the state and federal government. It’s going to take corporations. As a matter of fact, I’ll be meeting with a major foundation head [Friday] and the president of Johns Hopkins University to try to look at some things that we can do together to try to help. So that’s where we are.

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Rep. Elijah Cummings addresses mourners at the funeral for Freddie Gray at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)

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