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‘I Got a Monster’ as a Cautionary Tale of Cop Counterinsurgency

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For decades, Black Baltimoreans have been telling the tales of police terror in their neighborhoods, from blatant brutality captured on camera to concealed forms of organized crime through methods of coercion, raids, street robberies, and the planting of drugs. It wasn’t until March 2017, when a scandal of immense police corruption shook the country: Plainclothes cops from the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force had been federally charged with crimes that the community had been talking about for years. In the new book, I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad, authors Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg expose and critically examine the tales of terror and havoc wrought by the BPD in a previously unseen way. 

After the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, “Baltimore almost had a revolution,” Woods and Soderberg write in the opening of their book, released July 21 on St. Martin’s Press. It’s a brief yet heavy sentiment that calls for readers to reflect on how this city has sat in the crux of transformational and radical hope only to have it dissipate with the return of organized chaos and turmoil at the hands of law enforcement. As I Got a Monster explains, Baltimoreans faced a surge in violent crime rates that were unexplainable on the national front, while behind the scenes the police were in many ways responsible for crimes that they were tasked to apprehend. Six of eight GTTF members—Wayne Jenkins, Thomas Allers, Momudo Gondo, Maurice Ward, Jemell Rayam, and Evodio Hendrix—pleaded guilty to racketeering and robbery charges, while the other two—Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor—were found guilty of these crimes at trial.

Once again, we as a city and a larger global community are arising to a familiar feeling of hope in our demands for change. Let the lessons explored in I Got a Monster, a book that investigates the cost of police corruption, be a cautionary tale on the forms of counterinsurgency that we may face as we reimagine a world with abolition at the center. 

I spoke with Woods and Soderberg about the communities most vilified becoming the victim, the police becoming the criminal, and how we might avoid another quelled revolution in the rise of a new global awakening.

(Full disclosure: I know Soderberg through Writers in Baltimore Schools, where he is a board member and I am a creative writing instructor and former participant in the program.)

 

Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg (photo by J.M. Giordano)
When you live in the city and you write about the city, you have this responsibility that you feel—it’s visceral.
Baynard Woods

Jamesha Caldwell: Who or what guides your pen when you are writing? 

Baynard Woods: I think that it depends on what you are writing. In this context [of writing a book], writing together is much different than writing alone. We had to answer to each other. We were guided by each other as well as all of the people that we were writing about. You never want people to read the book and feel like “you didn’t capture me in this scene,” or when you actually live around them, they could kick your ass. It’s not like you are writing about people around the world like you’re some kind of pundit. When you live in the city and you write about the city, you have this responsibility that you feel—it’s visceral. 

Brandon Soderberg: Baynard said “responsibility” and I like that as something that guides the writing as well. You become aware of something or you think about something that upsets you and you feel some serious obligation to explore it, a responsibility to show something. And sometimes the “something” can be good—it doesn’t have to be something bad has happened in the city and I feel obligated to show it because I feel like I understand how to frame it for other people. But sometimes it is also just a story here, or interesting characters in the city, or people who are organizers. I feel like I have a responsibility to highlight these people. And then the book is just that, times a million! I have a responsibility to not only Baynard as an editor, or Baynard as an editor to me, but we have a responsibility to the words, the facts, the tones, and everything is sort of a conglomeration of the both of us. We were trying to make sure that we were doing the best that we can which makes us have a responsibility to each other, the work, and all of the people included in the work. 

Are there any unique writing rituals or spaces that you’ve found yourself crafting during your experience with writing I Got a Monster?

BS: A lot of speed. It’s not really a ritual but there’s that. I think that for me maybe the ritual occurred with how we first broke [down] the story. With the book, it’s long and complicated with a lot going on, but with the ritual it was us meeting together or talking on the phone as often as possible, breaking the story down and giving each other pieces. It might have just been divided-up labor but that did become a really good ritual in terms of approaching and writing new sections. Baynard would take parts and I would take parts and we would switch it back and forth, that was really important. 

BW: There were also certain sections where we would struggle to find the right mood or the right tone, so Brandon made Spotify playlists. The songs would take you directly into that world and sometimes it would set the tone or provide a mood-board vibe for it. And when I was writing, I would play songs on repeat. 

The way that we would work would be something like laying down the rhythm on a track. And then the other person would put in melody and other types of details. We had both been reporting this stuff, so we would have different details that we remembered that would help color and build it into a 3D section or a dynamic, musical, moving thing. 

What are some universal truths that you found out about Baltimore when writing your book?

BW: Things become so much like literature when you dive deep into the particulars, so much so that they become universal. I was constantly seeing these things from literature replay in this crazy story. These guys in some levels looked to me like the Greeks in the Iliad attacking the Trojans who were in palaces that had more money than they had, and then there were these little pirate bands making raids on them. That’s what we saw when we stripped off the institutional details; you see the same things being played out. It helps you look at the human condition. One of the things that we see in things like The Lord of the Rings is that if you give someone a ring of invisibility, they are going to do terrible things. There is something very solid in the quote “the absolute power of the corrupt corrupts absolutely” because that’s what we do to police officers. Wayne Jenkins was someone who got the ring of invisibility because of things like the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and all of the secrecy surrounding the lack of transparency about what they do. 

BS: For me, the universal truth was the struggle in the sense that we have all of these people in the book, and by delving into their lives—especially victims of the task force—we hope that you understand those people more, that they were scrapping or struggling even if they were breaking the law, or even if you perceive that people shouldn’t be dealing drugs or whatever. There’s a central struggle that everyone is trying to figure out and make it in some way. 

You see that with the police too. And although there is certainly knowledge about power balances—the police are often creating an imbalance—the struggle is for people that are at the bottom. You understand that when you are looking into these lives—why someone deals drugs or why someone was caught up in a situation where they got caught or weren’t believed, and that’s tragic. But that seems pretty universal, that the powerful tend to enhance the struggle of the powerless. 

There’s a problem with policing, but then there is this other kind policing, these plainclothes guys in unmarked cars running around that are really like a shadow police force, like an army that we often don’t see.
Brandon Soderberg

That was actually my next question! The book in many ways humanizes and gives voice to society’s most vilified and preyed-upon actors, those who have had an immense history in the carceral system. What are some thoughts that you’ve previously held and abandoned or learned about deviance, crime, and criminality?

BS: The one thing that I learned was that by understanding how police officers operate, especially the plainclothes police units, I have a much more profound sense of how terrible and intensely bad they are. There’s a problem with policing, but then there is this other kind policing, these plainclothes guys in unmarked cars running around that are really like a shadow police force, like an army that we often don’t see. I embarrassingly hadn’t thought about how intense and bad that is, and that’s something that you really saw [in the book], that these kind of drug cops and gun cops are really the bad guys that have a lot of freedom that gives them time to rob but that their central job is to create chaos and inconvenience, and terrorize people. Even from seeing a million cop shows and shows that are not as flattering, you still saw these guys running out of cars and jumping on people, and you know that that’s bad, but you really don’t understand fully how nefarious and how the simple existence of policing simply damages communities. 

BW: I agree with all of that. I think that part of that is taking the metaphors and what people say about what police are doing seriously. When they are calling it a “drug war,” they are saying “we are going to wage war on our citizens,” and we become comfortable with these words. A lot of liberals who are supportive of gun control don’t realize that what they are talking about in a city like Baltimore when they talk about gun control is the Gun Trace Task Force. And it changed fairly dramatically my position on gun control because I recognize what the enforcement of gun control looks like here. It gives police a free license, the same way as the controlling of drugs did before, to stop anyone in high-crime areas for any reason and make up the pretext. And we as a society will look the other way, especially when they are telling us what they are doing. They are waging a war on the citizens. 

After the public release of I Got a Monster, I want to assume that there is room for reconciliation between the ostracized and the community. What are some ways that we can mend the harm that has occurred from both the community and the criminalized?

BS: Here’s an anecdote from the book that explains this: There’s a Safe Streets worker who gets arrested by the Task Force and says that a gun was planted on them. We are moving into a moment right now where we really understand that organizations like Safe Streets—an alternative method of policing—are really important. But we also have this example here where this person in 2016 was arrested and targeted because he was trying to stop the violence but he wasn’t a police officer. That’s the tension there: “You are trying to do our job but you aren’t a police officer. We don’t like how you do it.” 

Now, I think that that’s important because no one—even once the stories came out after this guy, Albert Brown, was let out of jail—no one really reconciled this. No one sat there and said, “What does it mean for them to have arrested violence interrupters?” And it seems to me that there’s an acknowledgment that the Task Force was bad, that it created a lot of problems for the city, and that it also ruined a lot of lives. But when it comes to how to fix that, people don’t really want to think about it and they just want to move forward. A really easy thing would have been for some organization in the city or the police department to acknowledge something as egregious as arresting violence interrupters.

I could be naive here but I think that if there was something that resembled accountability from the top, then it would make even people that benefit from policing realize what they are benefiting from. Roland Park is Roland Park because Sandtown is policed the way that it is. There is a direct connection. For every person that is overpoliced, there are people that are under-policed. And that doesn’t mean that the answer is to balance out policing, but to acknowledge that there is a game being played where lives are being traded for other people’s lives. And I think that residents could also acknowledge it! It would be really good to have reconciliation through conversations, meetings, policy, and things like reparations. 

Interviewing people in the book, you can see how people’s lives were really destroyed. And you realize that you can hear their stories, but the people that have been in these situations need serious help, something like police reparations. The inability to acknowledge this stuff is why it’s not getting any better and there isn’t any political motivation by the people in charge to say “we are wrong and this is wrong.” 

BW: I think that lawsuits are the immediate way that people who have been affected are seeking something like reparations. That’s the legal method that we have in place right now for that to happen. But as Franz Kafka said, “a false alarm on the night bell once answered, it cannot be made good, not ever.” We have to acknowledge that for the individuals whose lives are destroyed, there’s a way in which it is irreparable. 

In some ways we didn’t deal with solutions in the book, but Lawrence Brown’s book, The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race & Space in America, will soon be released and will address a lot of what systemic solutions will be. There are a lot of larger solutions that have to go beyond the police department—like the legal mechanism that we have right now with the lawsuits, there’s the larger political way that we might be able to correct this. And then within the police department itself, we might be able to, at the very least, get rid of plainclothes units entirely, saying “we aren’t going to have units whose job is to wage war on you.” And back to what Brandon said, until you acknowledge that all you are doing is waging war then you can’t really end the war. 

Baltimore has transformed into the beacon of caution. The Ferguson Effect was brilliantly captured in the book, and depending upon your position as either a citizen or a member of the police, the perception of policing leniency after the death of Freddie Gray was varied. How challenging was it to navigate the varying viewpoints of the characters in the book during your research? 

BS: The first way that we navigated that was by choosing the tone and approach of the book which was kind of novelistic and narrative. We tried to find the balance between capturing through a narrator that wasn’t exactly on the side of characters but rather was trying to understand them. That padded us from that concern of if the book was too on the side of the police somehow, especially in this kind of story, you have this funny thing where you hear “we need to hear the police side”—well, this book is really from the police’s perspective in that you really get to see it. We found that by actually engaging with what the police were saying, and what they were saying—often when they didn’t realize that they were being recorded through wiretaps—was the police’s point of view because they said it. 

Regarding the Ferguson Effect, we were deeply suspicious of that idea, and as reporters, deeply suspicious of those ideas of the police versions of events or police theories of events. That’s also why the story focuses on the victims and the lawyers. You get enough people to challenge the police’s versions of events through the narrative which allows the police to be properly challenged and dismantled by other people, the people that they are arresting and the people that are trying to help those people that the police are arresting, like the lawyers. 

BW: The Ferguson Effect is just one tip to explain why there was an increase in homicides and gun violence. This book and its narrative completely demolish that. But then we were left with the bigger questions of how much did their actions impact homicides? So there’s the case of Davon Robinson that we write about, where the police steal $10,000 from him and it leaves him in a really bad bind. He doesn’t have $10,000 and someone follows him home from that court date, so they know where he’s been hiding, and then they know where he’s going to be because he has to go to court. So they follow him home and they kill him over a different debt but still he didn’t have that $10,000 to pay. So you then think about how thin the margins are for drug dealers, just like for restaurant owners, and what it means when you lose $10,000, $20,000, or even $100,000 and you can’t get any paperwork back on it. You lose kilos of drugs, that costs lives, and trying to figure out and calculate the impact of that was a real challenge. And we couldn’t come up with some hard numbers but it is one of the things that continues to haunt me. 

One thing that I immediately picked up on when reading your book is the accessibility of language. For writers who want to write about highly politicized cities and/or true crime, what are some tips that you can give to writers to help omit confusing and elitist legal jargon? 

BW: Writing through a narrative rather than an explanatory kind of approach really helped us. Having a close third-person position only made jargon useful when it was useful among the people. So it then becomes a part of building the character rather than alienating the readers. We wanted the book to be read by people everywhere. 

BS: We wanted to stay close to the style of fiction while remaining factually true so it didn’t give us much room for the “smarty pants” type of thinking. Also because the stories of the Task Force are such extreme examples, it didn’t need to be theorized too much. You get a sense of what is at stake without us telling you. 

In the book you start to see a much better sense of how police interact and influence each other, and how brutality and a lack of accountability are contagious among police. 
Brandon Soderberg

I don’t think you imagined your book release occurring during the middle of both a global call to action for police accountability and a pandemic but here we are. How has the current political gaze shaped the urgency of the release of your book? 

BW: Tremendously. The book is able to capture what happens after an uprising and the way that police are counterinsurgency. It also captures the way an entire system full of judges and politicians help to enable that. And I think that that is something that people need to see right now because there is a moment of hope that we are going to change things. The book is in part about what you will come up against after that, a countering revolutionary force, which makes the book especially urgent at the moment. It’s showing the problems that a lot of cities will be facing. 

BS: We are in a moment of racial reckoning and acknowledgment that simple reform isn’t capable of getting police accountability. The idea of “bad apples”—the original phrase is “one bad apple spoils the barrel”—I find that that kind of argument is becoming less common and that helps us, because a concern that we had is that it’s bigger than the Gun Trace Task Force. It’s bigger than the seven officers and our book uses the force as the frame. One could certainly still come up with the “bad apples” argument, but I think that the language and understanding of policing help people to understand that the bad apple argument just doesn’t work, and in the book you start to see a much better sense of how police interact and influence each other, and how brutality and a lack of accountability are contagious among police. 

BW: One more lesson that’s in the book (and people are now grappling with) is the argument that “if you want to fix the police force, join it.” After the death of Freddie Gray, we found that 80 percent of police officers live outside of the city. So the other argument of “we need cops in the city who are living here,” the book completely demolishes those narratives. Because in the context of the story, these cops [from Baltimore] also knew how to manipulate the city better. The book complicates all of the narratives that we use when we bring up reform. Examples are with body cameras, in the case of Wayne Jenkins where he falsifies body camera evidence. What does that say about the hope that body cameras were supposed to give? The book shows how police get around the 2015 Obama-era reform and why we need something more radical. 

The book is dedicated to the attorneys upholding the Fourth Amendment. How do we stop the cycle of violence and corruption within our law enforcement? Is abolition an option? Or do we critically redevelop and alter our Constitutional system? 

BS: Abolition should definitely be put on the table. Abolition is an option that we should consider because, in terms of the police department, we see how reform is limited. The idea that abolition is outrageous and impossible but offering police, year after year, a half-billion dollars with no tangible and perceivable idea on how or why crime is happening in the city is so much more absurd than not considering abolition.

So do we redevelop and alter our Constitutional system? 

BW: I think that we could use some changes to the Constitutional system but I think that first, we need to uphold it. One of the insane things with the amendments is that all of these goddamn so-called strict Constitutionalists who have been Republican appointees to the Supreme Court for the last generation and cry about the First and Second Amendment have ignored the Fourth. Louisville banning the no-knock raids, after the death of Breonna Taylor, is something that should have been enforced by the Supreme Court a long time ago. The very fundamental principle that the Constitution was based on, old English laws and the castle doctrine where it said that people can’t come into your fucking house. So we have all these people who say that they are defending the Constitution but they are increasingly giving police more power against the rights of citizens. The very first thing we can do is say we are going to strictly enforce the Constitution, and that would force us to acknowledge how we are waging war on our own citizens. 

Alongside reading I Got a Monster, what are some calls to action that you would recommend?

BW: While we do hope that people read the book, I’m leery in some ways to tell people what to do. I do think that there are a lot of things that need to be done. But very simply, right now, things like bail support are very concrete ways that you are initially contributing to the freedom of people. Also, listen to people in your community to give reference to the types of actions that should be done. 

BS: Echoing Baynard, as a reporter who has covered activism for a long time from a non-mainstream-press perspective, I don’t tell people how to protest and/or organize. So for me as a reporter, if you want to play an acoustic guitar at a protest or commit property damage, I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t. It’s not my job because of its diversity of tactics. For us, and hopefully for readers, the book really informs our understanding of how policing works, especially as more people are interested in understanding how police work after the death of George Floyd. The book shows you how police work and what happens when they are being watched and not being watched. So for those organizing and looking to understand the internal elements (budgets, overtime, patrolling, etc.), knowing how it works gives a better idea on how to oppose and challenge it.

 

***

The launch for I Got a Monster is July 21 at 7 p.m., hosted by Red Emma’s. For more info and to RSVP, click here.

The book is available at numerous local, independent bookstores including Charm City Books, The Ivy Bookshop, Atomic Books, Red Emma’s, Normal’s Books and Records, and Greedy Reads.

The Ivy Bookshop is hosting a reading and discussion with Woods and Soderberg about the book, moderated by Shea Serrano, on July 30. For more info and to RSVP, click here.

Author photo by J.M. Giordano

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