Details Emerge for Baltimore’s Plan to Privatize Public Housing

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on September 9th, 2015.
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A little over a year ago I reported on the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD)—the federal government’s new plan to preserve public housing by turning units over to the control of private developers. Instead of Congress supporting public housing through direct subsidies to local housing authorities—a responsibility which they’ve persistently shirked for decades—RAD would enable private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. Developers would have to keep rents low, and their contracts would continually renew to prevent companies from turning affordable units into market-rate rentals.

Baltimore residents learned last summer that their city would be converting 40 percent of its public housing stock through RAD, but up until this weekend little was known about how exactly developers would be subsidized. On Saturday, Sun journalist Luke Broadwater shed some light, reporting that the city will issue tax breaks worth millions of dollars, and will sell its public housing complexes “for far less than their state-assessed value.” The nearly $100 million collected from the sales will be invested back into the city’s remaining public housing stock.

Through public record requests, Broadwater found that ten developers will be excused from paying $1.7 million in local taxes per year for at least the next 20 years. In addition to city tax breaks, each developer who buys a public housing complex will also receive millions of dollars from the federal government, through federal tax credits and “developer fees.”

Baltimore is one of the first cities to finalize its deals under RAD, and community members have mixed feelings about how officials pushed forward with the program. Housing advocates, tenants, and union workers have led protests, raising concerns of public housing loss, resident displacement, and middle-class job cuts. In general, the city has not been forthcoming with concrete details to assuage anxieties.

As Broadwater reports, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved the tax breaks—“without details publicly revealed or debated” in April by a 4-1 vote. Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, controls three of the five board seats. The city comptroller and the city council president hold the other two.

The city council president, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, voted against the tax breaks, citing his general opposition to privatizing public housing. He also worried about the possibility of losing hundreds of public sector union jobs through RAD conversions, like maintenance workers and building monitors.

Carl Stokes, a local councilman, said he’s supportive of the deal because at least the incentives will support low-income people living in buildings that desperately need maintenance and repair. Baltimore has a history of awarding tax breaks to build flashy waterfront developments and tourist attractions.

Nationally, HUD Secretary Julian Castro has called RAD “the answer” to housing issues in many struggling communities. While Congress has so far approved just 185,000 public housing units to be transferred to the control of public developers—out of a total of 1.2 million units—public housing authorities, real estate companies, and other stakeholders have been lobbying Congress to lift the program’s cap. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters sent a letter to President Obama in December urging him to directly fund public housing rather than depend on private developers to save the units. “Put simply,” she said, “if the price of accessing private capital is to put public ownership at risk, then that price is too high.”

As Baltimore’s situation suggests, it might be cheaper for Congress to just increase direct funding for public housing, rather than rely on a costly mix of tax breaks, subsidies, and developer fees. Yet such a move is doubtful to happen any time soon. But while RAD appears to be the most likely way officials aim to preserve crumbling units in the near future, even the most optimistic experts cannot guarantee that it will protect the nation’s public housing units over the long-term.

What’s Behind the Recent Plague of Shootings in Baltimore?

Originally published in VICE on May 20th, 2015.
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While the national film crews have packed up and left Baltimore, losing interest in the place now that there are no more burning pharmacies and vandalized cop cars, Charm City residents are left to reckon with one of the most violent months they’ve seen in years. As the Baltimore Sun reports, homicides are up nearly 40 percent compared with this time last year, and nonfatal shootings are up 60 percent. From mid April to mid May, 31 people were killed, the Washington Post reports, with 39 more wounded by gunfire. The Sun adds that, as of late Tuesday, there had been 170 nonfatal shootings so far this year.

To put all this in perspective, the last time Baltimore saw 30 homicides in one month was in June 2007.

The spike in violence has received less attention outside of Baltimore than Freddie Gray’s death, but within the city, leaders, police, and community members are struggling to figure out what exactly is going on.

One theory floating around is that the weeks of unrest after Gray’s demise in police custody have daunted cops, leaving them unable or unwilling to control violent crime. The police union and some legal experts are upset at the criminal charges that the city’s top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, has leveled at six members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD)—among them murder and manslaughter. This, coupled with a formal Justice Department investigation launched in cooperation with local officials to examine police practices, has left the BPD in a state of agitation.

Lieutenant Kenneth Butler, a longtime BPD veteran and president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black officers, told the Washington Post that rank-and-file cops feel alienated, vilified, and afraid to do their job. “In 29 years, I’ve gone through some bad times, but I’ve never seen it this bad,” Butler added in comments to the Baltimore Sun, referring, in part, to officers who feel as though Mosby “will hang them out to dry.”

While beat cop reticence could be a factor, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points out that homicides and shootings in West Baltimore were on the rise before the Freddie Gray unrest, though the pace has since accelerated. Webster thinks that among other things, the protests just strained the cops’ capacity.

“The police have been less active in proactive policing, less likely to engage individuals on the street,” Webster says, adding that resources were diverted to addressing the riots and in turn disrupted patrol and detective work. Leads from residents that detectives use to make arrests—though already quite difficult to come by—were further reduced during this time, he said, citing conversations with officers. Moreover, Operation Ceasefire, an anti-violence initiative begun by the city early last year, has been running without a program manager for the past several weeks. (The mayor’s office has indicated a new program manager will be hired soon.)

Webster believes another factor at play here may be that the Freddie Gray protests emboldened criminals. “We just had a huge display of lawlessness and disrespect for law and law enforcement,” he explains. “That mindset can spread easily and affect behavior.”

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, doesn’t buy the connection between the protests and violence—one he calls an “easy deflection” of systemic issues.

“This [surge in violent crime] is a natural outgrowth of the conditions in which shooting and violence occurs,” Love says. Scapegoating the protests and the Mosby charges, Dove thinks, is particularly convenient for those unenthused with critiques of law enforcement and institutional racism. And it’s true that high rates of poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction all consistently correlate with high homicide rates. Love also argued that Baltimore’s had all kinds of violence for a long time—including sexual abuse and discriminatory housing policies—though it’s only when guns are fired that leaders start to panic.

Perhaps a simpler explanation for the increase in shootings is just that it’s getting hotter outside. Baltimore Bloc, another local grassroots organization, say that they don’t think the protests had anything to do with the recent violence, and that in their experience, violence always surges in the city as summer approaches. Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, agrees that homicides usually rise and fall significantly with the seasons, with the fewest occurring during the winter. “It’s no coincidence that homicides are spiking right now when the weather is getting warmer,” Spence says.

The violence that occurs when competing gangs fight over turf to operate their drug operations also generally escalates in the warmer weather. “People are suggesting that the spike we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks represents something new, but summer is just starting,” Spence adds. “It might be a blip or it might continue. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Baltimore PD Spokeswoman Sarah Connolly told VICE in an email, “We are investigating each incident as a singular incident while examining any trends and patterns to ensure that we are deploying our officers and resources effectively while being proactive and engaging the community. While we have developed investigative leads in a number of cases, we continue to ask the community’s assistance in calling with any information they may have.”

Meanwhile, some Baltimore community groups are taking the opportunity to organize anti-violence demonstrations. Coinciding with the 90th birthday of Malcolm X, the NAACP held a “Stop the Violence ‘By Any Means Necessary'” rally Tuesday night at their office in the Sandtown neighborhood. Another group committed to decreasing gun violence in Baltimore, the 300 Men March, is holding an “Occupy Our Corners” anti-violence rally on Thursday evening to honor the recent homicide victims.

“We the PEOPLE, are not blaming anyone but ourselves for failing to create a safe environment within our city,” their rally flyer reads. “Recognizing this, WE STAND, as a community of all people, regardless of RACE, RELIGION, SEX, CULTURE OR BACKGROUND.” According to the Sun, Munir Bahar, one of the group’s founders, is calling for 30 men in ten Baltimore neighborhoods to become block leaders in the fight against crime.

Love doesn’t expect the organizing work that LBS, Baltimore Bloc, and other grassroots groups are doing will change much in light of the increased violence. “Because doing that,” Love explains, “would take away from the larger objective, which is ultimately about systemic change.”

Baltimore Jews join Freddie Gray protests – but it’s complicated

Originally published in Haaretz on May 5th, 2015
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After a tumultuous couple of weeks in Baltimore, in which protests, marches and riots raged through Charm City following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray — the Jewish community moved to raise funds, organize volunteers and engage in interfaith outreach. But in Baltimore, which has a complicated, and often fraught, history of Jewish-black relations, there is both a commitment to fight inequality and a reluctance to ruffle long-established relationships with city officials and the police.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which represents about 55 local congregations and institutions, issued a statement that called for Jews to “stand beside our African American partners to combat racism and economic inequality.” Arthur Abramson, BJC’s executive director for the past 25 years, says his organization “has not hesitated for one moment” to stand up for injustice.

But he was frank about the challenges that remain for Jews seeking to combat racism. “Look, Maryland is a southern state. It was a slave state. In general, it’s not what I would describe as a place where African Americans and Jews sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” he said.

Throughout the decades there have been plenty of instances of Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism in the city. Still, Abramson feels proud of the improved relations the BJC has helped to build over the past 25 years, which he attributes to concerted engagement, dialogue and programs involving the two communities.

Rabbi Etan Mintz, who leads Baltimore’s oldest and continually active synagogue, B’nai Israel, spent much of last week – as protests spread in the city and elsewhere following the death of Gray, for which six police officers have been charged – working with other local clergy.

“It’s a very powerful experience just to listen to people, to pray with people, and to be a presence face-to-face with one another,” Mintz said. He noted what he called the “outrageous reality” of poverty, inequality and mass incarcerations, but also stressed that the majority of police officers in the city are “peace-loving individuals who are trying to protect us on a daily basis.” He is concerned about a phenomenon of “guilt by association” — linking the broader police force to a few bad officers who acted inhumanely.

Mintz’s synagogue, which is Orthodox, is located downtown near the Inner Harbor, the former epicenter of Baltimore Jewish life. Now B’nai Israel, which is the last of what were once 20 synagogues in this area, is sometimes nicknamed “the Masada of East Baltimore.”

Jews began moving out toward the suburb of Pikesville in the 1950s and ’60s, and Mintz says the real “nail in the coffin” of inner-city presence was the 1968 riots, where many Jewish businesses were looted and destroyed. The latest disturbances, he adds, have sparked difficult memories for some of his congregants.

Solidarity events

Another organization, Jews United for Justice, (JUFJ) has taken a more demonstrably public role in supporting African-American protestors. The group was formed in late 2014 to provide an outlet for Jews, mostly in their twenties and thirties, to engage in social justice work. Many of these activists turned out for Ferguson solidarity events earlier in the year, so it was not surprising to see 30 JUFJ members marching on April 25th in Baltimore with black-and-white picket signs that called for #JusticeForFreddie.

Last Friday, the day Baltimore’s State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six policemen would face criminal charges, the number of JUFJ members who turned out to march rose to 100.

“I think this reflects the growing interest,” says JUFJ member Owen Silverman Andrews. “[We have] created a space where people can plug in within their own communities in a way that is still connected to the larger struggle.”

Marc Terrill, the president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, says he is pleased with the fast response the Jewish community took, and continues to take, in showing solidarity with the Freddie Gray protests. He says that ultimately there needs to be an agenda, both with short-term and long-term goals.

In the short term, the Associated has helped to organize volunteers and raise funds for food, toys and other supplies in order “to rebuild the communities torn asunder by wide-spread looting and vandalism,” according to its website. In the long term, Terrill mentions the need to promote greater access for city residents to health care, job training, education, counseling and mentoring programs, and to contribute to an overall greater push for societal integration.

“Our relationship with the African-American community is collaborative,” Terrill says. “Not everything is good, but we have the will and desire to work at it.”

While the Jewish community is presenting a relatively united front for now, the question of how and if its members will come together around the issue of police reform remains unclear. This community is one of the more politically conservative Jewish communities in the United States. And the established relationships Jewish leaders have cultivated with city and state officials — which have helped ensure enhanced security and support for Jewish groups and institutions — are very important.

The BJC did not come out strongly for any of the police reform bills that were being considered in Annapolis this past legislative season, despite months of organizing and campaigning by local activists. By contrast, members from JUJF, including Rabbi Daniel Burg, who leads an egalitarian synagogue in Reservoir Hill, offered testimony in support of legislation that would alter the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Jewish communal leaders have all expressed a commitment to tackle the “deeper issues” provoked by the Freddie Gray protests – specifically with regards to economic inequality and poverty. However, whether they will be able to do so without inserting tension into some of their long-standing political relationships remains to be seen.

Baltimore’s Criminal Justice System Is Seriously Overloaded Thanks to the Arrest of Protesters

Originally published in VICE on May 1, 2015.
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Four days after Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, and three nights into the citywide 10 PM to 5 AM curfew, Baltimore lawyers and activists are beginning to grapple with exactly how the official response to unrest over the death of Freddie Gray has impacted protesters’ constitutionally protected legal rights.

Perhaps the most controversial decision of the past few days came on Tuesday, when Hogan suspended a state rule that requires an individual to be brought before a judicial officer or released from jail within 24 hours following their arrest. The decree paved the way for arrestees to languish in jail for up to 47 hours without charges. The Maryland Public Defender’s Office issued a statement Wednesday challenging Hogan’s legal authority to tell the judiciary what to do.

That night, 101 of the 201 arrested protesters were released from jail without charges. At a press conference earlier Wednesday, Baltimore Police Captain Eric Kowalczyk said his department had struggled to file formal charges against the protesters because officers were so busy responding to emergencies elsewhere; he insisted that charges would still be filed at a later date.

“On a normal day, if I’m a patrol officer and I was filing a charge, it could take upwards of two hours,” Sarah Connolly, a Baltimore Police spokeswoman, told VICE. “But when you’re having multitudes of arrests, and when you are working to ensure the preservation of life and property, which was paramount, it just wasn’t possible [to file all the charges.]”

Natalie Finegar, the Baltimore Deputy District Public Defender, told VICE that Hogan’s order is a clear instance of the executive branch overstepping its legal bounds. She notes that there is already a judicial provision within the Court of Appeals to change the 24-hour detention rule in the case of an emergency. Hogan’s executive order, Finegar contends, demonstrates disregard for the checks and balances of the legal system.

Other experts point out that holding uncharged people in jail is simply bad policy regardless of the legality, especially in this fraught political moment. “If the citizens of Baltimore are reacting [on the streets] to longstanding systemic issues, then dealing with arrestees in a systematically unfair manner, like leaving people in jail without charges, doesn’t really seem to be an effective response,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a nonprofit committed to pretrial justice reform.

Another reason few charges were filed this week is because Baltimore’s district courts closed after Monday’s riots. In Baltimore City, courts close fairly frequently for all sorts of reasons, including snow days; the judiciary decides when to close the courts. On Tuesday, none were open, and on Wednesday just one out of four was operational—creating a serious backlog for cases that would have normally been divvied up. (By Thursday, all four district courts had reopened.)

“Courts are not supposed to shut down, especially when you’re arresting hundreds of people in a moment of crisis,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. If people are being arrested, courts should be open to handle the cases. The wheels of justice should continue to spin equally for everyone at all times.”

In light of Hogan suspending the 24-hour rule, Finegar told VICE that her office filed 82 habeas corpus petitions on behalf of detained arrestees. (The Guardian had previously reported that Hogan had effectively suspended the state’s habeas corpus law, but this is misleading, as state and federal habeas corpus laws—which gives detainees the ability to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment—are unchanged.) However, before those habeas corpus petitions could be ruled upon, the city released the remaining uncharged protesters in a nod to the fact that they no longer had the authority to detain them. Finegar believes that many who were released on Wednesday were illegally held in the first place.

Another issue is that many arrested protesters were given extraordinarily high bail amounts. Some were apparently even asked to pay their bail all at once, in cash—which is notable given that detainees usually have the option to pay deposits or to take out loans from bondsmen.

“For my clients, a $50,000 cash-only bail is tantamount to no bail,” said Finegar. “I’m a nice middle-class public servant and even I couldn’t post something like that.”

“What is unconstitutional is using money to detain and deprive an individual of due process,” Burdeen added. “And yet that is essentially what is happening here.” TheGuardian reported on one case where a 19-year-old had bail set at half a million dollars. The defendant, who failed to produce the money, was then sent to jail. Generally speaking, if a detainee cannot make bail and cannot take out a loan, then they will essentially serve a jail sentence before even being found guilty of a crime. According to Finegar, that could mean sitting in jail for anywhere from 30 days to a year.

On Thursday afternoon, ACLU-Maryland’s legal director Deborah A. Jeon sent a letterto Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake calling for an end to the citywide curfew. “We have a right to demand policy changes of our government…. and we have a constitutionally protected right to do so on the streets and sidewalks of Baltimore.” Jeon added that at this point the curfew’s “unnecessary restrictions” seemed to do more to stoke community resentment than to ensure public safety.

The curfew is a First Amendment issue more so than a criminal one. And First Amendment decisions are often seen as balancing acts between the need for public safety and to protect one’s right to protest, move, and assemble. “It has to be a reasonable balance, and whether this curfew is a reasonable one is subject to debate,” said Eve Brensike Primus, a University of Michigan law professor.

In a Thursday evening press conference, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said that despite the city’s relative calm, they would not be lifting the curfew this weekend because there are large protests planned. “We have a lot more protests that are popping up by the minute, and even if we didn’t, we have other cities that have large protests and their activities impact our city too,” said Batts.

The argument that Baltimoreans should be kept under curfew because protests are happening in other cities certainly raises some serious constitutional questions.

Activist groups are responding to these issues; the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee is operating a jail support hotline. On Wednesday night, the Public Justice Center (PJC), a Baltimore-based legal advocacy organization, held an event to train lawyers, law students, and legal experts in jail support and legal observing for demonstrations. Nearly 50 people showed up, which, according to PJC attorney Zafar Shah, was beyond the group’s expectations. “There wasn’t enough seating,” he said. In addition, Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe issued a call for private lawyers to help represent the 201 protesters arrested on Monday night. DeWolfe told the Daily Record that many private attorneys have offered their services.

Of course, it’s safe to say a few well-intentioned lawyers are unlikely to change the game here.

“Yes there will be lawsuits, and appropriately so, but we can’t rely on them to fix the underlying problem,” said Natapoff. “We have to look beyond the law if we want to really reform the criminal justice system. That’s why these protests all over the country are so important.”

Inside the Chaos, Rage and Confusion That Consumed Baltimore Last Night

Originally published in VICE on April 28, 2015.
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 photo credit: Rachel Cohen

As I walked through the streets of West Baltimore on Monday evening, small bright green opiates littered the sidewalk, pills left over from when the local CVS pharmacy was looted hours earlier. The air felt thick and musty—police had fired teargas canisters near the Penn-North subway station. By 6:15 PM, clouds of smoke were pouring out of the empty pharmacy, which filled with flames. At one point, protestors cut the hose that was being used to put out the fire.

Except for a few young activists hoisting “Justice 4 Freddie Gray!” picket signs, most people hanging around were not protestors. The majority of Baltimoreans on the streets were just snapping photos and watching the events unfold as spectators. Unlike Saturday’s protests, where thousands proudly marched, chanted, and gave speeches about accountability and justice for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black Baltimore resident who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody earlier this month, Monday felt perilously chaotic.

By the corner of North Avenue and Pennsylvania, just a half-mile down from where Freddie Gray’s funeral took place earlier that day, two Maryland Transit Administration vehicles were burning. A wrecked police car sat in the middle of the street a few hundred feet down—every one of its windshields and windows cracked and shattered. Broken glass lay by its tires. By 9 PM, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan had deployed National Guard troops, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced there would be a weeklong 10 PM curfew, and all public schools were cancelled for Tuesday. The city was officially declared to be in “a state of emergency.”

Saba Nazeer, a local resident who works with the Right to Housing Alliance, a Baltimore housing justice organization, came out to watch one standoff unfold between high school students and the police. The cops knew to meet the teenagers because a flier circulating earlier on social media called for students to meet for a “purge” out by the mall after school. (Frederick Douglass High School is across the street from Mondawmin Mall.) Dozens of cops were ready to meet the 75 or so students that showed up. Things escalated quickly. Students hurled bricks, rocks, and bottles at the police; cops sprayed mace and teargas. Fifteen officers were injured in clashes around the city, six seriously, and two were hospitalized Monday evening.

“These kids were going to fight for their neighborhoods, and they want justice not just for Freddie Gray but for all those who have died at the hands of police in their communities,” Nazeer said, defending the students. “I’ve been seeing it all day, the police try to put fear in the communities, they harass and bully. They’ve been doing it for decades. And people are tired of it.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Speaking out Monday night, hours after the funeral, Freddie Gray’s mother Gloria Darden pleaded for the violence to end. “I want you all to get justice for my son,” she said. “But don’t do it like this here.”

A national conversation on police brutality broke out after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year, but local cops’ excesses have been a major political issue in Baltimore for a while now. A Baltimore Sun investigation released in September found that the city paid out $5.7 million in judgments and settlements in cases related to alleged police brutality and civil rights violations since 2011. Even before Gray’s death, the city was haunted by two recent high-profile incidents of unarmed Baltimore black men dying in police custody— Tyrone West in 2013 and Anthony Anderson a year earlier. Cops faced no charges following the deaths of either men.

Since West’s death in July 2013, Baltimore community members have convened outside City Hall every Wednesday to call for the police to be charged with homicide. (These weekly demonstrations are locally referred to as “West Wednesdays.”) Activists keep count— Monday marked day 648 since West’s death. While an independent review issued in August determined that the police did not use excessive force, some still insist they saw cops kick West in the head, yank him by his dreadlocks, and beat him with batons.

In September, an alarming video surfaced that showed a Baltimore cop repeatedly punching a man. Unable to ignore the damning footage, Mayor Rawlings-Blake vowed to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address police brutality in the city. A few months later, however, she vetoed a bill that would have required city police to wear body cameras. Rawlings-Blake has said she supports the measure, but felt the specific legislation proposed was not within the City Council’s authority.

Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12 after making eye contact with police and taking flight, but more than two weeks later the public has still not been given any meaningful details about how he sustained his fatal injury. (He died on April 19.) Last week, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts admitted Gray was unbuckled when police placed him in a van despite being shackled and handcuffed, and noted that Gray’s multiple requests for medical attention were ignored. Other findings from the department’s internal investigation, however, have not been made public. More information will be released on May 1— a deadline Batts set to share findings with Baltimore’s State Attorney.

“This is one case where body cameras certainly would have been useful,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We’d have a lot better idea of what actually happened, and we’d know far more quickly.” (A bystander’s mobile footage showed Gray writhing in agony as police carried him away.)

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots activist group in Baltimore, has announced that they are planning another protest for Freddie Gray Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM. They told me that while their collective has been in “emergency response mode” for the past two weeks, eventually they will begin to outline more long-term plans. The “pace and emotion [has] left us with less space than we normally have to strategize,” they explained. But soon, they will join with other local organizing groups to “turn our attention to the next steps, including legislative strategy at the state level and organizing here at home for the 2016 city elections.”

Speaking at a press conference in the evening, Mayor Rawlings-Blake referred to the Monday rioters as “thugs” who were senselessly “trying to do tear down what so many have fought for.” Some 200 arrests were made by Tuesday morning. Brandon Scott, a city councilman, said, “We can’t let this be a repeat of 1968″—referring to the violent Baltimore riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “Adults have to step up and be adults.”

Tensions between political leaders, police, and community members are unlikely to abate any time soon, but multiple community cleanup efforts are being organized on social media today in West Baltimore. One group will be meeting back by the Penn-North subway station at 10 AM, and another will start at 2 PM by the University of Baltimore. Organizers have asked individuals to bring their own gloves, trash bags, brooms, and food.

In Baltimore, Protesters Demand Redress for Police Killings of Local Men

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 5, 2014.
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Protesters took the streets of Baltimore on Thursday night, following the announcement that Daniel Pantaleo, the white New York City police officer who used a chokehold to kill Eric Garner, a black man, would not be indicted. Garner’s death at Pantaleo’s hands was captured on video shot by a bystander, who recorded Garner gasping for air, saying “I can’t breathe.” The protests, which succeeded in shutting down the city’s annual holiday lighting event early, came three days after Baltimore’s mayor vetoed a bill that would have required police officers to start wearing body cameras.

Baltimore protesters marched not only for Eric Garner of New York, Michael Brown of Ferguson and Tamir Rice of Cleveland—but also for Tyrone West and Anthony Anderson, two unarmed Baltimore black men who died at the hands of the police in 2013. As in the cases of Garner, Brown and Rice, cops faced no charges following the deaths of West and Anderson.

Every Wednesday since July 2013, community members have gathered outside of Baltimore City Hall, calling for the police to be charged with the homicide of Tyrone West. While an independent review issued this past August concluded that the officers did not use excessive force, several witnesses insist they saw cops kick West in the head, spray him with mace, hit him with batons and pull him by his dreadlocks.

Tawanda Jones, Tyrone West’s sister, traveled to New York City earlier this year to meet with Eric Garner’s parents. When news broke on Wednesday that the officer who killed Garner would not be indicted, the weekly City Hall were protesters further riled.

“They had eyewitnesses in my brother’s case and they did nothing,” Jones told Baltimore’s local ABC affiliate on Wednesday night. “But I thought, O.K., [the Garners] have this video that went viral, that everybody saw all over the world, that something at least was going to get done.”

“One of our major demands is to indict killer police,” an organizer said to a crowd gathered by the Washington Monument on Thursday night. “It’s not enough just to put cameras on them. They have to be indicted.”

When the Maryland legislative session opens next month, Baltimore residents plan to head to Annapolis, the state capital, to pressure the state legislature to repeal key components of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights—a statute which many argue impedes meaningful civilian review of police and prevents the disciplining and firing of bad cops. On November 22, the city held a public hearing on law enforcement reform where community leaders, activists, citizens and cops spoke out for nearly three hours.As The Afro, a newspaper that serves the black community, reports, Diane Butler, the aunt that raised Tyrone West, spoke at the hearing and challenged the Baltimore police present in the room on their brutal behavior.

“When was the beating supposed to stop?” she asked. “My son was on the ground screaming for the beating to stop. Was the beating supposed to continue until he was no longer breathing? No longer moving? My son was dead, and your police officer still was kicking him in the back of his head, and he was cuffed.”

A recent Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city paid $5.7 million in judgments and settlements alleging police brutality and civil rights violations since 2011.

The two groups organizing Thursday night’s protests—the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST) and the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly—stressed repeatedly to the crowd that this was “a movement not a moment” and that police brutality will not be solved without fighting for a more equitable economic society. Earlier in the day, activists in more than 150 cities across the country engaged in one-day strikes and rallies as part of the Fight for 15 campaign.

Although Baltimore activists are still pushing for police to wear body cameras, a failure to indict despite the clear video evidence highlights the need to secure additional reforms.

The next Baltimore protest is scheduled for December 13th, followed by an organized “strike against racism” on January 15th—the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr.

Western Maryland, The 51st State? Don’t Laugh Yet

Originally published in the JHU Politik on September 29th, 2013.
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49-year-old Carroll County resident, Scott Strzelczyk, is leading a grassroots movement to secede from the state of Maryland. Dubbed “The Western Maryland Initiative,” individuals in the five western counties of Garret, Allegany, Washington, Frederick and Carroll, are working to rally political support for what is certain to be an unattainable goal.

Demographically, the five counties are populated with more than 653,000 people, greater than both the populations of Vermont and Wyoming. And geographically, the western Maryland region is larger than both Rhode Island and Delaware. Consequently, Strzelczyk insists that his plan is not wholly unrealistic and that secession would not be from the Union itself, but from the “oppressive and abusive treatment from Annapolis.”

Unsurprisingly, Western Maryland’s push for secession has been met largely with ridicule. One writer in The Baltimore Sun suggested that “a simpler solution for everyone involved” would be for the aggrieved to just move across the state line to West Virginia. Another Sun writer pointed out that western Maryland counties contain about 11 percent of the state’s population, yet account for only 10 percent of Maryland’s tax base and receive more than 13 percent of Maryland’s total unemployment benefits. It’s clear that secession would entail major, likely untenable, economic consequences.

Across the country, several other secession movements have cropped up in upstate New York, the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, Northern California and various northern Colorado counties. These radical movements consist of primarily white, conservative voters, living in predominantly rural regions. Their outrage stems largely from legislation around gun control, energy use and increased taxes.

The Western Maryland Initiative shares some characteristics with these other secession movements, but it is distinct in its primary grievance: gerrymandering, the process of deliberate redistricting in order to influence an election’s outcome.

Gerrymandering is one of those terms we are taught in high school government class. Perhaps we shrug when we hear it today and say, “well yeah it’s bad, but everyone does it.”

It’s certainly true both parties are guilty of redistricting. However, Maryland’s record is particularly disappointing. An independent geospatial analysis firm ranked Maryland as the most gerrymandered state in the entire country. Take a look at a map of the 2012 congressional voting districts for yourself. There are reasons whyThe Washington Post described District 3 as resembling “blood spatter from a crime scene.”

Federal law dictates that legislators use new Census data to redraw congressional districts every ten years. However, when the Maryland legislators proposed their newly drawn districts, Common Cause of Maryland, the League of Women Voters, civil rights groups, and a supermajority of the Montgomery County Council met them with outrage. In response, Republicans managed to place “Question 5,” a redistricting repeal referendum, on the 2012 ballot. But redistricting never stood a chance of eliciting the type of political attention that some of the other Maryland referendum items could, like marriage equality and the Dream Act. Ultimately redistricting passed with a pretty high margin, even though many on both sides agreed that it went too far.

I sympathize with these alienated conservative voters. Particularly as liberals and Democrats rally against the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and as they band together to fight duplicitous voter identification laws, I find their silence on this matter suspicious at best.

Some will say Maryland’s redistricting is just “tit for tat.” Republicans are gerrymandering Texas! Look at North Carolina! Democrats have no choice but to play dirty.

But this is false. Gerrymandering is just another form of disenfranchisement. It’s a political maneuver to make some votes count more than others, and some to not count at all. If liberals are going to be up in arms about voter suppression legislation, (which we should be) then we should also be concerned and sympathetic to the deep frustrations voters feel in Western Maryland due to gerrymandering. Mocking these feelings is cruel and antidemocratic.

Maryland redistricting should model states like Arizona that have created an Independent Redistricting Commission, responsible for drawing new district boundaries independently of their state legislature.

Who knows how long Scott Strzelczyk’s campaign will last, though don’t expect to see a 51st state anytime soon. But in the meantime, at the very least, hold off with the snark.

AP makes ‘illegals’ illegal

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 5th, 2013.

This week the AP Stylebook, the standardized style guide for newspapers and other publications across the United States, announced that no longer, under their rules, will it be acceptable to use the term “illegal immigrant.” AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained that the term “illegal” is incorrect when labeling people and “should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The change, proponents argue, is necessary because labeling individuals as “illegals” or “illegal” is an unfair designation that no other criminal or civil offender in this country receives. Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter and immigrant activist, has called the term “illegal immigrant” dehumanizing. In a Fox News Latino survey conducted last year, nearly half of Latino voters responded that they find the term “illegal immigrant” offensive.

About two months ago a similar political AP Style debate played out with regard to same-sex marriages. An internal memo was leaked that said the AP would use “couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages” as opposed to the terms “husband” and “wife.” This separate-but-equal discourse for legal same-sex marriages drew the ire of the gay community, causing the AP to change its position within the week.

These questions of language have real ramifications; the way that ideas are presented in the press impacts how people understand and relate to the issues, and the effort to avoid potentially loaded terms is never-ending.

For example, in the case of immigrants who enter the country illegally, the AP also now advises journalists to avoid the term “undocumented.” AP argues that often these individuals do hold some sort of documentation, therefore it’s inaccurate to assert otherwise. And in the case of the gay community, in November AP editors advised the press to avoid the term “homophobia” because, in their view, homophobia implies that anti-gay sentiment is based in irrational fear. AP now encourages journalists to use the term “anti-gay bigotry” instead.

(At The Baltimore Sun, the terms “illegal immigrants” and “homophobia” are still acceptable.)

The AP is not alone in revising its language related to immigration; New York Times officials have also said they also want to revise their style book to promote a more nuanced immigration discourse. But nuance may be the enemy of brevity. The AP’s new guidelines say, “Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”

Certainly it’s important to find ways to describe such divisive political issues that is both accurate and neutral, but it can also lead to language that is clunky or, worse yet, not easily understood. Moreover, the effort to avoid potentially freighted language is almost inevitably viewed by those involved in the debate as taking sides. The AP’s effort to avoid controversy in its stylebook has often only courted it instead. In a highly polarized society, it may simply be impossible to find terms that please everyone.