The Radical Teachers’ Movement Comes to Baltimore

Originally published in The Nation on June 7, 2019.
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In mid-May, 37-year-old Diamonte Brown won her bid to lead the Baltimore Teachers Union, defeating Marietta English, who has led the nearly 7,000-member union for most of the last two decades. The shakeup in Charm City school politics marks a victory not just for Brown, a middle-school English teacher, but the Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (BMORE), a social-justice caucus that has been organizing since 2015.

Yet English, who was seeking her ninth term in office, says she cannot “in good faith concede” and has demanded a re-vote—alleging Brown and the slate of candidates she ran with committed a series of election violations, like illegally campaigning on school grounds. Critics say the incumbents have their own campaign missteps to account for, including writing rules that discourage challengers and trying to suppress the vote.

The American Federation of Teachers, the national parent union for the BTU, is stepping in, and plans to hold a formal hearing to adjudicate the complaints next week. The election drama reflects a stark departure from what are typically sleepy Baltimore affairs.

Still, with roughly 500 more ballots cast this cycle compared to last, observers say the increased interest in the election should not go ignored, regardless of what happens when the AFT concludes its investigation.

BMORE says that no matter the outcome they’re here to stay, joining a national movement dedicated to using teacher unions as a vehicle for broad social change. This movement first caught fire with the Chicago teachers strike in 2012, an eight-day protest of educators, parents, students, and community members who called for increased funding for public services. Similar radical caucuses have since emerged in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, and St. Paul and now they’re banding together to help those in Baltimore.

BMORE’s story begins with Natalia Bacchus, an ESOL teacher who moved to Baltimore in 2013 after teaching in suburban Maryland for nine years. Bacchus was bewildered by the bureaucratic hurdles she encountered at nearly every turn.

“When I worked in Montgomery County, I didn’t know anything about our union, I was just like, I’m a public-school teacher, I’m a public servant, I have a unionized job, that’s cool,” she said. “Then I came to Baltimore, and I was like, wow—everything is a hassle every step of the way. And what do you mean kids can’t drink from the water fountain? And kids have to go to bathroom in groups? All these restrictions that would never fly in Montgomery County.”

Bacchus didn’t know many other Baltimore educators, and didn’t know if she was alone in feeling this way. Eventually she met Helen Atkinson, the executive director of the Teachers’ Democracy Project, a local education advocacy group. In 2014 Atkinson invited Bacchus to become a TPD fellow, where she would research progressive teacher unions around the country.

The next year Bacchus and Atkinson started traveling to different cities to learn from activist teachers. In August 2015, they went to Newark, New Jersey, for the annual United Caucus of Rank and File Educators conference, and began asking more practical questions about what launching a union caucus might look like.

“I was like this could be big, and Chicago’s social-justice caucus was called CORE and New York’s was MORE—we should call ours BMORE!” Bacchus said.

That fall, Atkinson introduced Bacchus to two other radical educators she knew in Baltimore—Cristina Duncan Evans and Corey Gaber. Bacchus was then working at a traditional public elementary school, Gaber was a charter middle-school teacher, and Duncan Evans was teaching at a specialized high school for the arts. Their diverse experiences struck them as a powerful opportunity.

Together they started a book club, reading texts like How to Jump-Start Your Unionabout the Chicago Teachers Union, and The Future of Our Schools, by education scholar Lois Weiner. Later that year they traveled to Chicago, to meet the CORE educators in person. That summer Samantha Winslow from Labor Notes, a media and union activism organization, came out to Baltimore to lead an organizing workshop, and five Baltimore educators went to Raleigh, North Carolina, in August for UCORE’s next conference. Leaders describe BMORE’s beginnings as “a lot of slow, but really deep” organizing.

In the fall of 2016 the newly formed BMORE steering committee decided to launch their first campaign—a petition drive to allow absentee voting in BTU elections. That winter they held their official BMORE launch party at a local barbecue restaurant, and wondered if anyone would even show up. Nearly 70 people did. “We knew then that this type of connection and work was resonating with people,” said Gaber.

Amplifying black leadership and centering racial equity, they stressed, would be at the core of their efforts. They created a closed Facebook group for members, and began holding regular meetings at different schools. By April 2017 they formally met with their union’s leadership, receiving guidance from Philly’s social-justice caucus on how to approach that conversation. The BTU, they said, was surprisingly receptive to their group.

“Marietta even offered to come to our meetings, but we said no that’s not how we operate,” said Bacchus. “We’re from the rank-and-file.”

BMORE’s organizing got an unexpected jolt the following winter, when local and national media on Baltimore students trapped in freezing classrooms with broken heaters. Some schools never even opened due to malfunctioning boilers, while others sent children home early. BMORE quickly organized and sent a list of demands to the school board and school district CEO, signed by more than 1,500 supporters. The school CEO, Sonja Santelises, wrote BMORE back with gratitude for “fiercely advocating for solutions,” and the school district largely adopted their recommendations. The next month BMORE joined 20 other cities in hosting a Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, demanding things like more culturally competent curriculum and the hiring of more black educators.

Last summer BMORE leaders started discussing running their own candidates in the next union election—something that happens every three years. They decided to team up with another young social-justice group, the Caucus of Educators for Democracy and Equity (CEDE), and run jointly under the banner of The Union We Deserve. Diamonte Brown would run for president, and they’d run additional candidates—including Gaber and Duncan Evans—for the executive board. The Union We Deserve slate would compete against the Progressive Caucus, a slate that included Marietta English and which has held power in the union for years.

The insurgent candidates admit there are some things the BTU already does well. Baltimore teachers have some of the highest salaries in both Maryland and the nation, and their health-care benefits are notably strong. “At a time when people are going on strike over low wages and poor health care, the Progressive Caucus has pushed for even more salary increases and our good health care to get even better,” said Corey Debnam, the Progressive Caucus chair and a Baltimore educator for the last 19 years.

Still, the teachers with The Union We Deserve say they want more than an effective service union, and to prioritize more than just good pay, benefits, and professional development. They want to mobilize teachers into a political force for students and communities—through the ballot box, at the bargaining table, and through direct action.

“I taught American government for nine years, and 6,000 organized voters can really have a big impact on electoral politics when you look at the turnout in some of our races,” said Duncan Evans. Baltimore is a deep blue city, and in the last Democratic primary for mayor, the winner emerged with less than 2,500 votes.

Whether the new social-justice educators maintain control of the Baltimore Teachers Union will likely be resolved later this month.

Marietta English did not respond to a request for an interview, but sent a statement saying she is glad the American Federation of Teachers is coming to oversee an investigation. “As I have said numerous times, there were egregious violations throughout this campaign process,” she said. “I am confident that this investigation will allow all members to have their voices heard and restore the integrity of our elections.”

Sandra Davis, the chair of the union’s chapter for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs), and a member of the Progressive Caucus, told The Nation that this election is extremely unusual, and that in her 30 years as a Baltimore educator she’s “never seen anything like this.” If Brown’s presidency is upheld, Brown would serve over a joint-executive board—with the teacher chapter chaired by Duncan Evans, and the PRSP chapter chaired by Davis. “At this point, no one is including us,” said Davis. “We don’t have a clue what’s going on—we’re just in limbo.”

Davis and Debnam said union members contacted them to object to BMORE/CEDE supporters canvassing at their homes this past spring. The union’s election guidelines prohibit the BTU from sharing members’ personal contact information, leading some to view the canvassing as a violation of their privacy, even if BMORE/CEDE didn’t get the home addresses from the union itself.

“We have people who are really offended that someone late at night—at 6 or 7 PM, is coming to their home to campaign about an internal election,” Debnam said. “That’s just something we would never do.”

The Progressive Caucus is not just accusing BMORE/CEDE of wrongly canvassing at people’s homes. They also accuse them of illegally campaigning on school grounds. With additional election rules like prohibitions against teachers leaving campaign literature in educators’ mailboxes and sending campaign literature on work email accounts, candidates are left with few ways to actually reach prospective voters. Critics say that’s by design, to protect those already in power. Bacchus, who resigned in 2018 and now works with the Teachers’ Democracy Project full-time, said The Union We Deserve’s main goal throughout the campaign was to spread awareness about the upcoming election. “Most teachers don’t even know that every three years there’s an election for BTU leadership,” she said.

BMORE/CEDE, for their part, say the BTU leadership tried to suppress the vote before and during the election, in part by limiting voting hours, removing a voting location, and denying a bulk of absentee ballots. On Election Day, local media also covered complaints from educators who said the ballots on their voting machines were designed in a confusing way, formatted as if to encourage re-electing the incumbents. Debnam of the Progressive Caucus said all candidates had the opportunity to meet with the elections vendor beforehand to see how the ballot would be formatted. “We have no say in how the machine looks, that’s Elections USA, and now there’s this really disturbing narrative that it’s we who have done wrong when in reality we ran a fair and honest campaign,” he said.

Duncan Evans says she isn’t entirely surprised their caucus’s victory is being contested.  “The BTU has challenged elections in the past,” she said. “So I certainly knew this was in the realm of possibility.”

BMORE leaders say if the election results are upheld, then they hope to begin meeting with individual members, to revamp their union website, and to bring full-time organizers on staff.

“I’m looking forward to people understanding more about how a union works, but I think a large part of transparency means us listening,” said Duncan Evans. “This is all long overdue.

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Baltimore Has an Ongoing Debate About Arming School Police

Originally published in Next City on April 3, 2019.
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Over the last year, since 17 students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, politicians and school districts across the U.S. have been grappling with the issue of guns, school safety and school climate. Some conservative elected officials, like the president of the United States and U.S Senator Ted Cruz, have endorsed arming teachers. Others have proposed ramping up security cameras or beefing up mental health support.

In Baltimore, a heavily Democratic city that starves for necessary resources for its public schools, local leaders haven’t been debating whether to arm teachers, but they have been wrestling with whether to arm school police officers.

The debate wasn’t sparked by the Parkland shooting, and actually traces its roots back to 2015, when two state legislators quietly introduced bills to remove restrictions on Baltimore school police carrying guns. They were introduced at the request of the school district, which is the only one in the state where law enforcement officials cannot carry weapons. But Baltimore is also the only Maryland jurisdiction with its own sworn school police force; all others dispatch armed local police or sheriff deputies to patrol schools.

Many in Baltimore reacted to the bills at the time with fury, and the legislation quickly died. This was before Baltimore’s four-year spike in homicides, and this past fall, State Delegate Cheryl Glenn reintroduced a new version of the bill. The president of the school police union, Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, has been advocating for his colleagues to be permitted to carry weapons, warning the city could join Parkland and Newtown, Connecticut, in tragedy if the law isn’t changed.

Community advocates, students and civil rights groups rallied against the proposal — pointing to a lack of evidence that arming school police helps to reduce school shootings, and protesting an increased militarized presence in public schools.

In late January the 10-person Baltimore school board voted unanimously against the proposal, prompting Glenn to withdraw her bill. Roughly two weeks later, an employee was seriously injured in a shooting at a high school. In light of the incident the school board reconsidered the proposal, and ended up approving it in a 8-2 revote. The injured staff member supported the measure.

Glenn quickly reintroduced her bill, but in mid-March, the full House delegation from Baltimore voted 10-5 against arming the city’s roughly 100 school police officers. While that effectively killed the bill for now, Glenn, the delegation chairwoman, suggested she may try again next year. Glenn’s office declined to comment for this story.

This isn’t the first time in recent years Baltimore lawmakers felt political pressure to pass new gun measures in response to violence, even when those measures were not backed by evidence. In 2017 the Baltimore City Council voted 8-7 in support of establishing a new mandatory minimum penalty for someone caught carrying an illegal gun. The bill was weakened after public protest — it ended up adding a $1,000 fine to existing state law that already imposes a one-year minimum sentence on second-time offenders. Gun experts noted there was no research to show the additional fine might deter crime. Still, the bill, in both its original and final form, was supported by the city’s police commissioner and the mayor. The mayor, police commissioner and the state’s attorney had all also advocated unsuccessfully for new statewide mandatory minimums.

Ebony McKiver, a Baltimore high school teacher and member of the city’s Parent and Community Advisory Board — which under Maryland state law every school district must have to advise the local school board on various issues — says her group worked to solicit feedback on the proposal to arm school police officers and the response was overwhelmingly negative.

“People are not wholly opposed to having armed school police officers, but there are so many issues that need to be dealt with in our community first before arming them,” she says. “I believe all schools have to practice an annual active shooter drill, but how many are practicing with fidelity, how many have classrooms with doors locked at all times? Some schools don’t even have doors that lock.” McKiver suggests that for the estimated price tag of the school police force — $ 7 million — the city could fix every door that doesn’t lock, develop more sophisticated safety protocols and ensure all security cameras are working.

Melissa Schober, a local parent, also argues the money could be better spent elsewhere, saying the school district spends more on school police than on social emotional learning, climate and wellness interventions. Schober also says that even though the city’s school enrollment was 82 percent African-American in 2016, 98.9 percent of those arrested in school were black.

Student activists with the Baltimore Algebra Project say that going forward, they plan, among other things, to push for a national student bill of rights, to see if there are alternative ways to conduct local decision-making, including by potentially adding students to the school board or creating an independent youth body. Students also plan to press for more accountability measures for school police and a redirection of money that would have gone to arming school police to maintaining and updating school police camera systems.

McKiver says she hopes the city and school board take the time to study the issue thoroughly before it is potentially reintroduced next year, by commissioning a formal study.

“Now is the time, and I just don’t know if it’s a priority anymore now that the bill has been killed,” she says. “And I can understand why because there are so many issues, with funding and everything else, but this is also the perfect time and I don’t want this to be where it comes up again next year and people are grappling with it in the two weeks before a vote is held.”

Backed by Obama Alums, A Law-And-Order Candidate Aims To Topple Progressive Leaders in Baltimore

Originally published in The Intercept on June 20, 2018

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Robbyn Lewis’s appointment to the Maryland General Assembly in late 2016 was met with excitement. The first black woman to ever hold office in Maryland’s 46th Legislative District, she said her life’s work in public health and transit advocacy prepared her to meet the needs of those in south and southeast Baltimore.

Her appointment was recommended by the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee, but now she is running in her first election. Next Tuesday, Maryland voters will head to the polls for the Democratic primary (early voting began on June 14), and Lewis, 54, is facing a formidable challenge from Nate Loewentheil, an alumnus of the Obama administration whose campaign has been fueled largely by donors outside the city. Loewentheil has centered his campaign on Baltimore’s high levels of crime, even though state delegates have little control over implementing crime prevention programs.

Lewis is running to hold her seat on a slate with the two other incumbents from District 46 — Brooke Lierman and Luke Clippinger — as well as the district’s state senator, Bill Ferguson, who is running for re-election unopposed. Lierman and Clippinger are running for their second and third times, respectively, and Lewis — who has served the shortest stint in office — is considered the most vulnerable candidate on “Team46.” (There are six candidates running for House delegate seats, three of whom will be elected to represent the district.) On Tuesday, the Baltimore Sun endorsed the Team46 candidates.

Lewis was born in Gary, Indiana, at the height of the civil rights movement, and she says her experiences since then have shaped her path toward public office. Her parents were among the first beneficiaries of the Fair Housing Act; the landmark 1968 legislation that prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of property enabled them to buy a house in a completely white Chicago neighborhood. She went on to attend the University of Chicago for college and obtained her master’s degree from Columbia University. She later served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and moved to Baltimore in the late 1990s, when she got a job coordinating research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Over the last two decades, Lewis has led a movement to plant over 100 new trees in her community and founded a grassroots political PAC to mobilize infrastructure investment in Baltimore. She told The Intercept she’s humbled to be able to bring those experiences with her to the state legislature, one of the most progressive in the country.

Loewentheil, a 32-year-old graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School, has only recently returned to the city. He was born in Baltimore and attended the Park School, a liberal private school in town, but lived in the Baltimore County suburbs for much of his youth. In 1991, Loewentheil’s father told the Baltimore Sun they were moving out of Baltimore due to safety concerns.

After law school, Loewentheil went straight to work for the Obama administration, serving as a policy adviser on the National Economic Council. Later, he took over a federal task force on Baltimore which was formed in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. It sought to coordinate and mobilize over a dozen federal agencies to help Baltimore tap new sources of funding and address systemic challenges, such as lead exposure and unemployment.

Loewentheil “spent the last weeks in the administration working closely with political, business, and civic leadership, and it was a reminder of all the great things I loved about the city,” he said of the task force.

He has leaned heavily on his connections to the Obama administration to run his campaign, both as a selling point for his candidacy and as leveraged power through his Obama alumni network. Jeffrey Zients, Obama’s lead economic policy adviser, held a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., for Loewentheil’s campaign and personally wrote him a $6,000 check. The candidate’s Yale alumni network has also stepped in to help him unseat Lewis. Even Bob Borosage, co-director of the progressive Campaign for America’s Future, kicked him some money.

All told, Loewentheil has amassed a remarkable amount of financial support for his campaign: over $430,000 according to the latest campaign finance reports. He spent $109,738 between May 16 and June 10. Lewis, by contrast, has raised a little over $110,000 throughout her campaign and spent $2,546 in that same period.

“I would say the amount he’s raised and the amount he’s spending in a state delegate race is beyond unprecedented,” Ferguson, the state senator running in the 46th District, told The Intercept. “I can’t imagine there has been anything close to this anywhere else in Maryland history.” Ferguson acknowledged that “fundraising is part of politics” but noted “the breadth of non-Maryland dollars that are being funneled into the campaign is striking.” According to campaign finance reports, a majority of Loewentheil’s funds have come from outside the state. More than $9,000 came from Palantir, the San Francisco-based data surveillance which Peter Thiel co-founded and now chairs.

Loewentheil is part of a wave of former Obama appointees who are flooding into the lower levels of politics and reaping praise for doing so. Earlier this month, USA Today ran a story headlined, “Surge of Obama alumni running for office in wake of President Trump’s election.” The piece reported that more than 65 former Obama officials are currently campaigning, aided by the resources and prowess of the Obama Alumni Association. A picture of Loewentheil knocking doors featured prominently in the article.

“Obama was a community organizer, and I think that’s shaped my approach to the campaign,” Loewentheil told The Intercept. “I just spent literally every day knocking doors, you just go out and talk to folks, that’s what politics means. I’ve been influenced by [Obama’s] experience and story which really permeated the White House.”

His support from the Obama network is overwhelming, but not absolute. Broderick Johnson, a Baltimore native who served as Obama’s Cabinet secretary, assistant to the president, and chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, recently endorsed Team46 over Loewentheil. “While serving as President Obama’s Cabinet Secretary, I helped direct much needed attention and resources from across our Administration to Baltimore City,” Johnson said in a statement. “Those efforts were done in collaboration with the city’s great leaders. … Those leaders who are closest to the ground, like the members of Team46, need no introduction to the city or to the State’s leaders in Annapolis. Team46 has created partnerships and leveraged resources necessary to bring equity in Baltimore’s public schools, to support greater job creation, to fund transit to connect citizens to those jobs, and to build a Baltimore where everyone counts.”

Baltimore has indeed struggled to curb crime, which has spiked over the last three years. The city saw 341 homicides in 2017, 318 in 2016, and 344in 2015. The average rate for the prior four years was 214, and the city hadn’t seen 300-plus murders in one year since the 1990s.

Loewentheil has singled out this issue, accusing his opponents of not doing enough to improve public safety and lamenting how crime prevention programs have historically been run. Many of his proposals involve injecting state funds into Baltimore — which state delegates can indeed help do — but it is local officials (like the mayor, state’s attorney, and police commissioner) who ultimately oversee policy and program implementation.

“I think win or lose, I’ve forced our current delegation to take the issue of gun violence more seriously,” he told The Intercept. In reality, the district’s current representatives have worked on a number of public safety initiatives.

“It is incredibly misleading and disingenuous to suggest that state legislators representing the 46th District have been anything but fierce advocates for creating safe communities,” said Ferguson, the state senator.

Throughout the campaign, Team46 has highlighted a series of their ownlegislative accomplishments on improving public safety. For example, Maryland’s governor signed the Maryland Violence Intervention and Prevention Program into law earlier this year. The new law, which Lierman authored and Clippinger and Lewis co-sponsored, sets aside $5 million for the next fiscal year to fund violence reduction strategies through competitive grants to local governments and nonprofit groups. The Huffington Post reported that only five other states have such a program, which is “designed to give a financial injection to evidence-based services that address the root causes of gun violence.”

Lewis, for her part, said her public health background equips her to address those root challenges. “As an African-American, I will never stop telling the truth about the root causes of our challenges in this city,” she told The Intercept. “The root causes of crime in this city are the long-term policies that drove racial segregation, disinvestment in communities, and criminalization of black skin. A single-minded focus on the outcome of those policies is disingenuous. I’m a public health professional; my training is in identifying sources of illness and addressing them.”

On social media, residents have charged Loewentheil with running a fear-based campaign, pandering to white voters in his district. Nearly half of District 46 is white, making it one of the whitest legislative zones in the city.

One video Loewentheils’s campaign released this past spring featured a white man that the candidate identified as his personal friend, his campaign treasurer, and a lifelong Baltimore resident. The man, Guy Tawney, talked about how he’s “not certain” if he’d be comfortable raising a family in Baltimore, given all the crime and violence he’s witnessed and experienced. “And that’s why I support Nate’s campaign,” Tawney concluded. “I know Nate is going to improve public safety in our city.”

On his campaign website, Loewentheil claims that if elected, he “will fight to get the Baltimore Police Department back to basics, like beat policing that gets more cops walking the streets.” His “plan for public safety,” released late last month, outlines a number of other police reform ideas that fall far outside the authority of a House delegate, such as getting the police department to adopt “predictive policing.”

Loewentheil has also penned a number of op-eds emphasizing the image of Baltimore as an unsafe, crime-ridden city. In the Washington Post, he opened with stark imagery of violence: “Baltimore is experiencing the worst wave of violent crime of any city in the United States. One day last month, in only 24 hours, six people were murdered. It’s as if mortal dice are rolled every day across the city’s streets. Stray bullets have injured a girl as young as 3 and a woman as old as 90.”

Lewis told The Intercept that Loewentheil’s campaign affects her personally. “To hear messages that because we don’t have a crime-free city, the people in leadership like it that way, or don’t care, that’s very personal for me,” she said. “It’s really strange to be a black person and have a white person accuse you of being indifferent to crime. It’s a way of saying that you like crime, you tolerate crime. It’s a dog whistle, it’s a way of triggering fear in a certain population of this district, and a way of subliminally suggesting that the first African-American representative won’t keep you safe because she’s African-American.”

Loewentheil has also repeatedly vocalized his support for mandatory minimum sentences, declaring in an op-ed last summer that he supported a newly proposed mandatory minimum in Baltimore that would have imposed jail sentences on first-time offenders caught carrying a gun within 100 yards of places like churches, schools, and parks. The proposed measure, which was vociferously opposed by activists in the community, waseventually weakened after public protest. Loewentheil later lamented that a similar state-level push for a new mandatory minimum “was unfortunately rejected.”

In outlining his support for new minimums, he has broken with a growing bipartisan consensus that has emerged around the idea that such policies are ineffective and expensive crime deterrents, as well as racially discriminatory. He has also praised Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, for his “commitment to addressing crime in Baltimore.” Hogan has sponsored legislation that would lengthen mandatory minimum sentences, limit access to parole, and try more juveniles as adults.

In the spring, the members of Team46 all voted for SB101, an omnibus crime bill that included, among other things, a new mandatory minimum for twice-convicted violent offenders. The bill passed overwhelmingly in both chambers. The delegates maintain they oppose mandatory minimums but say that they voted “yes” because the package included provisions they otherwise support, such as allowing certain offenders to have their records expunged and protecting in-prison drug treatment.

Loewentheil praised one of the incumbent delegates, Lierman — calling her “a very talented politician” — but asserted that the current delegation is just unable to get the job done in Annapolis. He pointed to Dea Thomas, another African-American woman running in the race with whom he has allied himself as another alternative. “My plan is for both of us to win,” he said. Thomas has raised just $68,000 dollars, according to campaign finance records. She ran for a city council seat two years ago and lost by a wide margin. Thomas did not return The Intercept’s request for an interview.

The race could go either way, but Lewis hopes that her record of service in Baltimore will bring her over the top.

“No one else has been a community organizer like I have, no one else has started a political action committee in service of bringing mass transit infrastructure but me — I’ve been here long enough to accomplish those things,” she said. “I stand on my record of service, my demonstrated care, and compassion. If the best you can do is throw mud, go for it, and we’ll let the people decide.”

Reeling from a Murder Spike, Baltimore Grasps at a Gun Bill

Originally published in CityLab on September 22, 2017.
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Across the country—from Louisiana to Iowa to Massachusetts—so-called “mandatory minimum” sentencing is increasingly out of favor. These are laws that require certain penalties for people convicted of specific drug or firearm offenses. A powerful bipartisan consensus has emerged around the idea that mandatory minimums are ineffective (and expensive) deterrents, as well as racially discriminatory and unlikely to reduce recidivism.

In part, the bill’s success reflects the pressure that the city’s legislators are under to do something—anything—to curb the violence. As the Brennan Center for Justice has reported, violent crime is at historic lows nationally, but no such decline can be found in Baltimore: As of this writing, 253 people have been murdered since January. In 2015, Baltimore’s violent crime rate was more than four times the national average, and its murder rate was more than 11 times the national average. Right now, Baltimore’s murder toll exceeds that of New York City, which has about ten times the population. 

“I by no means think this is a comprehensive solution to gun violence,” says city councilman John Bullock, widely seen as the deciding vote. He recognized the public’s concern with mandatory minimum sentencing, which is why he introduced the amendments to weaken it from its original form. Councilman Eric Costello, who voted for the bill and has said the amended version is “not as strong” as he would have liked, declined a request for comment; Council President Jack Young, who also backed both versions, did not return requests for comment.

Critics of the bill are frustrated with the city council’s rationale to pass a measure that has no evidence to support it.

“The easiest thing for elected officials to do is pass a new criminal law, make sentences longer, add mandatory minimums,” says Molly Gill, vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “That may give them a feeling of accomplishment, but it’s not going to solve these very complicated problems of why we have violence, gun crimes, and murders.”

Mark Kleiman, an NYU public policy professor and an expert on drug and criminal justice issues, calls the $1,000 fine “gibberish.” Quoting the infamous politician syllogism, he says, “We must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it.”

Among those who testified against the mandatory minimum bill this past summer was Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the Baltimore nonprofit Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. He points to the support from the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business advocacy group, as key to the bill’s success. “I suspect they are trying to attract more wealthy, white people to invest and come to Baltimore, and the murder rate is merely an impediment to them doing business,” Love says. “They could care less if this bill would have the possibility of destroying the lives of black people who become more prone to violent activity because they were sucked into the criminal justice system.”

Illegal gun possession is highly correlated with the future risk of committing a murder, and Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, does think illegal gun possession is a serious crime and is a major contributor to Baltimore’s homicide rate. Ultimately, though, he did not support the measure passed by the city council, principally because he says there’s no evidence that it would be effective. “It’s rather surprising that there is no solid research that answers the question of what happens if you adopt a mandatory minimum for illegal gun possession,” he says. Most existing research has focused on drug-related arrests.

Webster thinks the city does need to have better consequences for illegal gun possession, but that the consequences should be driven by better arrest and prosecution, rather than at the tail end of the sentencing process. In Baltimore only about 40 percent of arrests for illegal gun possession end up in a conviction or guilty plea. A Baltimore Sun analysis found that about one-quarter of cases are dropped even before defendants go to trial. And though the Baltimore Police Department has improved its homicide clearance rate in 2017 compared to recent years, Webster notes that the past two years have led to many unsolved murders and nonfatal shootings. “When shooters are not locked up, they are emboldened and ripe for being shot themselves,” he testified recently in Annapolis.

Proponents of mandatory-minimum sentencing have taken to placing blame on Baltimore city judges. “At the end of the day, we don’t impose sentences and don’t implement bails,” State’s Attorney Mosby said last year. “We can make a recommendation. But it’s not on us.” In an op-ed that counseled against “reflexively recycling the regressive strategies of the 1980s,” former deputy attorney general of Maryland Thiru Vignarajah noted that leaders who blame the courts are essentially echoing tactics deployed by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly tried to discredit the judiciary, even threatening judges at times.

Yet this month in Baltimore, the city council voted 8-7 in favor of establishing a new mandatory minimum penalty for individuals caught carrying an illegal gun. The proposed legislation originally would have imposed a one-year jail sentence on first-time offenders caught carrying a gun within 100 yards of places like churches, schools, and parks. After public protest, the bill was weakened to add just a $1,000 fine to existing state law, which already imposes a one-year minimum sentence on second-time offenders. The legislation (in both its original and final form) was backed by the city’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, along with Mayor Catherine Pugh and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby—who all also advocated unsuccessfully over the last two years for new statewide mandatory minimums.

“Mandatory minimum sentences are shortcuts we don’t need as prosecutors,” says Vignarajah. “We should be able to walk into a courtroom and explain why a sentence is appropriate and have faith in our judges to determine where a specific defendant falls on the spectrum between a violent repeat criminal and someone who needs a second chance. Mandatory minimums are unduly rigid and strip away discretion that judges need.”

Todd Oppenheim, a public defender in Baltimore who opposes the mandatory minimum measure, says that in his experience most defendants who would be affected by the bill are young and/or first-time offenders, not the “repeat violent offenders” who tend to dominant the debate. “The possession of a handgun is considered a violent offense, but I don’t see it as one because I know the circumstances under which my clients come into possession of it,” he says“Like drugs, a lot of my clients don’t understand that you can possess something without it being on your body.”

The Baltimore Police Department, by contrast, emphasizes that in the past 18 months, 60 percent of the 605 convicted gun offenders had had more than half their sentence suspended by a judge, and more than 100 people were arrested on handgun charges at least twice. The mandatory minimum “isn’t about mass incarceration or locking up more people,” Commissioner Davis testified in July. “It’s about holding the right people accountable.”

Still, there are alternative ideas.

With a new grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Johns Hopkins’s Daniel Webster is currently working with the state’s attorney’s office and the police department to develop new training protocols that will help strengthen the prosecution of illegal firearms. “First we have to have good policing that is done in a way to identify illegal gun possession without doing illegal searches and unconstitutional policing,” he says. “And then we need to have solid evidence that is useable to bring convictions.”

Dayvon Love emphasizes investments in community-based solutions, “where violence is prevented by people who are in closest proximity to the violence.” Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle’s recommendations include more funding for Safe Streets Baltimore, which uses a public-health strategy of employing ex-offenders as to mediate neighborhood disputes. In studies, the model has shown to be effective, but Baltimore’s program has drawn controversy in the past due to allegations of criminal activity by program workers. Love also cites efforts like the Baltimore Ceasefire movement and local violence prevention centers.

Gill, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, points out that the number of full-time law enforcement officers per 1,000 Baltimore residents fell 14 percent between 2003 and 2015, and even more in 2016. “Mandatory minimums are incredibly expensive—prison is not cheap,” she says. “It might be a better investment to put more squad cars on street corners than to jack up sentences.”

In other words, the answer doesn’t have to be a year in jail, but the assumption that there will be some consequence to breaking the law. “Right now a lot of people figure I’ll just take my chances,” says Webster.

Kleiman of NYU thinks policymakers should be considering things like 9 p.m. curfews. “It’s the perfect sanction in the sense that it’s salient, it’s aversive, and it doesn’t interfere with family duties and employment,” he says.

Ironically, on October 1, a major new statewide law—the Justice Reinvestment Act—goes into effect, and it will significantly reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders throughout Maryland. The law, which was signed in May of 2016, was widely seen as the broadest criminal justice legislation to pass in decades, representing a major shift away from “War on Drugs”-era policies.

“There’s a progressive movement to move away from incarceration for nonviolent offenses,” says Oppenheim. “But when it comes to violent offenses—and the definition of violence I think is subjective—leaders still harbor the old-school mentality. They don’t have any real ideas, and it helps them get elected.”

Baltimore Is Finally Doing Something About Its Notorious Police Force

Originally published in VICE on January 12, 2016.
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The city of Baltimore and the federal government unveiled the terms of a sweeping 227 page consent decree Thursday morning, a legal document mandating reforms to the local police force. The deal emerged 21 months after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody in April 2015, and five months after a scathing Department of Justice report alleged a litany of unconstitutional, racist, and just plain mean-spirited policing practices in Charm City.

“Through this agreement, we are moving forward together to heal the tension in the relationship between BPD and the community it serves,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a press conference in the city. “The agreement is robust and comprehensive,” she added, emphasizing that it was negotiated to ensure effective policing, restore the community’s trust in law enforcement, and advance the public and police officers’ safety.

Like 14 similar deals currently being enforced on law enforcement jurisdictions across America, the Baltimore consent decree lays out a number of new rules and systemic changes. Among other things, it calls for a community oversight task force to recommend tweaks to the current civilian oversight systems, insists on respect for individuals’ First Amendment rights to protest and monitor the police, imposes guidelines on proper use of force and transport of people in custody, protocols on constitutional stops, searches, and arrests, requirements for annual “community policing” trainings for all officers, and new procedures for conducting sexual assault investigations. While the BPD has moved to implement some of these reforms already—which the decree acknowledges and commends—Baltimore now has a legal tool to help cure what critics believe is a broken culture of often-brutal policing.

The deal also represents one of the last chances for the Obama administration’s activist Justice Department to leave its fingerprint on the American criminal justice system—and to rein in rogue cops at the center of Black Lives Matter protests. The only question is how aggressively a new, “law and order” happy White House under Donald Trump will enforce it.

The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of the Police, the local police union, quickly issued a critical statement after news of the decree broke Thursday, bemoaning the fact that they were not included in the negotiations. “Despite continued assurance by representatives of the Department of Justice that our organization would be included in the Consent Decree negotiations, no request to participate was ever forthcoming and we were not involved in the process,” the statement said. “As we were not afforded an advance copy of the agreement, neither our rank and file members who will be the most affected, nor our attorneys, have had a chance to read the final product and, as such, we will not have a comment now. Be assured, however, that a response will be forthcoming at the appropriate time.”

Police unions in other cities have worked to block reform efforts through their collective bargaining agreements, and Baltimore activists say they are bracing for similar resistance from the local FOP. The Baltimore police union has opposed reforms to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which governs how officers accused of misconduct are treated in Maryland. Some activists say the statewide law stands as the city’s biggest barrier for meaningful police accountability and transparency.

In October, for its part, the Baltimore FOP issued its own recommendations for inclusion in the consent decree, calling for things like increased whistleblower protections, more cops, and technology upgrades.

During his confirmation hearings for US Attorney General this week, Alabama US Senator Jeff Sessions expressed skepticism about using consent decrees to force change in police departments. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness,” he said. Sessions also once wrote that court-ordered consent decrees were “undemocratic” and “dangerous,” which taken with his more recent comments has served to send a chill down the spine of police reformers nationwide.

Still, Outgoing Attorney General Lynch assured the public at Thursday’s press conference that the consent decree “will live on past this administration.” After all, it is court-enforceable and there will be an independent monitor overseeing the agreement.

But Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, told VICE he has “no faith in Trump’s folks, especially if it’s Beauregard Sessions” and that he expects the police union to oppose key elements of the agreement. “Other means will have to be utilized to ensure this is enforced,” he said, pointing to ongoing efforts to change or repeal the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter national activist and administrator in the Baltimore City Public School system, praised the agreement on Twitter for its scope, and noted that it’s the first consent decree he’s ever seen to include school police.

 

Skepticism that the new administration will hold local cops’ feet to the fire abounds, however. One member of Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group focused on police reform, told VICE that she and her fellow activists have no confidence in a Trump DOJ to enforce the consent decree, even if they had their doubts about enforcement under a Hillary Clinton DOJ, too. “I think Baltimore Police is going to resist it all the way, FOP’s statement is already obstructionist as hell, and it was the police gleefully violating people’s rights that got us here,” the activist said.

The city has been under pressure to finish the consent decree before Inauguration Day. That’s because once the agreement is finalized—it still needs court approval—a federal judge will be empowered to enforce it, no matter who is president or US attorney general. Still, legal experts generally agree that if the police department or city political leadership fail to follow through on the terms of the agreement, it will be up to Trump’s Department of Justice to take them to court to compel change

Redlining map project provides new way for researchers to rethink struggling urban areas

Originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine
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After 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in 2015 while in the custody of Baltimore police, the city erupted with protests, riots, and much subsequent soul-searching. Attention focused on Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Gray was arrested—one of the most impoverished and blighted areas in Baltimore. Local community leaders set up meetings to discuss what it would take to support and revitalize poor neighborhoods like Sandtown, where more than a third of the houses are abandoned and roughly 20 percent of working-age residents are unemployed. The subtext of these well-meaning conversations was that there must have been a time when these neighborhoods were more desirable, and that at some point, somewhere along the way, things went downhill.

In the mid-1990s, in what was one of the most ambitious neighborhood revitalization projects in Baltimore’s history, public and private sources poured more than $130 million into Sandtown-Winchester in a massive effort to transform it. Yet despite the influx of new housing, health services, and school enhancements, the investments were not enough to attract new businesses and jobs, or to suppress the flourishing drug trade.

Mapping Inequality, a new project created by three teams drawn from four universities, including Johns Hopkins, offers leaders and researchers a new way to think about persistently struggling neighborhoods like Sandtown. Launched in October, the project features unprecedented online access to maps and materials produced between 1935 and 1940 by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency created as part of the New Deal. HOLC officials traveled to nearly 250 cities across America throughout the 1930s, developing color-coded maps to demonstrate each neighborhood’s risk and creditworthiness, factors that often reflected the community’s racial demographics. These influential documents helped standardize housing policy and real estate practices, and they were used by federal housing agencies until the late 1960s.

Sifting through Baltimore’s own HOLC map on the Mapping Inequality website, one can begin imagining how developers, bankers, real estate agents, and federal officials thought about each locality. Users can pore over the jigsaw puzzle–like breakdown of the city’s neighborhoods, clicking through to scans of each one’s “Area Description,” a document that includes information on the terrain, detrimental influences (“Obsolescence” and “Negro concentration,” for example), and racial makeup of residents. Each area was assigned a letter grade: A-rated neighborhoods, colored green, signified the best places to live; D-rated neighborhoods, colored red, were the worst.

“Part of what’s interesting about the project is just getting to think through what people’s popular narratives are today about segregation and redlining,” says Johns Hopkins historian N.D.B. Connolly, who worked on the Mapping Inequality project. “What do people know? And how can showing these HOLC maps add to that general understanding?” Connolly, an expert in the history of race and American cities, thinks the project can help people consider the longer historical trajectory of inequality.

“It also provides a way to think about racial inequality as far more of a problem of law and economics than of culture,” he says.

The HOLC maps and area descriptions are available for the public to download, so others can begin to pursue questions that even two or three years ago would have likely been too onerous to tackle. For example, what was the relationship between residential segregation and union membership? By collecting information from union membership rolls, you could now analyze union members’ living conditions. You could also determine what segregated neighborhoods looked like in terms of infrastructure quality, or how many homes had telephones, or the availability of grocery stores. “It gives you a way of taking a slice of American life and adding a whole host of new data points,” says Connolly.

On Baltimore’s HOLC map, Sandtown-Winchester was a redlined, D-rated area eight decades ago. Federal agents determined that it had “houses in very bad condition” and vandalized buildings in poor repair. They reported relatively equal numbers of white immigrants and black people living in the area, and when asked to assess the area’s “trend of desirability” over the next 10 to 15 years, HOLC agents predicted it going “downward.”

These maps challenge the narrative that healthy, thriving neighborhoods declined because of rioting in the 1960s or indolence. What they actually suggest, Connolly says, is that these Baltimore neighborhoods were always struggling, but more opportunities were given to white immigrants to get out. “These are not places that have ‘gone downhill,'” Connolly says. “Rather, they are places that were always full of environmental hazards, always considered poor and getting worse, and also the only option available to black families due to housing discrimination.”

How Cops Have Turned Baltimore into a Surveillance State

Originally published in VICE on September 13, 2016.
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Somehow, the policing nightmare in Baltimore keeps getting worse.

In July, charges were dropped against all the officers responsible for 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death, a massive defeat for police accountability in a city crying out for it. Just weeks later, the feds released a scathing report finding Baltimore cops engaged in systematic racism and callousness towards victims of sexual assault. And perhaps most spectacular of all, a magazine story late last month revealed cops have been running a secret aerial surveillance program in city skies.

All of which is to say that just as cynical and frustrated residents began to plot the long road to reform in a city wracked by gun violence and shady policing, experts and reform advocates now find themselves at a loss to explain how one city is wrapped up in just about every kind of police excess there is.

The aerial surveillance program consists chiefly of flying planes over 8,000 feet in the air and gathering video footage across a roughly 30 square mile radius, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The program was funded secretly by Texas billionaires, Laura and John Arnold, who say they are looking to support new tools that can help police departments more effectively solve crime. The planes have flown about 300 hours in Baltimore since January.

For its part, the police department denies that officers have done anything wrong, or that the planes even amount to a form of surveillance. TJ Smith, media relations chief for the Baltimore Police Department, told VICE the aerial program “doesn’t infringe on privacy rights” because it captures images available in public spaces. “We do not feel like citizen’s rights were violated because they weren’t,” he said. “This phase is a trial run to see if this is technology would be useful in the city of Baltimore. We are constantly searching for creative ways to solve crime in a city that saw 344 murders in 2015.”

An evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, also funded by the Arnolds, is expected to come out later this month.

Meanwhile, last week, in the final days available for public comment on the feds’ scathing appraisal of Baltimore cops—the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings hosted a town hall for residents to share their thoughts on police reform. Michael Wood, a former city cop turned reform activist, attended, and while he expected racism to be at the top of the list, the surveillance bombshell was clearly overwhelming residents, too.

“I haven’t spoken to a person who isn’t furious,” Wood told VICE of revelations about the program.

Remarkably, the mayor and the city council were both unaware of the surveillance experiment’s very existence, namely because it was funded secretly through a local foundation. The foundation’s leadership have claimed they did not realize what the Arnolds’ money was going towards, and in a statement, Laura Gamble, board chair, and Thomas Wilcox, the foundation’s president and CEO, said they have “learned valuable lessons from this experience.”

Baltimore public defenders were also kept in the dark, and argue that police and prosecutors’ failure to disclose—in court documents—when video footage came from aerial surveillance is a serious problem. Defenders have called for a suspension of the program.

Meanwhile, state and local politicians are looking at legislative responses to the city’s latest police scandal. At the next session, Curt Anderson, the head of Baltimore’s delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, is considering introducing surveillance regulations that would apply to all Maryland police departments. He told the Baltimore Sun that lawmakers need to figure out “how and where [footage] would be used, where you keep the information, how much it would cost to store that information, and how much it would cost someone if they made a request for that information.” On the local level, the ACLU of Maryland plans to craft legislation for someone on the Baltimore City Council to sponsor, which would limit the scope of police surveillance and/or increase the level of civilian oversight.

Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California Davis who specializes in policing and technology, told me that while police secrecy is nothing new, the kind of dragnet surveillance that Baltimore has engaged in—where officers aren’t necessarily looking for one particular person, or conducting a specific investigation—raises serious political issues. “You need to balance some legitimate police needs with the idea that police may just have too much information on innocent people,” Joh said. “And that’s a real struggle for people in a democracy to figure out. Police can go as far as they want, but what do communities want?”

Baltimore police officials maintain the aerial surveillance program is just an extension of CitiWatch, its street-level closed circuit television system. But according to Anne McKenna, a visiting law professor at Penn State University and a national expert on technology and surveillance, the “breadth and scope” of Baltimore’s aerial surveillance program raises new questions that are nowhere near settled in case law. And when you take the department’s reported aggregation of social media posts, overlay it with aerial surveillance and closed circuit TV footage, “Well, you’ve really created Big Brother,” McKenna said.

But Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, actually sees the city’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, who took over not long after Gray’s death, as someone who genuinely understands the importance of reform. Which makes the surveillance revelations all the more surprising. “It seemed completely contradictory to the actions we’ve seen Commissioner Davis take,” Huffman told VICE.

Baltimore, of course, is continuing to struggle with gun violence—the Sun reports there have been 215 homicides already this year, and the police’s clearance rate for solving murder cases has tended to be dreadfully low. But the connection between aerial oversight and catching violent criminals isn’t always so clean-cut.

“I think what is alarming—and I think it’s fair to say uniquely alarming about what we’ve seen going on in Baltimore—is there’s been a massive investment of resources to monitor speech and protest,” said Lee Rowland, the Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Exercising your First Amendment right is not probable cause, it’s not reason for suspicion. That the police would be directing their investigative resources to fly over protests or spend their days on Facebook looking for speech when there’s been no complaint or evidence of a crime, that is a use of power we should call out as wrong.”

Challenges remain for Baltimore residents, as the deadline for a consent decree with the Department of Justice draws near and opposition from the police union looms large. But most glaring of all to some observers is the fact that the police department continues to argue that tracking social media and conducting aerial surveillance shouldn’t even bother people.

“The community’s reaction to the surveillance helps to underscore just how fractured the relationship is, just how deep the distrust, the resentment, the suspicions run,” said Huffman. “The community is in a position where transparency is the order of the day.”

Under Armour’s Slam-Dunk Deal

Originally published in Slate on June 20th, 2016.
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It’s been a lucrative couple of years for Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, the country’s second-largest maker of sports apparel. His company’s revenue has grown by more than 20 percent for 24 consecutive quarters, and its savvy sponsorship deals—with NBA MVP Steph Curry, pro golfer Jordan Spieth, and ballet dancer Misty Copeland—have turned the brand into a powerhouse that now can plausibly be mentioned in the same breath as Nike and Adidas. Under Armour’s expansion into health and fitness technology has even placed it in competition with the likes of Apple and Google.

Just as ambitious are Plank’s efforts in Baltimore, where Under Armour’s headquarters have been stationed since 1998. As part of an effort to grow the company’s HQ staff—from its current headcount of about 2,000 employees to 10,000—Plank is seeking to redevelop some 260 acres of mostly empty industrial land on the south Baltimore peninsula. In addition to a new Under Armour headquarters, Plank hopes to create what would amount to an entire new waterfront neighborhood, complete with shopping, dining, office space, parks, and nearly 14,000 residential units. It’s a real estate development project that could transform the city.

The area Plank has his eyes on, known as Port Covington, has been an underused eyesore for decades. But while many in Baltimore’s political class are cheering the project’s potential to create new jobs and stimulate the local economy, there’s good reason to worry that if the plan goes forward, it could end up leaving the city’s most vulnerable residents worse off than they already are, all while saddling the city with risk it can’t afford.

The problem is that Plank, despite being a self-made billionaire, wants a lot of help to make his vision for Port Covington a reality. To that end, his real estate firm, Sagamore, has asked the city of Baltimore for a record-breaking $535 million in so-called tax increment financing. TIFs, as these types of loans are known, are used to fund infrastructure by selling municipal bonds to private investors, and then property taxes generated by the new development are used to pay them back. Though beloved by titans of commercial real estate, TIFs tend to draw scrutiny because they divert so much money away from a city’s general fund. MuniCap, a consulting firm that Sagamore hired to analyze its TIF application, projects that Plank’s development would not yield property tax revenue for Baltimore’s coffers until about 2040, even as the site would require substantial city resources in the interim.

The size of the TIF that Plank has requested is unprecedented for Baltimore. At more than half a billion dollars, it would be the third-largest TIF deal for a private company in U.S. history. And though the money it would raise would go toward funding improvements like parks, roadways, and bike paths, rather than Under Armour’s new headquarters, Sagamore’s project in Baltimore must also be understood as a tool that would help fuel Under Armour’s continued growth.

At a time when Baltimore is still reeling from the mass unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last year, the deal—as it’s currently structured—strikes many locals as a handout to the well-heeled. They have a point.

“[We are] outraged that, one year after the world bore witness to the decades of disinvestment in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, city leaders would respond by bending over backwards to back a $535 million playground for the rich,” Charly Carter, the executive director of Maryland Working Families, a progressive political advocacy group, says. “This is the new Jim Crow—black and brown families subsidizing wealthy developers while our own neighborhoods crumble.”

Baltimore has a long record of inequitable public investment, with political leaders financing flashy projects in mostly white areas and profits rarely trickling back into the poor, black communities that need funding most. The fear now being expressed by local progressive organizations, housing activists, and labor unions is that, for all the prosperity it will bring Kevin Plank and Under Armour, Sagamore’s TIF plan may turn out to be just another chapter in Baltimore’s history of bad development deals.

                                                                       *   *    *

The campaign to remake Port Covington has been aggressive and well-funded. Sagamore has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing the development to the public, and its forceful slogan—“#WeWill build it”—suggests that the project is a fait accompli.

Which isn’t far off the mark. The Baltimore Development Corp., a public-private agency, approved Plank’s $535 million TIF request in March, and the city’s Board of Finance backed it in April. Now all it needs is the Baltimore City Council’s final approval, which could come as early as August. Activists have urged the council to postpone its vote to give the public more time to comb through the 545-page proposal. But according to Councilman Carl Stokes, who heads the body’s economic development committee, Sagamore wants the deal approved by the end of the summer.

Tom Geddes, the CEO of Plank Industries, which serves as Plank’s private-investment vehicle, denies that Sagamore’s TIF request is anything more than a loan from outside investors to fund public infrastructure. “Some have mischaracterized the TIF as a ‘subsidy’ or a tax break. It is anything but,” he tells me. “There are no tax breaks for developers involved. There are no subsidies. There are no handouts.”

That’s semantics. There’s little question that Sagamore would benefit from the deal—MuniCap reported that Plank and his investors would earn $400 million more on the development with TIF financing than they would without. On top of the TIF money, the Port Covington project would be eligible for more than $760 million in additional tax breaks. As Barbara Samuels, a fair housing lawyer with the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, has said, the idea that Sagamore is asking for anything but a subsidy is an insult to the public’s intelligence. “They claim it’s not a tax break, but it most assuredly is a tax break,” says Stokes.

Subsidies are meant to generate benefits for cities and are usually reserved for projects that would be too difficult to fund absent government financing. But right now, it’s not at all clear that Baltimore would benefit enough from the Port Covington deal to warrant such a massive public investment.

There’s no doubt the city needs more jobs. Nearly 7 percent of Baltimoreans are unemployed, and for young black men, that figure is 37 percent. The city certainly feels indebted to Kevin Plank and Under Armour, too—few other esteemed companies offer comparable employment opportunities for locals. Yet according to Sagamore’s own TIF application, after it’s built, Baltimore residents are expected to fill just a third of the nearly 35,000 permanent full- and part-time jobs projected for Port Covington; the rest of the new employees would live outside the city. And there’s no guarantee, under Plank’s current terms, that they would even earn a living wage. Baltimore’s minimum wage is currently $8.25 per hour and is supposed to hit $10.10 by 2018. A living wage in the city for a childless adult is $12.42 per hour.

Community activists also worry that the proposed Port Covington plan would exacerbate racial segregation and do nothing to address Baltimore’s affordable-housing crisis. While Sagamore has touted its (nonbinding) goal of making 10 percent of its residential units affordable, the company defines its market for affordable housing as families earning 80 percent of the area median income of $86,700 per year. Baltimore City’s median income, though, is $42,000. Carol Ott, the director of the Baltimore-based Housing Policy Watch, says if Sagamore is serious about making its units affordable, it needs to use numbers that actually reflect the city’s population.

There’s also the matter of how the TIF deal could impact state funding for city schools. The Baltimore Sun reported that the city’s rapid economic growth spurred by local tax breaks and smaller-scale TIFs led to an automatic $24 million cut in state aid to public schools over the past year. This happened because the state assumes Baltimore’s wealth has gone up—based on property values and resident income—but because many of these valuable buildings pay no property tax, little new revenue actually goes into the city’s coffers. Since the Port Covington TIF is far larger than any other project Baltimore has undertaken before, the risk of severe fiscal drain looms large. For now, the state has agreed to not reduce education funding for three years as the Maryland State Department of Education reviews its school funding formula.

“The problem is, in three years the state could very well say, ‘Hey local jurisdictions, this is on you. You get no break.’ Or, ‘You get only a partial break, since you decided this TIF project was in your interest,’ ” says Melissa Schober, whose daughter attends an elementary school in the city. “As a parent, I don’t know what we would do except move, the cut would be so severe and substantial.”

There’s another reason to be skeptical. Port Covington would be Sagamore’s first major undertaking in the world of commercial real estate. Besides the ongoing construction of a new hotel and the transformation of an old garage into office space, Plank’s real estate firm lacks a track record in development. “This is a brand new developer, we don’t know what they’re capable of,” says Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor at Morgan State University. “I don’t know why the city would feel comfortable giving so much of its development future to one entity like this.”

* * *

If Sagamore gets its way, its nearly 600-page TIF application would be approved in just a few weeks—well before the next round of political leadership takes office in January. But local activists and labor unions want to see the plan slowed down, to ensure their concerns about quality jobs, affordable housing, and public education are properly addressed.

If local officials insist on moving forward, says Maryland Working Families director Charly Carter, advocates will demand a transparent process; a plan to help struggling neighborhoods near the development; and a “good jobs guarantee” with local hiring, full benefits, and living wages. “Most importantly,” she adds, advocates want a “clawback provision”—a contractual agreement with Sagamore—ensuring that “if the development falls through, our poorest residents aren’t left holding the bag.” (For example, if the expected jobs don’t pan out, or the property tax generated is lower than anticipated, or the developer walks away—local governments would still have to ensure that they don’t default on their bond payments and that Sagamore retains some responsibility.)

City leaders are discussing clawback provisions and other safeguards to protect Baltimore taxpayers if Port Covington goes belly up or underperforms, but at this point it’s not really clear what teeth these protections would have. In other municipalities, TIFs have left taxpayers with unanticipated shortfalls or have been used fraudulently by politicians with little oversight. In Chicago, nearly half of the $1.3 billion in TIF funds spent by the Rahm Emanuel administration between 2011 and 2014 went toward downtown gentrifying neighborhoods while blighted communities received little to no investment and saw decreased tax revenue for schools and public services. While those specific TIF funds may never have gone toward needy neighborhoods, these acts of financial engineering, which can place extra burdens on cities and on strained budgets, tend to only benefit the kinds of projects that make developers very rich.

“I think it’s being fast-tracked, it’s unfair to the taxpayer, and proper due diligence cannot be made so quickly on such a complex piece of legislation,” says Councilman Stokes. “It’s quite frankly unethical and doesn’t allow us to do any independent market analysis. We’re not facing a legal deadline, but we’re under a lot of pressure from the developer.”

Sagamore, which recently started a Change.org petition in support of its project, obviously doesn’t see it that way. “We have received tremendous and enthusiastic support from stakeholders across the city,” says Geddes, the Plank Industries CEO.“We’re excited to be a part of building something great in this city and proud that Baltimore is home to one of the largest urban renewal projects in America right now, a redevelopment that will bring tens of thousands of jobs at a time when the city needs a major economic boost.”

When I ask why the project is barreling forward so quickly, Sagamore’s president, Marc Weller, says that if Sagamore’s TIF is not approved as soon as possible, the city “may miss out on hundreds of millions of federal dollars that require TIF approval.” Specifically, he cites federal grant programs, like the Department of Transportation’s FASTLANE grant, which require cities to make local matching contributions in order to access funds.

But Weller made clear that government subsidies aren’t the only reason for the rush and that Under Armour’s growth is of pressing concern. The company, he says, “has simply outgrown its space” and therefore needs to “aggressively move forward with the construction of a new campus.”

Asked if the company will leave the city if the TIF deal falls though, Geddes answered, “the primary purpose of the Port Covington redevelopment is to allow Under Armour to grow in Baltimore City, and to keep the many direct and related jobs in Baltimore.” #WeWill see.

 

 

Baltimore’s Next Mayor Doesn’t Want to Talk About Racism

Originally published in Slate on April 29th, 2016.
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Following Tuesday night’s primary, Catherine Pugh is now the presumptive next mayor of Baltimore, having captured 37 percent of Democrats’ votes. Hers is a city that remains deeply impoverished and racially segregated, and in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray it has become central to the growing national focus on police violence. Yet race is the one topic Pugh has shown herself strangely hesitant to talk about.

Last month, Pugh’s campaign released an ad featuring a supporter—Francis X. Kelly, a former Maryland state senator—discussing why Pugh would be the best candidate to lead the city. Kelly enthused about Pugh’s ability to bring people together. “There’s too much talk of racism going on now,” he told voters. “The word racism has got to be erased from our vocabulary.”

Pugh’s campaign was criticized for the ad—including by upstart mayoral candidate and Black Lives Matter figure DeRay Mckesson, who asked Pugh on Twitter if this meant she was afraid to talk about racism. Whether or not she fears it, over the course of her campaign, Pugh, who is black, demonstrated clearly that she has little desire to directly confront the racism afflicting the city. While other candidates spoke about the need to reduce racial bias among Baltimore’s police force, Pugh’s policy platform was filled with platitudes like “recognize the uniqueness of each community and provide strategies for reducing crime that offers results.”

Aside from being a Maryland state senator, Pugh leads a public relations consulting firm and has said one of her top mayoral priorities is to improve Baltimore’s image. She’s advocated for a marketing campaign to “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate the greatness that is Baltimore.” She wants to “help us understand” that every neighborhood and person matters. She wants us to champion the city’s “diversity.”

There’s a lot that’s wonderful about Baltimore, but the fact is that almost every major issue facing the city today is a racial one. Not even a PR professional like Pugh can expect to avoid that. When she likely becomes mayor of this heavily Democratic city—where being born black correlates with significantly worse life outcomes—she’ll have to contend with the growing anger and frustration that’s been percolating across the city.

Baltimore’s not an outlier, but in some ways it experiences economic inequality and racism more dramatically than other cities in the United States. More than 7 percent of the city is unemployed, but for young black men, that figure hits 37 percent. Baltimore had a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, one of the highest murder rates in the country. New research released last spring by Harvard economists found that of the nation’s 100 largest counties, Baltimore ranked dead last when it comes to facilitating upward mobility. For every year a poor boy spends growing up in Baltimore, the economists said, his earnings as an adult fall by 1.5 percent.

This week, Baltimore commemorated the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s funeral, and the notorious riots that scarred the city that very same night. The criminal trials for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray are set to resume next month and continue until at least October. There will likely be more protests if locals feel justice hasn’t been sufficiently served in the courtroom. If ever Baltimore needs leaders who can talk frankly about racism, it will be when those verdicts come down.

As Baltimore faces a critical juncture, with residents still reeling from the riots last spring, Pugh has largely ignored these realities. She claims running for mayor is her “calling”—but her campaign platform is vague, her political record is unclear, and her notable lack of interest in reckoning with racism is worrisome. It’s a trait that won’t just hamper her on highly visible issues like police violence.

Pugh had few words to say on the campaign trail about the abandoned light rail project that Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, canceled last summer—a mass transit initiative that was widely anticipated to improve mobility for some of Baltimore’s most poor and isolated residents. In December, the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that canceling the light rail was racially discriminatory, as the governor diverted funds intended for the project to roads and bridges elsewhere. But Pugh has said she wants to “take the politics out of transit funding”—which has never happened for Baltimore and probably never will.

Catherine Pugh wants to make Baltimore a more “business-friendly” place and “promote [the] downtown core”—the same downtown core that has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies over the decades, with little profit trickling back into Baltimore’s black and beleaguered neighborhoods. Thus far, Pugh has not demonstrated that she plans to alter the city’s inequitable approach to development, which matters as city leaders will soon have to decide if they should issue more than half a billion dollars in tax increment financing to apparel company Under Armour, which wants to construct new headquarters in the city.

There are still seven months before Pugh is expected to win the general election, and one hopes she will continue to face pressure from voters and the press about her record and her intentions. Does she really think we should “erase racism” from our vocabularies? Was it ethical to collect campaign contributions from lobbyists who appeared before her as she served on the Senate Finance Committee?

A year ago, Baltimore’s current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, called those protesting Freddie Gray’s death in West Baltimore “thugs” who were “trying to tear down what so many have fought for.” Catherine Pugh hasn’t used such explicitly ugly rhetoric, but she also she hasn’t convinced the public that she wouldn’t.

For a country that has been largely absorbed in presidential politics over the last 15 months, paying attention to a mayoral race in a midsize city might not seem so important. But if inequality is one of the most significant issues facing America today—and 75 percent of voters who lean Democratic say it is—and if concerns about racism and race relations in the U.S. are rising—which they are—then there may not be a city more important to watch than Baltimore, Maryland.

Arrests and Suspensions Are Out of Control in Baltimore Schools

Originally published in VICE on March 9th, 2016.
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An eight-second video was released last week showing a Baltimore school police officer attacking an unarmed student while another cop stood by and watched. The clip went viral and spurred national outrage, as well as calls for a federal investigation. The two officers, Anthony Spence and Saverna Bias, turned themselves in Tuesday night to face second-degree assault and misconduct in office charges—Spence is also charged with second-degree child abuse—and had posted bail by early Wednesday. But with criminal trials still pending for the six cops charged over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray last year, the footage has stoked an already strained conversation around policing in Baltimore City.

Upon the clip’s release, politicians and advocates quickly began to criticize the city’s ill-defined school police policies, pointing out that there are no public arrest statistics, including who gets busted, why, and whether those incidents might have been handled outside the criminal justice system. There’s also little or no oversight of the school police budget and officers’ use of force. All of which is especially alarming given that policing aside, Maryland actually has some of the most progressive school discipline policies in the country—at least on paper.

Still, a lack of leadership and a persistent culture of criminalization within public schools have the city suspending, expelling, and arresting students too often—and in discriminatory fashion.

Baltimore’s unique place in America’s school discipline hierarchy emerged over the past decade. In 2004, the city’s school issued more than 26,000 suspensions in a school district of 88,000. Alarmed city advocates began speaking out, forming networks to push for disciplinary alternatives, and fighting for district leaders to reckon with the glaring suspension data. Research has long shown that excessive suspensions and expulsions are tied to higher rates of school absence, school drop-outs, and academic failure. Suspended students often sit around at home, or in low-quality alternative programs, falling further behind on their studies. There’s also evidence that school suspensions lead to higher rates of arrest and juvenile detentions, fueling what is commonly referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.”

In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who began overhauling the district’s school discipline policies. He worked to scale back not only the scope of offenses that could warrant an out-of-school suspension, but also expanded the number of restorative alternatives to keep kids in class and on top of their school work.

The results were dramatic. During the 2009-2010 school year, the district issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004. The suspensions were also significantly shorter, and graduation rates went up, particularly for young black men.

“One of the things that really sets us apart from other school districts is that students can no longer be suspended for low-level and ambiguous infractions, such as disrespect,” explains Karen Webber, director of the Education and Youth Development at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a local think tank and advocacy group. “Before, a child might say something edgy, and if an administrator didn’t appreciate what was said or how it was stated, that child could be sent home for five days.”

Advocates around the state began to push for similar reforms, and in 2014 the State Board of Education approved new regulations to reduce the numbers of suspensions and expulsions across Maryland. The new policies encouraged teachers and principals to keep students in the classroom whenever possible and to promote alternative disciplinary measures. And the feds took notice: In light of Baltimore’s substantial drop in suspensions, and the statewide work done around discipline reform, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore in 2014 to unveil the first set of national school discipline guidelines.

But even as suspensions have plummeted, critics point to a series of disturbing school police scandals and argue that Baltimore City still hasn’t implemented many of the progressive policies passed statewide two years ago. The district hired a new CEO that year, Dr. Gregory Thornton, who has made less of a fuss about school discipline reform.

“You can have the most promising policies on the books but rules are only as good as their implementation,” says Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“While there’s been great work done to write these policies, those changes have not been filtered down to the staff level—nobody has been retrained,” adds Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender in Baltimore.

For example, some suspended Baltimore students languish for months outside of school just because the district failed to make a final decision about their punishment. Neeta Pal, a legal fellow at the Maryland Public Defender’s office, says that when the district leaves students in this bureaucratic limbo—indefinitely suspended—it violates both state law and the US constitution.

One such student was 15-year-old Kuran Johnson, a ninth grader with a disability who was suspended this past October. Johnson spent four months in an alternative program, and was only allowed to return back to a traditional public school a few weeks ago after Nicole Joseph, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center, threatened to sue. “This is their way to get rid of kids,” Sabrina Newby, Johnson’s grandmother, tells me over the phone. “They feel these kids are so easy to suspend, and then they wonder why kids end up dropping out or wind up in juvenile facilities.”

Following the standoff between students and police back during the April 2015 Freddie Gray protests, Karl Perry, a Baltimore high school principal, penned a memo in which he attributed the local uprising in part to their “soft code of conduct.” He promised a “return to zero-tolerance enforcement,” and within two months, he was hired to be the district’s Chief Supports Officer—overseeing, among other things, suspensions and school police.

Joseph wrote an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun criticizing Perry’s remarks, arguing that zero-tolerance policies “feed the school-to-prison pipeline” and increase the likelihood at-risk students will be excluded from school. She called for reforms like increasing the number of mental health providers, promoting positive behavior interventions, and increasing engaging curriculum and job skills training.

She points out that in Baltimore, despite all the changes and national attention, black students and those with disabilities are still suspended at higher rates than the general student population.

“Yes, suspension numbers have gone down, in almost every district across the state, but the disproportionately is not going down,” Joseph says in an interview. “Both by race, and also for students with disabilities, these minority groups are not experiencing the same reduction in harsh discipline that non-disabled and white kids are.”

Officials with the Baltimore City Public Schools did not return repeated requests for comment on Perry’s remarks, on students left in suspension limbo, and on whether the district feels it has adequately implemented the state’s discipline regulations. Meanwhile, critics see the suspensions, expulsions, arrests and abuse cases as part of the same problem—a school culture that tries to kick students out rather than engage them where they are, as they are.

“We know so many of our kids have serious challenges, and one of the goals of our schools should be to address them, to help them, and not to punish them,” Egan says. “We have to change the culture so that schools actually take kids as they come. We can’t just pass the buck.”