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.

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Can Baltimore Recover from Its 2015 Murder Wave?

Originally published in VICE on January 6, 2016.
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For criminal justice activists, 2015 was an exhausting year. After high-profile police brutality incidents captured the public imagination at the tail-end of 2014, America had a new national conversation about racism to contend with. Protesters took to the streets across the country, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!”; fresh instances of death and pain inflicted by police officers on (mostly) black civilians spread across social media every week; newspapers compiled databases of the number of people killed by cops; presidential candidates were asked to distinguish between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” on nationally-televised debates.

One of the responses to these protests from the law-and-order crowd was to ask if all this campaigning against police brutality was contributing to an increase in crime. This is the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” a theory suggesting that anti-cop rhetoric was creating a climate in which police could no longer effectively do their jobs. It remains a theory—the statistical evidence supporting a rise in crime rates is thin; last month, the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute affiliated with New York University, published a report finding crime was roughly the same last year as it had been in 2014 in America’s largest cities.

That report, however, was scant comfort to Baltimore, a city where mistrust between the cops and the people they serve may have created some serious challenges. Charm City saw a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, the highest total since 1993, when the city had 100,000 more people living in it, as the Baltimore Sun reported this month. In April, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody, sparking weeks of Baltimore protests and unrest. In five of the eight months following Gray’s death, homicides surpassed 30 or 40 a month. Before the unrest, according to the paper, Baltimore had not witnessed 30 or more homicides in one month since June 2007.

All told, there were some 900 shootings in Baltimore last year, up some 75 percent from 2014—a violent crime spike unparalleled among the 30 largest cities in America, according to the Brennan Center’s analysis. Though Baltimore’s police and political leadership insist they are determined to make last year’s crime statistics an aberration, whether they’re planning to do so through tougher policing in 2016 remains to be seen. And with high-stakes local elections coming up, along with a legislative season where police reform will most certainly be on the table and months of trials left for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore residents are not expecting closure to the unrest any time soon.

Speaking to the Sun, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis recently said he plans to pressure the state legislature to make possession of illegal firearms a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, and for police to hunt down gun traffickers. He also said he’s ramping up recruitment efforts for 200 vacancies in the police force, and trying to coax retired cops to come back to the department. Davis wants to increase street patrols, focus more on residential burglaries, and partner with other city agencies to prevent and solve crime. These priorities reflect some ugly statistics: The BPD’s homicide clearance rate dropped sharply in 2015; police solved only about 30 percent of all cases, and according to theSun, their 2015 clearance rate was less than half the 2014 national average—as well as some 15 percentage points below the BPD’s own average in recent years. Experts suspect that the lack of trust between the police and the community is a major contributing factor behind the low clearance rate. (The Baltimore Police Department did not return repeated requests for comment for this story.)

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thinks that until the cops on trial for Freddie Gray’s death are acquitted, the BPD is not going to be able to do its job effectively. “It isn’t that these officers did something bad and got caught. It’s that they did exactly what they were told to do and are being prosecuted for it,” he says. “As long as cops feel like they can get criminally prosecuted for doing their job, you shouldn’t expect cops to be proactively policing.” He adds that winter offers a sort of natural reset button for communities, since crime tends to go down when the temperature drops. “It gives them an opportunity to feel like, OK, we’re starting over,” he says. “But the department is still understaffed and morale is in the tank.”

Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Programs at Baltimore’s Open Society Institute (OSI), says her organization has been working closely with Commissioner Davis and Baltimore’s police to help them identify and reduce discriminatory practices within their department. This would hopefully help to restore some trust between the police and Baltimore residents. OSI will also be providing seed funding for a policing pilot program this year where officers will send people who appear to be suffering from an underlying drug addiction into a community-based treatment center rather than arresting them. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, (LEAD) was first developed in Seattle, and it helped to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system while also getting them the aid they needed.

When asked whether she thinks the city has responded in a serious enough way to the unrest and its aftermath, Huffman acknowledged that there’s “a lot of talking” going on, including dialogue between people who don’t normally speak to each other. “There is room for progressive ideas and solutions that wouldn’t have gotten the same audience eight months ago,” she told me. “But we’re not seeing the fruit yet. I think we still have a ways to go until we see the fruit.”

The question of whether the city and state will be willing to make serious investments in poor Baltimore communities, a critical factor for reducing gun violence long-term, remains an open one. Just last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal complaint over the cancellation of a long-planned transit project in Baltimore, which would have primarily benefitted low-income blacks who lack quality transportation options. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cancelled the project and diverted money to roads and highways elsewhere in the state. The city also massively underfunded its Operation Ceasefire program, a violence-reduction initiative that proved highly successful (if also controversial) in cities like New York. Baltimore’s Operation Ceasefire director resigned last spring in protest, citing insufficient resources and support. In addition, following the Freddie Gray protests, Governor Hogan cut Baltimore City’s public education funding by 3.3 percent.

Yet on Tuesday the governor traveled to West Baltimore to announce a nearly $700 million plan to tear down vacant buildings throughout the city and bring in new development over the next four years.

“I don’t see us policing ourselves out of this crisis. That has never worked before,” says Alex Elkins, a visiting historian at the University of Michigan who studies the police. “We need sustained engagement with hard-hit communities in order to establish a different pipeline, toward civic inclusion rather than banishment to jail and prison. To achieve that, a policy that attacks root causes is essential, ethically and strategically.”

“People are generally angry about a variety of things, and we have a community that makes promises but no real substantive investments,” adds Dayvon Love, co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore. “This year we’re gonna see a lot more of what we saw in 2015. It won’t be an anomaly. We’ll continue to see a lot of the same.”

City residents are not expecting an end to the unrest any time soon. The six officers on trial for Freddie Gray’s death will take the stand over the next several months; the first officer’s first trial, which ended in a hung jury, has already been rescheduled for June. The pretrial hearing for the second officer, Caesar R. Goodson Jr., began Wednesday. Goodson faces a number of charges, including second-degree depraved heart murder, a crime carrying a maximum 30-year sentence.

On top of the trials, 2016 is set to be an intense year for state and local politics. The state legislative session kicks off in Annapolis next week, and activist leaders will be pressuring legislators to pass police reform measures, like body cameras and changes to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights—or a list of ways cops can evade scrutiny. On top of that, a new Baltimore mayor and City Council will be elected in November; Huffman thinks the current City Council could turn over more than 50 percent in the next cycle.

Love says he and other activists will continue to pressure leaders to invest directly in the people living in the beleaguered communities—a more effective and sustainable way, he argues, to create safe and thriving neighborhoods.

Elkins agrees. “Anything we try will be expensive—rather, anything that is worth trying ought to be expensive,” he says. “The spike after Gray’s death and the riots does seem anomalous at the same time that it is cause for concern. Yet we shouldn’t be distracted by the dispute over the Ferguson Effect—which essentially asks, who’s to blame? That’s a sideshow to the real issue of economic justice. Because of the way our criminal justice system favors the rich over the poor, we should be trying to empower the poor.”

OSI’s Huffman adds that it remains to be seen whether the powers that be are ready to do what the city needs.

“There’s definitely political will to stop the bleeding, but whether or not there’s a real recognition of what the underlying problems are, I’m not sure,” she says. “The city is still in transition, but we have a lot of opportunities right now to get this right.”

The Wrong Way to Revitalize A City

Originally published in the February 2015 print issue of In These Times Magazine.
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Baltimore workers rally for fair urban development near the Horseshoe Casino construction site on April 20, 2013.

The pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has come up with yet another strategy to bolster the power of big business. Republican lawmakers in Michigan plan to introduce an ALEC-backed bill that would ban “community benefits agreements” (CBAs), one of the few options local activists have to fight for equitable development. A CBA is a contract between community groups and developers of publicly subsidized projects. In exchange for community support, a developer might agree to offer quality jobs, living wages, affordable housing or environmental protections. ALEC’s CBA ban, which specifically prohibits a local minimum wage, would be unprecedented.

The contrasting stories of Baltimore and Buffalo, New York, two economically depressed cities that launched ambitious development plans, show what happens to workers and the poor when safeguards like CBAs are–and aren’t–in place.

The Inner Harbor myth

Baltimore was one of the first U.S. cities to rebrand itself as a tourist and entertainment hotspot in response to the painful post-war impact of deindustrialization and white flight. Beginning in the 1950s, Baltimore poured millions of dollars, through tax breaks and subsidies, into building up its Inner Harbor entertainment district and other attractions. By the early 1980s, these projects were bringing more than 18 million visitors to the city annually, leading many politicians and pundits to proclaim that Baltimore was in the midst of a terrific revival.

But it was never an equitable one. Between 1959 and 1995, Baltimore lost 75 percent of its industrial jobs, and by 2008, the city had lost a third of its population. Despite the tall, shiny buildings and bustling shopping centers downtown, blight and abandonment plague many corners of Charm City. As anthropology professor David Harvey wrote in 1992, “If people could live on images alone, Baltimore’s populace would have been rich indeed.” Instead, in 2012, more than 25 percent of the city lived in poverty, including 37 percent of the city’s children.

Meanwhile, the Inner Harbor is still drawing 14 million visitors a year and remains a point of pride for local leaders. In 2013, the city released plans to build up the Harbor even more over the next few decades. “Anything that’s great for tourists is great for locals,” Tom Noonan, CEO of Visit Baltimore, told the Baltimore Business Journal.

The approximately 1,500 restaurant and retail workers at the Inner Harbor might disagree. In 2011, United Workers–a human-rights organization led by low-wage workers–and the nonprofit National Economic & Social Rights Initiative co-published a report on Inner Harbor’s labor conditions that documented abuses such as chronic wage theft. The report profiled many workers, including Nadja Martens, a server at Hard Rock Café, and Jason Bandy, a server at Capitol City Brewing Company. Both saw big paycheck decreases during the winter months, when tourism was slow and tips were scarce. “During … November, December, January, February, 100 percent of the time I was not paid minimum wage,” said Bandy.

This report was the first investigation of its kind. “The formal measure of success for these public investments [in the Inner Harbor] has been a superficial assessment of whether a rundown area has been ‘cleaned up,’ whether customers are happy, whether businesses and investors are making money,” the report stated. “Job creation has been addressed as a simple matter of quantity–how many jobs are created–not of quality.”

Todd Cherkis, a Baltimore organizer with United Workers, puts it this way: “There’s the myth about the Inner Harbor, and then there’s the reality.”

A different approach

In 1994, in response to the bleak conditions, Baltimore citizens mobilized the nation’s first grassroots living wage campaign, fighting to establish higher wage standards for businesses that receive government subsidies. The campaign was historic, but activists won a watered-down victory: The new requirements applied only to city contractors, not all publicly subsidized developers.

Since 1994, more than 120 other municipalities have seen their own living wage campaigns, inspired by the original Baltimore activists. One was Los Angeles, which enacted a living wage ordinance in 1997. A year later, LA residents pushed for what would become the nation’s first CBA–a labor agreement tied to an incoming Hollywood shopping mall and entertainment complex. Dozens of cities have since negotiated their own CBAs; 28 were in effect nationwide as of 2012.

The story of the waterfront development in Buffalo, New York, provides a strong contrast to Baltimore’s. In 2004, the state-run Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) embarked on a plan to transform Buffalo’s waterways into a Great Lakes version of the Inner Harbor. Using a $350 million grant from the New York Power Authority, the ECDHC planned to give approximately $40 million in public subsidies to outdoor-sporting goods store Bass Pro, to be the anchor tenant, and Benderson Development, to build the retail store.

“When we found out about all this, we were really concerned about the size of public subsidies for private businesses, particularly for Bass Pro, a low-wage employer,” says Andy Reynolds, a communications organizer with the Buffalo-based non-profit Coalition for Economic Justice (CEJ). “We began to learn about community benefits agreements as a best practice, so we started a coalition to launch one of our own.” The result was the Canal Side Community Alliance, a coalition of more than 60 community organizations launched in 2009 to put public pressure on both developers and local political leaders. By 2013, the Canal Side Community Alliance was able to get the state to agree to a CBA. The project is still underway, but with less emphasis on retail and a greater commitment to local needs like good jobs, Buffalo’s Inner Harbor–in theory–will look quite different from Baltimore’s.

To be sure, CBAs are no panacea. If developers do not hold up their end of a CBA agreement, the community coalition must hold them accountable, which in many cases means going to court. Such sustained oversight is challenging and sometimes unsuccessful. And, as Peter Marcuse, professor emeritus of urban planning at Columbia University, writes, “CBAs … often provide only a limited reach for alternative means of making the planning process truly democratic.”

Still, CBAs are far better than nothing, and the fact that they are in ALEC’s crosshairs is a testament to their efficacy. As Matthew Raffol writes in Advocates’ Forum, “By organizing residents of low-income communities and granting them access to development planning processes, CBA coalitions transform these residents from objects of urban development policy to subjects who actively shape development decisions [and] exact a price on private capital that it would not otherwise incur.” In other words, when faith, labor and community groups come together to make demands on municipal projects, they shift the dynamics of urban power and set the stage for further demands.

Hope yet for Baltimore

In April 2013, hundreds of Baltimoreans rallied at the site of the new Horseshoe casino to celebrate a deal that local unions, with the help of Maryland state officials, had brokered with Caesars Entertainment Corp. The 1,200 permanent casino staff would be allowed to organize without management opposition, using a simple-majority “card check” process.

That victory is being used to fuel a push for fair development throughout the city. In October 2014, a new group called One Baltimore United–comprised of labor, faith and community organizations–rallied outside City Hall for higher-wage jobs, improved schools and better public services. “Our goal is to show that the Inner Harbor model is outdated,” says United Workers’ Cherkis. The coalition is keeping a close watch on future development projects and sees CBAs as one tool in its arsenal.

Cherkis expresses cautious optimism: “The landscape to address these issues is definitely changing.”