Last month, Battleground Baltimore called attention to Democrats in the Maryland state house refusing to ensure that paraphernalia used for injecting drugs was decriminalized. State Senate President Bill Ferguson announced at the start of a special legislative session last month that, despite calls from harm reductionists, the issue would not be addressed. To decriminalize paraphernalia, Democratic legislators would simply have had to vote to overturn Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the decriminalization bill.
Instead of overturning the veto, Ferguson said decriminalization would wait until this year’s legislative session when it will be taken up by way of a number of bills to address overdoses in the state. Disappointed harm reductionists will surely hold Ferguson and the rest of the state-level Democrats to that promise in 2022.
This week, Ferguson did introduce some “emergency” legislation, though it did not have to do with the overdose crisis; rather, it had to do with shutting down Baltimore City’s frequently vilified red-light district, “The Block,” by 10 p.m. each night.
The bill to close “The Block” earlier, which you can read here, says that the area should be closed earlier for “emergency public safety issues.”
As defense attorney Joshua Insley (who first called attention to the bill) tweeted, “The city is trying to shut down The Block again.” Baltimore-based photojournalist J.M. Giordano’s 2021 photo book, We Used To Live At Night, is a sprawling, celebratory, and empathetic look at 25 years of Baltimore nightlife, including “The Block.” The book, as the title suggests, is in part a document of the buzzing, take-all-comers nightlife the city government has cracked down on in recent years.
A press release about the bill said it was introduced by State Senate President Bill Ferguson and State Delegates Luke Clippinger, Robbyn Lewis, and Brooke Lierman “in partnership” with City Councilperson Eric Costello and Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison.
Before Police Commissioner Harrison came to Baltimore, he oversaw the New Orleans Police Department and was frequently criticized by sex workers for conducting raids on local strip clubs under the guise of investigating “human trafficking.” The 2018 raid of local strip clubs did not yield any trafficking arrests or locate any trafficking victims.
“Law enforcement portrayed the clubs as fronts for human trafficking, but their evidence was thin to nonexistent,” Melissa Gira Grant wrote in 2018’s “The New Orleans Police Raid That Launched a Dancer Resistance.” In 2019, journalist Justine Barron reported on the Baltimore Police’s “reverse prostitution stings” under Harrison and the “climate of vulnerability” they created.
In a statement, Harrison said the proposed shutdown was the result of violence on “The Block,” which, he admitted, increased Baltimore Police Officer presence has not stopped.
“Violence within and resulting from ‘The Block’ in Baltimore City’s central business district has drastically increased in recent months despite a robust and consistent deployment by the Baltimore Police Department,” Harrison said. “In 2021, there were an unprecedented 831 calls for service to ‘The Block’ and immediately surrounding areas, including 8 shootings with 11 victims, 15 robberies, 17 aggravated assaults, and 1 suspicious death. Many of those were brazen incidents with police officers in the immediate vicinity.”
What Harrison’s statement does not acknowledge is that nearly every crime that ever happens on “The Block” is in cops’ “immediate vicinity.” That’s because Baltimore City Police Department Headquarters is less than 100 feet from the start of “The Block.”
Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club at 409 East Baltimore Street and the police headquarters on the 500 block of East Baltimore Street are about 60 feet away from one another.
What has also been left out of local coverage of this bill is that police are responsible for at least some of the supposed chaos on “The Block.” Back In August, for instance, Baltimore Police shot a man who was armed. In November, Baltimore Police veterans John Burns and Bryan Hake were at “The Block” strip club Chez Joey and ended up tussling with cops who were called to the scene because they had refused to pay their $1000 tab. “Get out of my face. I will destroy all of you,” Burns told state troopers who arrived to remove him.
News of the bill moved many Baltimoreans to express skepticism that the concerns about crime in the area are what’s really driving this bill; instead, the bill appears to many as the latest attempt to shut down the historic area of the city and open it up for redevelopment.
Twitter user and local organizer Peter M. actually looked at the 2021 police call data for “The Block”—the same data cited by proponents of the bill as justification for closing “The Block” earlier. Read Peter M.’s full thread here. From the information provided, one can see that 111 calls were for disorderly conduct, 41 for common assault, 17 for aggravated assault, 13 for an armed person, nine for a behavioral crisis, seven unarmed robberies, four armed robberies, and four shootings.
“I also want to point out how these numbers are completely overshadowed by police surveillance activity: patrols and ‘business checks,’” he tweeted, adding that there were 478 calls for foot patrols and 383 calls for business checks.
Additionally, one recent gun arrest on “The Block” offers residents a glimpse into how police actually enforce the law there. Last month, a man was arrested for gun possession after police saw him on the city’s Citiwatch surveillance cameras holstering a gun in front of a strip club on “The Block.” In court, however, the story got a lot more complicated. The man in question was in town for work and had brought his licensed guns through BWI airport legally. Upon arriving at the club, he removed his gun and left it in his car, as is the expectation when entering bars and clubs in his home state of Louisiana.
After leaving the club, the man got his gun out of his car and holstered it. Cops saw this on camera and subsequently arrested him for gun possession. Because Maryland does not recognize out-of-state permits, this man could potentially face three years in prison for unlawful carry and become a prohibited person with a conviction. The man’s lawyers noted that he had no prior convictions.
THE PEOPLE’S COMMISSION TO DECRIMINALIZE MARYLAND’S 2022 PRIORITIES
During a (virtual) press conference on Wednesday Jan. 19, The People’s Commission to Decriminalize Maryland announced its legislative priorities, including two drug policies that State Senate President Bill Ferguson and fellow Democrats have failed to enact year after year: cannabis legalization and decriminalizing drug paraphernalia.
Shawnta Jackson of Cause Engagement Associates, one of the commission’s 28 partners, expounded on these two priorities.
“Decriminalizing drugs means eliminating all criminal and financial penalties associated with drug use. It means investing in strategies that empower individuals to improve their health and wellness, to live self directed lives, and reach their full potential,” Jackson said. “The key legislative priorities of the drug policy workgroup for this 2022 legislative session include cannabis legalization and that means supporting a path to legalization with a focus on reparative justice and inclusion for communities and individuals most impacted by cannabis enforcement”
Jackson also stressed the importance of decriminalizing drug paraphernalia.
“[Another priority is] providing access to safe supplies that reduce the spread of disease and remove barriers to community-based programs that connect people to lifesaving programs,” she said.
Year after year, Maryland Democrats have failed to legalize cannabis. In 2019, a workgroup headed by Ferguson announced it would not recommend cannabis legalization in 2020. Legalization did not pass in 2021 either. The decriminalization of paraphernalia was approved in 2021 but was, in turn, vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan—and, as discussed above, Democrats chose not to overturn that veto.
During the press conference, which you can watch here, six other priorities were introduced and discussed. They include: getting rid of the few remaining sodomy laws that still exist in Maryland; passing the Pregnant Person’s Dignity Act; juvenile justice reform, including the expansion of diversion services; changing the language of “failure to obey” lawful orders; stopping the criminalization of students; and decreasing the waiting time for expungements on felonies and misdemeanors.
BALTIMORE STARBUCKS UNIONIZING
Workers at a Starbucks coffee shop in Baltimore City’s Mount Vernon neighborhood publicly announced that they were organizing their workplace, joining a swell of labor action in different sectors by workers who have been emboldened amid worsening workplace conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mount Vernon Starbucks workers have demanded better wages, working conditions, and scheduling stability, and they are seeking representation from Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that’s helping to unionize Starbucks workers around the country.
“There wasn’t a soul out that wasn’t looking for some way out of the situation that COVID put service workers in,” Violet Sovine, a worker-organizer at the Mount Vernon Starbucks, told Battleground Baltimore. “And Buffalo has given us a clear path for organizing ourselves and pushing back against those deplorable conditions that we’ve been put into.”
The unionization drive has support from the majority of the store’s staff. On Jan. 15, 15 workers at the store signed a letter, which was then posted on social media, calling on Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson to halt the company’s “anti-union” campaign and voluntarily recognize their union by Jan. 19.
“We’ve run ourselves ragged in increasingly stressful working conditions without reaping any of the benefits, and the only way to improve these conditions is to organize as a unified working class and assert democratic control over our workplace,” the letter reads.
Starbucks has not yet responded to the letter, so Mount Vernon Starbucks workers plan to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
After Starbucks workers at a store in Buffalo, New York, became the first out of 9,000 corporate-owned Starbucks locations to unionize in December, workers at a second Buffalo-area Starbucks officially won their unionization vote on Jan. 10. Despite a sustained anti-union campaign from the company, which is the largest coffeehouse chain in the world, workers from at least another 18 stores have filed to unionize, including five locations in the last week alone. Voting is currently underway at a Mesa, Arizona, location, and workers at two Virginia stores announced this week their plans to form a union.
While the sobering reality is that union density in the US has continued to decline, the union drive at the Baltimore Starbucks is part of an energizing upswell of union activity among frontline workers during the pandemic across the city. Workers at the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, for instance, have moved toward forming a union in recent months.
One Starbucks worker in Baltimore, who did not want to be identified, emphasized the terrible treatment workers have received during the pandemic.
“We are considered ‘essential workers,’ but have only been shown how disposable we are,” they said. “There needs to be a change in how we as a society treat our service workers who go through hell and back every day to keep businesses like these alive.”
MARYLYN MOSBY ON THE DEFENSIVE
It has been a little over a week since Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was federally indicted for perjury and misrepresenting her finances on a mortgage application. Mosby held a quick, no-questions presser the day after the indictment to declare herself “innocent.” Then, in the ensuing days, pundits such as Chris Hayes and legal experts such as Sherrilyn Ifill began repeating versions of Mosby’s go-to defense: that she is being unfairly targeted because she is a beloved Black politician making significant progressive change.
As Battleground Baltimore noted last week, Mosby’s national reputation as a “progressive prosecutor” is looked at more skeptically here in Baltimore, where the relentless prosecution of Keith Davis Jr. continues and questions remain about what Mosby knew regarding the dirty cop squad comprising the Gun Trace Task Force.
That said, Mosby’s support from Baltimore is significant, and at least one part of her defense is impossible to ignore: Baltimore City has plenty of white, powerful crooks who seem to regularly evade the law while Black political leaders are getting indicted annually (including, over the past few years, former Mayor Catherine Pugh, former police commissioner Darryl DeSousa, and former delegate Cheryl Glenn).
The indictment says that Mosby, even as she made nearly $250,000 as State’s Attorney, claimed economic hardship in order to withdraw almost $100,000 out of her retirement towards a mortgage for two vacation homes in Florida. The indictment also claims Mosby said one of those Florida homes was her primary residence in order to reduce her mortgage rate.
At a press conference on Monday, Jan. 17, lawyer A. Scott Bolden explained that Mosby’s other businesses were negatively affected by the pandemic, not her State’s Attorney job.
“I’m not going to get into the specifics of that,” Bolden said. “She qualifies with one of those under the statute, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Reporters immediately pounced on Bolden’s statement, noting that Mosby had previously claimed that none of her businesses were operational—information she divulged last year after it was first revealed that she was being investigated.
This week, Baltimore Brew also reported that Mosby has used campaign funds to pay her defense attorneys.
“Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby dipped into her campaign coffers last year to pay nearly $50,000 to lawyers defending her in a federal criminal probe, despite Maryland law prohibiting such expenditures,” the Brew reported.
$1 HOMES LEGISLATION CRITICIZED
This week’s hearing about Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby’s $1 homes program focused on many of the same concerns expressed by housing advocates and City Hall insiders in Battleground Baltimore’s December piece on the program.
Among the chief criticisms of the program—which would allow Baltimoreans to essentially lease a property for two years for just one dollar if they renovate it themselves—is that it is duplicative of already existing city programs to help homeowners and this new legislation could reduce the efficacy of those programs.
Additionally, the low-income, lifelong residents this legislation intends to target are unable to get access to capital to renovate these homes, begging the question: Who will actually end up benefiting from this program? Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy said that for the program to work, “the access to capital and lending, affordability, and comprehensive community revitalization…also need to be in place,” and they simply aren’t right now.
According to Bob Cenname, Baltimore’s Budget Director, it would take about $2.3 million to get the program into operation and grants for home repairs would cost almost $14 million each year.
Nick Mosby powered through the criticism and stressed that he believes that he is “in alignment” with many of those questioning the dollar homes program.
“We are in agreement that more funding is needed to support the programs that already exist,” Kennedy told him.