Back in June, the Baltimore City Council approved a $22 million budget increase to the Baltimore Police Department’s budget, going against the demands of hundreds of Baltimoreans who showed up for two taxpayers’ nights to tell Mayor Brandon Scott and members of Baltimore City Council, “defund the police.”
“That the City of Baltimore has to scramble together on two nights to say something and hope that it changes is not a participatory process,” Rob Ferrell of Organizing Black said at the time.
As Battleground Baltimore previously reported, the budget increase was, at least in part, a done deal before Taxpayers’ Night. That’s because even if the council and the mayor had been motivated to vote “no” to an additional $22 million for the police, the federal consent decree likely would have fined the city for defunding. It is just one more example of how police are rewarded for their corruption and dysfunction, and the rest of the city loses. A consent decree imposed on the city after Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015 now nullifies the will of the people and gives elected officials who don’t actually want to defund a convenient excuse.
None of this is exactly new—police officers in Baltimore are often failing miserably to keep people safe while burning through their department’s $500 million-plus budget—but the stranglehold police have over the city and its elected officials has been made especially stark over the past month or so. The month of August, especially, offered up a laundry list of dysfunction and misconduct by Baltimore Police that made a strong case for defunding.
The department’s crime lab is backlogged, among many other problems, as the Baltimore Sun reported. The police are disproportionately enacting traffic stops in majority Black neighborhoods, as The Real News reported. As Baltimore Brew reported, it was only last month that it was publicly revealed that a police officer who killed a teenager in 1993 had remained with the department for years despite being stripped of his duties, collecting a paycheck and racking up overtime for almost three decades. The BPD’s move to the former Baltimore Sun building continues to skyrocket in cost, as Baltimore Brew reported. The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office indicted Baltimore police officer Christopher Nguyen for reckless endangerment. It was also only last month that the longstanding practice of allowing police officers to work overtime shifts even if they were on vacation ended.
And the Baltimore Police union’s stance on vaccination is not encouraging.
On Aug. 31, Baltimore City’s Fraternal Order of Police and the Baltimore City firefighters’ union released a joint statement, commenting on Mayor Brandon Scott’s policy requiring all city employees to either be vaccinated or take a weekly COVID-19 test.
“It is our desire to remain engaged in collective bargaining over the implementation of this policy,” the statement said. “We look forward to working amicably with members of Mayor Scott’s administration to ensure this policy and its associated procedures are implemented fairly, equitably while protecting our member’s [sic] personal concern and autonomy.”
In April 2020, towards the start of the pandemic, a Perkins Homes resident recorded a Baltimore Police sergeant intentionally coughing on people after they greeted him with, “Hey Officer Friendly with the cherry cheeks.” The name of that sergeant, who was suspended, was never released by the police. In Jan. 2021, Baltimore Police Sergeant James Rhoden used his influence to get the then-hard-to-obtain COVID-19 vaccine for a family member. He is no longer with the police department.
In other cities, the police have aggressively negotiated against vaccination. In Portland, police were simply exempted from the citywide mandate for vaccination. In a scene that might seem familiar to Baltimore residents who are used to a Democratic mayor regularly caving to police, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said, “I am disappointed that we can’t hold all of our City employees to the same vaccine requirement.”
COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for cops in 2021, killing 110 police officers nationwide so far.
COVID-19 Concerns and No AC as Students Return to School
Baltimore City public school students didn’t only have to worry about returning to school in person amid a surging pandemic—many also stepped into schools without functioning air conditioning. Temperatures upwards of 90 degrees forced the early dismissal of hundreds of students at two dozen schools without working AC when schools reopened on Aug. 30.
Despite their school closing early on the first two days of class, Baltimore City College High School senior Samreen Sheraz told Battleground Baltimore that school is off to a good start.
“Students are getting the ‘normal’ school environment back, which means they have motivation, and support from peers and teachers,” Sheraz, a member of Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS), said. “It is much easier to get it in person rather than online.”
While Sheraz approved of the district’s mask mandate and social distancing policies, they said a better job could be done enforcing it.
“The safety protocols are implemented efficiently in classrooms only,” Sheraz said. “The protocols get a little ignored during lunch and dismissal, which can be dangerous to many.”
In cities like Baltimore with a large digital divide, being able to learn in person again has been a helpful; 200,000 mostly low income Baltimore households with school-aged children lack access to high speed internet or a computer, a May 2020 Abell Foundation report found.
“Being in school helps the brain to be focused on studying and the improvement of our grades,” Sheraz explained.
The district’s COVID-19 dashboard reports a .15% COVID prevalence rate among 88,000 students and staff. 132 positive cases have been reported in the past 10 days, according to the district, which says 80% of staff and 90% of principals are vaccinated.
“There could be much better communication with the schools, staff, and students, because as of now I don’t believe that Baltimore City Schools has been very transparent about their plans, if cases keep rising,“ Blanca Rosalez, a SOMOS member and high school junior, told Battleground Baltimore.
Some parents and teachers have taken to social media to express frustration over the lack of a district-wide plan for students who are forced to quarantine when weekly testing of all unvaccinated students and staff begins next week.
“There is no plan for quarantined kids; instead there is only school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher. More inequity for kids. Likely to worsen as asymptomatic testing begins and more kids are quarantined,” public school parent Melissa Schober said.
Brittany Johnstone, a school psychologist and special services vice president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, tweeted: “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg. Testing beginning on 9/13 will mean a rapid increase in known positive cases (which the district admitted to in their email to staff) and we have absolutely no clarity on how to educate students who are required to be at home.”
This past week, Gov. Larry Hogan called the lack of AC in some city schools “unbelievable.” Back in 2018, City College students protested Hogan’s lack of funding for city schools when high heat forced students that attended schools without functioning AC to be dismissed early.
With its history of disinvestment, Sheraz worries about whether city schools will have enough resources while the pandemic continues with no end in sight.
“School funding is a recurring issue and it has been repeating over the years,” Sheraz said. “Schools would need more resources such as hand sanitizer, clorox wipes, and tissues to maintain the safety of students and staff.”
Cannabis Legalization and Racial Equity in Annapolis
This week, the House Cannabis Legalization Workgroup had its first meeting to discuss how legalization and regulation of cannabis would be implemented and how legalization could be implemented in a more racially equitable way.
During the meeting, the workgroup noted the tax revenue generated in Colorado, the first state to establish a legal, regulated industry and a state whose demographics reflected Maryland. Colorado has gone from generating around$600 million in 2014, when the regulated industry began, to more than $2 billion in 2020.
But racial equity was the workgroup’s focus.
“We will do this with an eye towards equity and in consideration to Black and Brown neighborhoods and businesses that have been historically impacted by cannabis use,” Delegate Luke Clippinger, the chair of the workgroup said.
Maryland has remained woefully behind on cannabis. In 2014, cannabis was decriminalized if a Marylander was in possession of 10 grams or less, and as of 2017, there is medicinal cannabis, but legalization has yet to happen. Actually, even increasing the decriminalization threshold to the more-common one ounce has not happened. A legalization workgroup in Maryland announced in 2019 that it would not recommend legalization during the 2020 session, and so, the energy happening right now is welcome but also falls woefully behind where many advocates believe the state should be at this point. Getting legalization “right” has long been a concern in Maryland, and even now, the workgroup is discussing a referendum in 2022 with the regulated industry arriving, if that passes in 2023.
In the meantime, as those in Annapolis figure out how to get legalization and racial equity right, Maryanders continue to be arrested on cannabis charges, and those who are arrested are disproportionately Black.
A 2020 ACLU report noted that a Black Marylander is more than two times as likely to be arrested for cannabis as a white Marylander, and possession arrests still made up 50% of all drug arrests.
“They prepare your meals in filth”: Food in Maryland Prisons
When The Maryland Food & Abolition Project asked J.G., someone who was incarcerated during COVID-19, about the food situation inside the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, Maryland, he did not hold back.
“It’s not like it’s sometimes you get a pretty good meal now and then. No, this is consistent. This is an everyday situation. And the kitchen—I don’t think they’ve ever passed an inspection. Because OSHA would close the place down. That’s how bad it is,” J.G. said. “Roaches and mice and other insects and stuff crawling all over the place. So they prepare your meals in filth, basically.”
That comes fromthe first part of the Maryland Food & Abolition Project’s “I Refuse to Let Them Kill Me: Food, Violence, and the Maryland Correctional Food System,” a shocking report on how poor the food given to prisoners is, released earlier this week. The report was published by the Maryland Food & Abolition Project on Sept. 9, the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising, and just a couple of weeks after their report “Violence, Hunger, and Premature Death: How Prison Food in Maryland Became Even Worse During COVID-19.”
“For lunch, you get a bag, and everything in the bag tastes and smells the same. You get a juice box. You get a sandwich, which is two pieces of bread, some cheese, and a slice of meat,” Mark, who was formerly incarcerated at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Maryland, said. “The meat is bad. They call it sweaty meat, because lunch meat sweats, it gets the oily skin on it or stuff on it and then it turns white. You also might get a piece of fruit and a pack of cookies, but everything tastes the same. It tastes like the sandwich. And that’s lunch.”
These reports offer the kind of deep dive into the cruelty endured by Maryland’s prisoners that local press rarely covers at all—let alone comprehensively. As journalist and political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal observed in 2013, far too often, “the media offer the episodic, while they ignore the systematic.”
You can read the first part of The Maryland Food & Abolition Project’s “I Refuse to Let Them Kill Me” here and “Violence, Hunger, and Premature Death” here. Over the next two weeks, the Maryland Food & Abolition Project will release the next five parts of “I Refuse To Let Them Kill Me.”