EDITOR’S NOTE: One reason why The Real News Network calls Baltimore home is because we know that the struggles that the people in this majority-minority city face (unequitable access to resources like education, clean air, and transportation, for example) are the struggles people face all over the globe. To this end, The Real News Network is beginning an interview series that examines the elected officials who are leading this apartheid city at this moment in history. This is the first installment.
Last week, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott held a press conference outside of City Hall to give citizens an update on distribution of the newly released COVID-19 vaccine. He was reading from a prepared statement about how many doses of the vaccine the city would be giving out and who would be first to receive them, when local activist Duane “Shorty” Davis, a local artist and activist who, when he isn’t feeding the homeless, is publicly confronting politicians, began yelling at Scott from just beyond the camera’s view.
“Shorty, pull your mask up,” he said. “Hold on a second. Shorty. Come on, man. People dying, Shorty. People need to hear this information because they are dying. Hold tight for a second.”
The exchange quickly went viral in Black Baltimore and beyond and even led to a dance remix incorporating Scott’s line, “Shorty, pull your mask up”—a line Scott’s team began using as part of a COVID-19 awareness campaign. Many people were amused to see a leader speaking so casually to a constituent (many out-of-towners didn’t realize that Scott was addressing Davis by the name he’s known by around town).
It was kind of funny, but the exchange also provided a frame for viewing Scott’s nascent mayorship and the challenges ahead: How will he get a city in the midst of crisis to run at a basic level of competency while also meeting a rising, progressive call for bolder action from dedicated activists?
At 36, Scott is still a young man, but he’s been in Baltimore politics for almost 10 years. He was elected to Baltimore City Council in 2011, representing the 2nd District. He was elected City Council President in May of 2019, following the resignation—and indictment—of former Mayor Catherine Pugh, which moved then-council president, Jack Young, into the mayor position.
For better or worse, politicians must often rely on their image as shorthand for their work and ideas. With seeming effortlessness, Scott has used online moments like the exchange with Shorty, or even the attention his hair has garnered (Scott wears it in an Afro with a crisp shape-up, and the picture he released following his swearing in last month also made social media rounds) to illustrate the way he is, or could be, a departure from what has come to be expected from leadership in Baltimore, a city desperately in need of change.
“I am coming into a city government that is broken,” Scott told me over the phone the Saturday before his swearing-in. “If folks are football fans, we went 0 and 16 the last couple of years.”
When Scott was sworn in last month, he inherited a mess: Citizens that are deeply and justifiably demoralized by entrenched political corruption and inaction, and deep-seated problems with the city’s education system, transportation system, and police department, which despite being under a federal consent decree continues to make the news for police scandals both large and small.
The city’s last duly elected mayor, Catherine Pugh, was in 2018 sentenced to federal prison for fraud conspiracy and tax charges related to the sale of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books.
The bar, to put it mildly, is very low. If Scott finishes his term without arrest, then, by this city’s standards, he will have done his job. However, for the reasons listed above, the city needs so much more and Scott knows this: He must offer up a plan that exudes competency but is also progressive enough to actually meet the needs of many people in this city who have been ignored for decades.
“The citizens elected me because it’s clear that they do not want a continuation of the status quo,” Scott told me. “They have seen me while I’ve been in city government, not be afraid to call out folks and stand on my own … when I believed something was wrong.”
At the time of this story’s publication, according to a dashboard maintained by the Baltimore City Health Department, 681 people have died from COVID-19, and over 40,000 people have tested positive. Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, has not made the decision to shut down businesses since he first did so back in March (doctors have said large numbers of people gathering inside enclosed spaces can increase the spread of the disease), and his inaction means Scott and other state leaders have had to impose their own restrictions to keep citizens safe.
One of Scott’s first acts as mayor was to issue an executive order shutting down indoor recreational establishments like bowling alleys and bingo halls, as well as indoor and outdoor dining at city restaurants. It was a tough call to make because, absent further government relief, business owners have had no other choice but to keep their doors open to stay in business.
“We must focus on health and fiscal recovery that builds a more equitable city,” Scott said. “But I will not be afraid to go further than a governor or to do things that people are going to be mad about. Because my job is going to be to keep people healthy and alive.”
Scott said he hopes for a more uniform and informed federal government response once President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office. He also said he was looking to get more aid for businesses devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak: “We will turn over every stone that we have to support our businesses, because we know how much they mean to the city, especially when you talk about jobs and people being able to provide for their families,” Scott told me.
This week, Scott, along with City Council President Nick Mosby and City Councilmember Eric Costello, introduced legislation that will cap the fee that third-party delivery services like DoorDash or Grubhub can charge eating establishments.
So far, Scott’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been what it should be: reliable. Last Friday, for example, he announced at a press conference that he’d be giving updates on the city’s lockdown status weekly, so that business owners can have a week to prepare for possible changes.
There are other, more deeply entrenched problems that Scott will have to address. He told me that there’s a laundry list of things he’s looking to get fixed as quickly as possible: repairing the city’s broken water billing system, improving trash pickup, getting recycling pickup restarted (last month, Scott announced that this service would resume Jan. 19, after Young abruptly canceled it in late August). Scott also noted the importance of focusing on housing—providing support for developing neighborhoods and finding real solutions for the unhoused.
“These things aren’t sexy, but they’re necessary,” Scott told me.
Scott has selected names for his transition teams that will be very familiar to progressive Baltimore: Erricka Bridgeford, Baltimore Ceasefire 365 co-founder; Liz Cornish of the bike advocacy nonprofit Bikemore; Shantay Jackson, consultant and founder of the Baltimore Community Mediation Center, and others.
“We know historically, mayoral transitions are just filled with the elite, you know, leaders, folks, folks who are connected,” Scott told me. However, he wanted a more diverse perspective, and so some of the people he selected, like Bridgeford, have origins that are more grassroots in nature.
That being said, there are people on these committees who are very much part of establishment Baltimore. For example, Baltimore Brew has written extensively about developer Larry Jennings and his lawsuit against residents who are fighting plans to partially demolish a historic building in Baltimore’s Woodberry community. Jennings is a member of Scott’s housing and neighborhood development transition team. Scott said that even though he doesn’t agree with Jennings on a lot of things, he thinks it’s important to still have him at the table.
In a sense, this mix of insiders and outsiders captures Scott’s strategy: Entrenched establishment ideas forced to confront the demands of the grassroots.
On top of all this, Scott is newly in charge of a city that, much like the rest of the country, is still struggling to substantively reckon with race and policing. Young didn’t seem to understand what the Black Lives Matter Movement even was, telling a reporter for The Ringer: “I think we should reexamine Black Lives Matter. Because all lives matter. We have people killing each other every day. Where are the marches for that?” It’s worth noting that Ericka Bridgeford, part of Scott’s transition team, is a key organizer behind Baltimore Ceasefire which specifically organizes—and marches—around awareness of street violence and uplifting the names of homicide victims.
Young was the latest in a succession of mayors who didn’t quite rise to the occasion presented by the Black Lives Matter movement. Before him, Catherine Pugh oversaw the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments but fumbled most other things. A video she released showing her yelling at a squeegee kid for not being in school may have been intended to make her seem in charge and active, but instead made her look harsh and unforgiving. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, when some leaders were crying out against his racism and authoritarianism, she hustled to give him a letter when he was in town for the annual Army-Navy football game. And former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called participants in the 2015 uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray “thugs.”
Scott points to his record as proof that he understands growing critiques against police. For example, in 2012, when Scott was a new councilperson, he called attention to what he saw as overtime abuse by police. But as incidents of police violence continue against Black citizens (this summer, a BPD officer was caught on tape punching a woman), he will inevitably be called to do more.
Scott said he’s been fighting in Annapolis on the subject of the Law Officers’ Bill of Rights, a controversial bill that makes it harder to investigate police for misconduct—and becoming mayor won’t change that.
“I will hold BPD accountable as mayor,” he told me. “We need to stay nimble and build a relationship that will last beyond my time.”
Scott also explained that the strange way the Baltimore Police Department operates—as a state agency rather than a city agency—limits what city government can do to increase accountability. He has argued for giving the city control over its own police force.
“We need local control over BPD, we need to listen to our residents and youth organizers,” Scott said.
At his swearing-in, Scott said he was looking to think about a new way of policing. Although, it should be noted, he did not call to defund or abolish the police outright, he addressed the concerns that police are seen as a catch-all for city problems.
“Gone are the days where we attempt to simply police our way out of our problems,” Scott said. “That strategy does not work. It has not worked. It will not work.”
He said he has a few plans in the works to “re-imagine” public safety. For one, he said he wants to relieve police of the responsibility of responding to calls that would actually require the services of, say, a social worker.
“[Police] aren’t trained to be clinicians,” he told me.
Scott said the federal consent decree, introduced in the aftermath of a damning Department Of Justice investigation to ensure constitutional policing will be instituted, lays the groundwork for this. The decree addresses police interactions with people in need of behavioral health services, saying: “In situations that do not involve an emergency petition, BPD will divert people with behavioral health disabilities or in crisis to the behavioral health service system, rather than jail or a hospital emergency room, whenever appropriate.”
He also mentioned the Equity Assessment Program. Born out of legislation passed by the city council in 2018, the program aims to formalize a way of looking at city functions and making them more accessible for everyone.
That means “going through and doing the tough work of redoing the policies and practices, making sure the city is budgeting differently over time, especially in the capital budget, to put that investment into the areas that were redlined,” he said.
Over email, I asked members of West Coalition, the group dedicated to bringing justice for the 2013 police custody death of Tyrone West and other victims of police brutality, whether Scott has reached out to them in the past and what he should do now that he’s in office.
“Brandon and members of his staff were in communication with members of the West Coalition when we were advocating for and working on the bill to end gag orders. He supported victims and families being heard,” they wrote. “It is important that he continue to support giving victims of police brutality and their families ways to heal.”
Members of JHU Sit-In, the group fighting plans to give Johns Hopkins University its own privatized police force, said some of the transition team picks are cause for concern because they are so closely tied to the school.
“As the JHU Sit-In, we have never been reached out to, but have reached out to him in the past,” members said in response to emailed questions. “After reviewing recent appointees, it seems clear he is committed to having Hopkins administration and sympathizers very closely involved in his administration.”
Scott seems to understand that his plate is full, but that it’s important that he start somewhere.
“I am not [coming into] this with rose colored glasses and thinking like, ‘Oh, well, boy, in four years, Brandon Scott wiped out all racism in Baltimore that existed, since Baltimore was created,’” he said. “But … when you look back in history, it has to be that turning point, when we woke up and said we’re going to start to do things differently to make sure that we get to that point.”