As Baltimore considers a half a billion dollar tax break for wealthy developers, activists and academics across Baltimore say the key to uplifting Baltimore is through fair development.
SOLOMON MERCER: I’m scared to walk out my own front door nowadays, because when I was little, police were who I looked up to. That’s who was going to protect me, like, I wanted to be a police officer when I grow up. Now, I’m 15 now, I’m starting to see what’s really going on in the world. and being a black man in Baltimore like that, it’s scary. it’s a very frightening experience knowing that you can walk out your front door and get murdered by the police. JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: That’s 15-year-old Solomon Mercer, speaking on the day that prosecutors dropped all charges against the six officers charged with killing Freddie Gray. the death of Gray last April, just one in a series of high-profile police killings, sparked mass demonstrations across the country. The firing of the police chief, and prompted city and business leaders to promise to restore faith in institutions many feel have long favored the rich at the expense of the many. But 15-year-old Mercer says leaders have forgotten the most important thing: to heed the will of the people. MERCER: They need to listen to us, because we are trying to talk, and someone once told me you can only get slapped so many times before you slap back. and we’ve been trying to talk to them for a long time, and they haven’t been listening. NOOR: We met Mercer as he arrived at a rally for police accountability at city Hall, and just after he had left another event a block away, where hundreds had debated whether the community would benefit from a half-million dollar tax break for developer Sagamore to revitalize the Port Covington area of South Baltimore. Under Armour’s Kevin Plank has envisioned a city within a city that proponents say would be an economic engine, and bring badly-needed jobs and housing to the city. But critics like Mercer say more needs to be done to bring resources to disinvested neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray was raised, suffered lead poisoning, attended under-resourced schools, and was arrested and ultimately died. SPEAKER: I see rundown houses every time I go down the street, but I don’t see that downtown. I see booming businesses, I see a lot of exploitation, if you ask me. And I don’t see that in West Baltimore. I see rundown houses where you can look up and see the roof of the second floor. NOOR: Sagamore did recently sign a $40 million community benefits agreement with six neighboring communities. $5 million is guaranteed, and the rest contingent on market conditions. Michael Middleton is the chairman of the Cherry Hill Community Coalition. MICHAEL MIDDLETON: [Inaud.] contributions to the South Baltimore area, there’s been a lot that’s been done for us, or to us, but not with us. This is an opportunity for us to work with Sagamore in improving the nature and the condition of these communities in the South Baltimore area. NOOR: But Dayvon Love of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle says the key issue remains community control and accountability, whether looking at Freddie Gray’s death or giving developers hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks. DAYVON LOVE: It’s the whole issue of accountability, that communities that are most directly affected by issues of poverty, mass incarceration, et cetera, that the folks in our communities are not given the power to determine the institutions that [govern their lives]. So half a billion in public subsidies, the community should have significant influence over the way that that money is spent. A significant investment should be made in the community. But it almost is if that kind of accountability is an exceptional kind of accountability that we don’t see in our city government, or in the process to determine the flow of resources. NOOR: We reached out to Sagmaore, and their president, Marc Weller, told us in a statement: We’re proud to participate in the public dialog around this transformational redevelopment in Port Covington, as we have through countless very positive and productive conversations with community stakeholders over a period of many months, we look forward to next steps with the city council, and even more opportunities to inform and engage the public about Port Covington. We walked over to the hearing and saw many remained in attendance even several hours after it started. Proponents argue that city residents would benefit from the tax break because the developer would hire [inaud.], and the increased tax revenue would benefit the entire city. But many like Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor at Morgan State University, argue local hiring and housing goals must be mandatory, especially if we’re to prevent more Freddie Grays. LAWRENCE BROWN: There are thousands of Freddie Grays in our city. There are thousands of babies that are yet to be born that have the potential to be lead poisoned, that have the potential to attend apartheid schools, that have the potential to have poor health outcomes and to have these interactions with police. So what this project means is that thousands of children have the opportunity to live in a community of opportunity in Port Covington if we have sufficient, affordable housing, if we have real fair housing. And I think that’s the reason why we’re pushing for it, because we don’t want children to have to grow up in these lead-ridden homes, going to apartheid schools, and not having the type of opportunity that they could have in a community like Port Covington. NOOR: And why is it dangerous to have discussions of justice with police accountability, reducing crime, without talking about economic justice and using the power, not just individual actions, but the power of institutions to guide them? BROWN: Well, I mean, just look at our city budget. We spend more on policing for fiscal year 2017, $475 million, than we do on health, housing, arts, and parks combined. So that’s really a budget that’s not designed to produce life. It’s not a budget that’s designed to make sure that people’s health, their housing, their creativity, and their wellness is protected overall. So I mean, it’s in our budget. If we want to really make sure that we take care of our citizens, we have to spend less on policing and more on these other categories that would actually make a difference. NOOR: From Baltimore, this is Jaisal Noor.
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