Swimming in Baltimore: How Poverty Works
The Baltimore Bureau of The Real News takes an in-depth look at the psychic toll of poverty, and how the enforcement of its invisible boundaries and social walls infects an entire city
The Baltimore Bureau of The Real News takes an in-depth look at the psychic toll of poverty, and how the enforcement of its invisible boundaries and social walls infects an entire city
TAYA GRAHAM: What is poverty, and how does it work? Particularly in Baltimore, where it persists and informs how we live and die. Perhaps it can best be understood through a tale about fish. Two young fish were swimming, when an older fish swam bay who said, “Good morning, how’s the water?” The younger fish continued on, until one asked, what is water? The point of the story is simple and yet complex: that which surrounds and sustains us can also be invisible.
In Baltimore the same could be said for poverty. Like water to fish, we are swimming in its symbols: abandoned neighborhoods, vacant buildings, crumbling streets, broken sidewalks, but perhaps blind to its logic. Particularly in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, when the media depicted poverty here as statistics and numbers, the result of discriminatory laws and aggressive policing, the root cause of the city’s ills.
But this depiction of despair falls short, because the story of poverty in Baltimore and how it defines the city is best understood not just in our surroundings, but as water. That is, as something whose true purpose and how it sustains us we cannot see.
Chapter One: Poor Amidst Riches.
CORNEL WEST: Poverty in Baltimore, poverty in the United States, poverty in the world, the global capitalist economy, is a catastrophe visited on poor people. And there’s such a fear, there’s a real trembling in the boots of elites at the top, when poor people straighten their backs up, organize, mobilize, and bring significant power and pressure to bear.
GRAHAM: When Freddie Gray suffered a fatal injury while in police custody, a question loomed over his death: why would police chase a man who simply looked at them? But in that gaze was connection unseen to outsiders. The connection between the impoverished and their keepers. Because in Baltimore, poverty has purpose.
WEST: Poverty reinforced not just the political dimension of the system but the economic dimension of the system in terms of money being made on people suffering, on people’s social misery.
SGT. LOUIS HOPSON: Nobody wants to admit that we have two Baltimores, one of the haves and the other the have-nots. And the have-nots are those of people of color.
GRAHAM: Often understood in facts and figures, but finds form in the way we live. The idea of poverty is simple in imperative: some take more, and some get less. The statistics are stark, but often misleading. In Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray grew up, the average life expectancy is 14 years less than the city’s wealthiest neighborhood, Roland Park. The median income there, $92,000, is roughly three times higher than the $27,000 average income in Sandtown-Winchester, which is the neighborhood that includes Gilmor Homes, where Freddie was arrested. But this only tells part of the story, because hidden behind the facade of City Hall are mechanisms that make poverty work.
Baltimore spends three times more on policing than it does on education, one of the highest percentages spent on law enforcement across the country. And it has shuttered dozens of recreation centers across the city to save just millions, while at the same time pumping nearly $1 billion into retirement benefits for cops. Meanwhile, the city has created one of the most punitive juvenile curfews in the country, which entraps our youth in the criminal justice system at an early age. And even after the unrest in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declined to fund thousands of requests for summer jobs for teens that would have cost the city just $3 million.
These are the facts and figures. But a more interesting question is: how? Specifically, how is the seeming inequity maintained? And why is it allowed to flourish? Because if, indeed, Baltimore is two cities, how are these boundaries constructed between the haves and the have-nots, and who guards them? And better yet, who is responsible? Because these lines of demarcation, while not invisible to the people who live here, must be enforced. If not physically, then psychologically. Which is where the idea of poverty begins to take shape, where the numbers and stats find a more meaningful place within the soul of the city.
Chapter Two: The Chase.
Freddie Gray was black, and the officer who chased him, white. He ran from this block on North Avenue to Gilmor Homes, where Freddie grew up. It is this dynamic, the chase, from which boundaries are formed. Lines that take shape around fear.
CALVIN WILKES: It was always against, them against us. Them against the community. It has always been that way.
GREGG HILL: Their tactics aren’t something that you would use if you didn’t want to hurt anybody.
SHABRIA JOHNSON: And y’all are trying to enforce all these, like, rules on us and all these curfews and things like that. And like, we can’t even be walking to the store at a certain time.
GRAHAM: Social laws that have long histories.
ANTERO PIETILA: And once the first black family moved in, then the [run] began.
GRAHAM: Antero Pietila, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, understands them. His book, Not In My Neighborhood, recounts how real estate speculators used racial fears to profit during the 1950s and ’60s. It was an idea called block busting, and its mechanism was fear.
PIETILA: And then this fearmongering would start, and there would be calls at all times of the day and night, and questions like, did you hear about the [rape]?
GRAHAM: And made the chase, along with the devastation it left behind, a way of life.
PIETILA: And many whites in neighborhoods, they became totally paranoid. They are–it obviously was to buy as low as possible, and then flip it. And so a typical house would, would be acquired for a speculator for about $7,500 from a white family, and then it would be flipped for $13,000 to a black family.
GRAHAM: Fear which was translated into money.
WEST: You, you see the utter and abysmal failure of a capitalist economy to keep track of the humanity, of a significant slice of–I speak as a Christian–of God’s precious children.
GRAHAM: And defined the emptiness we see today. And made the chase, along with the devastation it left behind, a way of life, which evolved into the pursuit of Freddie Gray, and turned a poverty fueled by fear into a business. And that idea took new form when the city discovered that tourists love water.
Chapter Three: The Boundaries of Fear.
The Inner Harbor is a gleaming tourist attraction. A promenade of wealth and distraction, a playground for the visitors. Surrounded by water, built, maintained, and subsidized by residents, at a cost of nearly $2 billion. But with its success, the process through which poverty fueled it evolved. Soon, taxpayer money was used to build more gleaming towers. And soon, the poorest neighborhoods were forced to subsidize the richest.
CARL STOKES: You had the people, the taxpayers, or the very people in the high [press] neighborhoods. They’re the ones who have to pay their taxes every year to subsidize the people who don’t pay taxes. It’s an amazing thing. The wealthiest projects and developments in the town are often, been subsidized by the average low-income taxpayer, who must pay their taxes every year or have their home taken from them.
GRAHAM: And most intriguing of all, the fear used to vacate the city in the ever-expanding gap between the rich and poor it engenders soon became its greatest obstacle to growth.
JOHNSON: You can’t even be yourself in your own neighborhood. You can’t be free. It’s a whole bunch of fear. It’s just like, you shouldn’t have to live like that. It’s just ridiculous.
LT. STEPHEN TABELING: As soon as, I feel like, they start their trainings, it’s about being a soldier.
GRAHAM: In 1950, Baltimore’s population was 1 million. Its police department comprised 1,600 officers. One of them was Stephen Tabeling. As a young man and later into his career, he was taught to police by the book, to follow the law.
TABELING: There was a time, even when I first went in homicide, that if you were looking for someone and they had a nickname, the first person you got was the foot patrol officer. Say, do you know [inaud.]. He’d pull a book out of his pocket and say, oh, yeah.
GRAHAM: But as the Inner Harbor expanded, and development in predominantly white neighborhoods flourished, the police department expanded, too. And even as the population shrank almost in half the department doubled, leaving Baltimore one of the most heavily policed cities in the country. By then, Lt. Stephen Tabeling was a trainer at the academy.
TABELING: I thought I was in a Marine Corps boot camp when it came to physical education. It was, they used to have the, the first or second week that the students were in there, they had something that they called ‘Hell Week’. And you know, I think if you look back at basic trainings and things like that you’ll find such a thing as Hell Week.
GRAHAM: There, Tabeling taught the law, the significance of the Constitution, and the rights of the people. But he also witnessed as the department transformed into something he didn’t recognize.
TABELING: I gave a pre-test of lieutenants and sergeants on the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. And it wasn’t, it wasn’t very good. They, most of them–most of them wouldn’t pass it, most of them wouldn’t have an understanding of the Amendments.
GRAHAM: Soon after, he was let go.
SALAAM BABATUNDE: I just walked to the other room in the academy. And they’re just going to have, on [inaud.] day on the chalkboard, like, the Fourth Amendment does not apply to us. Like, I have a picture of it and everything. And like, most people when I show it to them are like, no, that’s not true. Like, how did you, like, did you do that yourself? Like, really? Like, why would I do that myself? And that’s how it was, like, on the day-to-day, when you come into the department. It’d be like, the whole blackboard would just be, like–. I mean, one time, you know, [I’m talking about], there was–they’d be in there. [Inaud.] just be like–. And like, all right. So I, you just had to, just, like, ignore them. Like, all right. Let’s try to be civil with the rest of them.
GRAHAM: This is 28th Street and Greenmount Avenue, allegedly one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. But to Shabria Johnson, it was home. A place not far from the Inner Harbor. But from her perspective, a million miles away. When she was just 11, she had her first encounter with the illusory boundaries that comprise the city; how the two faces of poverty worked in concert.
Sitting on her stoop on a summer evening, the then-preteen was grabbed by a city police officer.
JOHNSON: Officer drives up and stops in front of my house. And we’re sitting on the steps. It was me, a girl, and a guy. He, [inaud.], he starts talking to the guy, like, what are you doing out here? It’s past curfew. And you don’t belong out here. And he lived right next door to me. So he’s like, I’m home. I live right there. And I’m just like, he didn’t even do anything. He’s like, you need to shut up and go in that house. Y’all can go to jail. Y’all should not be out here, it’s past curfew. So then he tries to, like, grab us, and like, come on, come on, y’all want to be smart. Get back in the paddywagon, get back in the paddywagon. I just snatched away, like, I’m not going in the back of that paddywagon. So that’s when my father comes outside. And he’s like, well, just come in the house. Just come in the house, because I don’t have time for this. Because he’s just like, y’all are lucky. And he just was like, he just got in and drove off, for real.
GRAHAM: It was an encounter with the police department that employed a policy called Zero Tolerance: a strategy based upon the idea that petty crimes were like broken windows, eyesores that could be fixed with arrests, and make the community safer. In this case, nearly 700,000 people were arrested in just seven years. During its peak, over 100,000 residents were arrested in just one year in a city with just over 600,000 people, most of them African-American.
But later, this policy was determined, for the most part, to be illegal. That judgment was the outcome of a lawsuit by the ACLU and the NAACP. The settlement which also determined Zero Tolerance was aimed primarily at people like Shabria.
JOHNSON: They’re not really there for our benefit. It was like, every time I saw an officer I was like, is he going to try and get [inaud.] me, or is he going to try to lock me up?
BABATUNDE: One of the times, while we were doing the program, doing a youth sensitivity model of police, me and my friend were coming home from work in dress clothes, from the radio station that we were working at for the summer. And we get pulled over. And they pull us over, you know, try to rip the car apart. And then they’re like, well, where’s the drugs? I’m like, brother, come on, I’m dressed up like–I mean, I’m coming from work. It’s evident I’m coming from work. And he was like, nah, you got the drugs. Like, let me smell your fingers. Like, my fingers? Like, my–you want all my extremities, too? You want my toes, too? And I’m like, okay, you know what? Smell my dirty, stank, atrocious nails. Go right ahead.
He’s like–so then he’s not satisfied. He’s like, what, he’s like, where are they? And like, I was like, you know, I don’t consent to the search. And that was like, that was it. Then he was like, talking about physically whipping my ass. Like he said, if we were in West Baltimore right now, I’d whip your ass up and down the street.
GRAHAM: Chapter Four: Poison.
When a man runs, there is usually a reason. Freddie Gray is dead, so we don’t know why he ran, or what he was running from. Some would say police, or point to his previous encounters with the law.
HOPSON: We can find probable cause in any community to stop somebody. But the question is, what do you do after you stop somebody? I think there, then [inaud.] lies the problem.
GRAHAM: But maybe in a way he was running from his future, forged within these abandoned spaces. Because as the city rebuilt the Inner Harbor, and taxes from the less wealthy communities subsidize expansion of the downtown, neglect in his neighborhood set in. Not just the aging infrastructure and broken buildings, but a poison called lead, toxic, and sometimes deadly, that festered inside the home where Freddie Gray grew up.
SAUL KERPELMAN: Lead poisoning, at an early age, it’s the most dangerous and severe kind of neurological insult because it happens to the brain that’s not fully developed yet. And so when lead does its damage, the damage is permanent. And the damage prevents the child’s brain from developing properly.
GRAHAM: And led to his diagnosis as a child poisoned with lead. It was a solvable problem with horrific consequences. A poisoned child is permanently brain damaged, and studies show more likely to be impulsive, less capable of learning. In a sense, trapped inside the permanent limitations of their own mind. Saul Kerpelman has sued landlords for a living. He says the problem is easy to fix.
KERPELMAN: There’s really good medical and scientific studies on it, that it inclines a person to be more violent. It inclines a person to get the salve of drug addiction. So a child with a history of lead poisoning is seven times more likely to have a reading disability. I believe is statistically six times more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system. And it greatly increases the, the prospects that the person who has, the child with lead poisoning, is going to end up with addictive behavior.
GRAHAM: But the state and city combined offer just a few million to address it, even though nearly 93,000 children in Maryland, mostly from Baltimore, have been added to the state’s lead poison registry. Meanwhile, policing nets billions.
ANTERO PIETILA: We had a health commissioner in the 1950s, Dr. Huntington Williams, who prohibited the use of lead paint in public housing. So how come Baltimore is about the only city in this country where lead paint is still a problem?
KERPELMAN: Frankly, I think it’s because the children that get poisoned are black children. If it were white children in Roland Park having the same degree of lead poisoning, the same incidence of lead poisoning, the problem would be solved instantly.
GRAHAM: It’s an oversight Kerpelman can’t explain.
KERPELMAN: What I ask is, what does it say about our society if we’re okay with that happening? If we’re writing these people off? It’s okay that every child in West Baltimore is going to get brain damage from lead poisoning. Is that okay? Well, by our inaction we’re saying it’s okay. And it’s not okay. It’s totally racist. It’s totally unfair. It’s totally unjust. And the powers that be should be doing something about it, but they don’t.
GRAHAM: Chapter Five: When Two Cities Collide.
Back at the Inner Harbor, the signs of poison and neglect and desires unsated are nowhere to be seen. Instead, it is a feast of abundance. But the tranquil space to consume requires barriers, particularly when the world of Freddie Gray and the city that would like to forget him collide. Collisions that highlight the inequities and contradictions of the city. One such collision revealed the force of poverty in its most raw form.
April, 2014. Calvin Wilkes, age 25, was visiting the harbor with friends.
CALVIN WILKES: Say, we maybe was ten or eleven people.
GRAHAM: It was inside this promenade where he encountered a security guard walking down a broken escalator.
WILKES: I was confronted by a security guard. The security guard told us to walk back upstairs. I was already halfway down, so I made the point, like, I’m already halfway. Can I just finish walking around [the rest]? He said no.
GRAHAM: The trio was leaving when officers approached. And then, this. An arrest, brutal and violent.
WILKES: Him and one of the females was arguing back and forth. Nothing too serious. It wasn’t, like, no threats made. It was just more, I don’t really got to pay attention to you, whatever, I’m leaving. You can leave me the hell alone, type demonstration. And I was telling all to myself, like, we’re leaving, it’s no problem. He wind up speeding up and hopping off the bike and jumping on her. At that time, I felt that that was wrong, for a male officer that weighs twice her size to just, to jump on and take her straight to the ground. So as I approach, I was speaking to him. Like, you know that’s a female, or that’s a female, you know you’re not supposed to do that. Which in result, I got locked up. Well, I can’t say I got locked up. I got taken down. And as I was getting taken down, one of the officers pushed my head into the ground.
JENNIFER BARTLEY: They were choking him. And he had blood coming out of his mouth. And I screamed at them over and over to stop. And I said, I think you’re killing him, because the blood was pooling out of his mouth. It wasn’t like he had a cut or something. Eventually he was tased, and he was also taken on a stretcher to a hospital.
WILKES: And I’m going on a stretcher. By the time I got to the hospital, I do recall them giving me a shot. Which, that shot kind of put me straight out.
GRAHAM: Wilkes was incapacitated, hospitalized, and then incarcerated, where perhaps he would have stayed for years, had there not been this witness.
BARTLEY: My husband and I were going by the pavilion. We were in our car.
GRAHAM: Jennifer Bartley was driving to Whole Foods with her husband when she saw Wilkes go down.
BARTLEY: And we basically jumped out of our car when we saw police officers assaulting two young black kids.
GRAHAM: What she witnessed was something a person who lives in one of the city’s wealthiest enclaves rarely sees. But it was how she responded that is even more unusual. As she learned about Wilkes, his life, and his troubles, she found herself repulsed, questioning assumptions about the force of poverty and its origins. And she put those doubts into action.
Calvin’s bail was set at $15,000, cash only, meaning he couldn’t use a bail bondsman, or put up property. Both prospects were unlikely for a young man who had been homeless most of his life. But $15,000 cash was impossible. So Bartley stepped forward, placing her money and reputation on the line to help a young man she barely knew.
BARTLEY: After 12 days I bailed him out. It took me 12 days just to figure out how to bail him out. They were very uncooperative. I had a very hard time finding out his name, where he was, how to bail him out.
WILKES: I get a, right before shift change, actually while shift change was going on, “Mr. Wilkes, pack up”.
GRAHAM: Almost all the charges were dropped against Wilkes. And a friendship began to form.
WILKES: From there, our relationship has been, I would say nice. It was, basically I found, basically I would say a new best friend.
GRAHAM: But the reality remains that Wilkes is still unemployed, his future uncertain. And Bartley remains convinced the fates of people like Wilkes are determined by forces beyond their control.
BARTLEY: One day I took him into Under Armour, in the Inner Harbor. I had thought to myself, I’m going to get them each some summer clothes, because I know they don’t have anything. So I notice about ten minutes later that a policeman came in and started following Calvin around, and obviously did not know that he was with me. And I thought, well, that must be their life. And then I turned to the policeman and I said, can I help you? Because I thought, you know, why are you following him around? Why? Because he walked in the store, he didn’t look like your typical customer? You wouldn’t follow my kid around.
GRAHAM: Back in the neighborhood where Freddie was chased, the camera crews and the media have left. The streets are again alive, and the same idea of separation and neglect remain. Punitive barriers still plague the community. But poverty as it exists here, and the people who live with it, is no longer an idea without hope. A way of life that we have decided to challenge through the resilience of our people who have chosen not to accept it. A condition we believe can be changed, from a fixture upon our collective psyche to a dream of a better life. A future where the idea of poverty is understood, but does not define who we are.
Yet the same idea of separation and neglect remain. Punitive barriers still plague the community. But poverty as it exists here, and the people who live with it, is no longer an idea without hope. A way of life that we have decided to challenge through the resilience of our people who have chosen not to accept it. A condition we believe can be changed, from a fixture upon our collective psyche to a dream of a better life. A future where the idea of poverty is understood, but does not define who we are.
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