How Long Will Cities Like Baltimore ‘Tolerate’ Policies that Promote Poverty?
After a screening of the TRNN documentary ‘Swimming in Baltimore: How Poverty Works’ at the University of Baltimore a panel discussed why the city continues to implement strategies that heighten inequity and institutionalize social ills by Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
WOMAN: (00:24) This city has tolerated – and I say that word very strongly – this city has tolerated a failure of policy to address all of the issues that contribute to the marquee event which is our violent crime rate.
WOMAN: The uprising must be ongoing. There’s not an uprising until all of these things, all of these needs, are met. And that’s what I think would need to happen because the political disengagement, the lack of trust, that even if you vote or you’re engaged, that anything is ever going to change and kind of the expectation that nothing ever will, is too pervasive in so many of the abandoned, neglected neighborhoods that, until that changes, I don’t think anything else will really change.
MAN: None of this has changed because we have not addressed the fundamental issues, right? Funding the police is not a fundamental issue. Not funding schools, that’s a pretty fundamental issue. But giving billions of dollars to wealthy people on the backs of, and out of the pockets of, ordinary folks, that’s a fundamental issue. We have an economy and a political economy that’s based on profits. And as you mentioned in your film, keeping people poor is profitable.
WOMAN: There has been sort of a heightened understanding of politics just because of the way that the city has been covered by national and international publications and news sites. But for the most part, I think it’s just the apathy is pretty consistent, and it has been for the past 40, 50 years in this city. And so, I think for folks who are on the ground who really feel the effects of TIF being passed and the school system being under-funded and healthcare being under-funded, I think those folks have been feeling that for a really long time and aren’t necessarily surprised by it any more.
WOMAN: We’ve spent $6.8 billion on policing, but the pattern of violence in Baltimore is unchanged. It is, as everybody knows it, it’s the black butterfly versus the white L. It’s every other social problem and challenge that lays on top of it in the same way. So, you have to ask yourself at the end of that is, you know, what the hell we’ve been doing all this time. And I think that what’s encouraging to me is that, in the last month, we talked about the mayor and the decision on the minimum wage. At the same time, we have a mayor who, for the first time in my experience in Baltimore…
WOMAN: …spans almost 40 years, has… is willing to say we are going to start to reduce the size of the Baltimore police department. And she’s going to get a lot of pushback from the status quo in this town as she tries to do that. She wants to free up more money for education because, as it said in the documentary, we spend twice as much money… city taxpayers put twice as much money into the police department as they do into the city schools.
So, I think that with that historic… here’s the other problem from where I sit, because I’ve been doing this for so long… I mean, I have done thousands of stories on crime in Baltimore. Stephen has, too. I can go back and pull stories that I did in the ’80s and ’90s, and the only thing that changes is the date. And the name of the victim and somebody arrested in it. That’s it. It’s the same locations, it’s the same circumstance, it’s the same grief, it’s the same despair, it’s the same sense of hopelessness. There’s no change. There is zero change. This city has tolerated – and I say that word very strongly – this city has tolerated a failure of policy to address all of the issues that contribute to the marquee event which is our violent crime rate.
We have had… we’ve had a mayor in this town named Martin O’Malley whose entire policy was 100% devoted to trying to get to 175 homicides. I don’t know where he came up with that number. I mean, it’s some magic number. So, the police department shot up in size and budget. And everything around it is just the same as it’s always been.
WOMAN: First let me say that was an excellent job on the documentary.
MAN: Thank you.
WOMAN: I was moved by it almost to the point sadly to tears, because watching any kind of account of our reality always makes me very sad to know that I’ve been living through this entire time in my city where I grew up, where I was born and raised, and where I’ve served in the Legislature, and still so little to nothing has changed for the good.
So, information came to me about the number of people that were getting arrested but not being charged. So, I thought, well, this is horrible and people need to know. So, I took it to … my colleagues in the Legislature but nobody thought it was important. And then I went to some people in the media at the time. I didn’t go to Jane … I didn’t know that much. I was pretty naive to everything, politics, media, everything. But what happened is, I could not get anybody from the mainstream media, in terms of the mainstreams paper, the Baltimore Sun, to care. I couldn’t get any of my colleagues to care. I couldn’t get the governor to care. I thought it was such a significant thing because I had the data.
Something that had just been created, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, about the number of people being arrested every month, and then not being charged, and I knew that it was a human rights violation. And something had to be done. So, I took out ads on the radio saying that the other … this is interesting, because I paid out of my pocket for these ads on the radio because I wanted the information to get out to the public. It was that important.
And so, even though I paid for the ads, I was not allowed to say, “Mayor O’Malley, stop the illegal arrests.” I had to say that this number of people have been arrested and not charged with a crime. I was not allowed to say “illegal arrests” and I was not allowed to say the mayor’s name, for ads I was paying for.
But anyway, there was a lot of pushback. The whole entire political establishment at the time was 100% committed to Martin O’Malley, and elevating him to governor and, potentially even, president. They treated me like an enemy combatant. They really tried to discredit me not only in regard to the actual data that was there, but, you know, in terms of threatening my potential political career as well as my personhood. And let me just say that I paid a price for that for my entire tenure in the Legislature.
MAN: … (laughs) … I wasn’t surprised, unfortunately. I was surprised that the council passed it so readily, actually. And then not surprised at all that the council wouldn’t override her veto.
MAN: Because I think many… some of the voted for it knowing it was going to be vetoed. What I’m not surprised about in general, and what, Jane, thank you, Jill, thank you, Stephen and Taya, that was a wonderful documentary. That was… and thanks to my students for being here. What were certainly transferring wealth all over the U.S., we’ve been transferring wealth for the last 40 years from ordinary people to very wealthy people. So, inequality is at a level today that it has never been measured before in the United States, and in most Western countries. It’s that inequality which, for example, keeps people unhealthy.
And the health statistics in Baltimore are so stark -– you mentioned that there’s a more than 20-year difference in life expectancy between the neighborhood like Santa and Winchester or Madison-East End, and Roland Park and Guilford. More than 20 years. But actually, I have a nice chart, which has about 20 different variables comparing those neighborhoods. In every variable, for example, are there vacant houses in Roland Park? No, there are none. 35% of the houses in Santa and Winchester are vacant. That’s true of every poor neighborhood and it’s true of every wealthy neighborhood.
WOMAN: Well, one of the reasons why I focused on vacant buildings is because I didn’t want a particular group of people to be the face of poverty in Baltimore. I feel that poverty in Baltimore, is represented by black faces, and I wanted to show poverty through the structures, through the neglect that is so obvious. And I think you could certainly see, if you were a young person growing up in a neighborhood where there were potholes in the street and there were burned down abandoned buildings that hadn’t been taken down, and that your playground didn’t have working equipment. The psychology would be pretty apparent. You would feel -– especially if you got to see what the Inner Harbor looked like — you would feel that you didn’t count, that the city didn’t care about you.
Then you go a school where you’re wanded by a metal detector and you can’t drink the water that is in the bathrooms because it has lead in it. And you see that there are asbes… one of the whistleblower teachers we spoke to showed us pictures of rat feces underneath students’ desks. So, you go to that school and you see that, so these buildings that represent the utter neglect and lack of care for the citizens of Baltimore, of course, would affect your psyche.
I actually wanted to ask Jane about the… you said the black butterfly and the white L, just in case anyone in the audience wasn’t familiar with that idea.
JANE: If you imagine that this is kind of roughly Baltimore. This is East… or West, and East Baltimore. When you lay the homicides, and everything on it, it’s all concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods in East Baltimore and West Baltimore. And the untouched area by violence, and public health, and every other disruption that you can imagine is what I call the Charles Street corridor. Which is straight down here with. So now you have Roland Park and Homeland up here, and you’ve got Mount Washington and…
JANE: …Upper Park(?) …
JANE: Yes, okay. Okay. And then it kind of winds its way down this way to encompass the waterfront areas of Canton, Federal Hill, Gull’s Point…
JANE: Yeah, exactly. All of that. So that… so it’s this, that’s how it looks. So, you get this butterfly effect with all of the worst indicators. And the L, which is also the whitest part of the city has the fewest of those kinds of indicators.
I’ve been here almost 40 years, and what has been the enlightenment to me over many, many years of covering this city and this region are two things. One is the really deep-seated bias against the city by people outside of it. I don’t know if that’s because of a sense of white flight guilt, I don’t know, but it’s a very profound attitude that the city is a bad place and bad people are there. The second is that – it’s just like one A, it’s that one’s not any more important than the other.
But the other is that I get back to that word about tolerance. There is no way, as Taya said, as everybody here said, there is no way white people would have tolerated what went on with Freddie Gray. In any way, shape or form. First of all, there wouldn’t be… there wouldn’t be the chase. I mean, I tell my white friends in the suburbs all the time, look, you can sit on the stoop, or on the deck, or on your porch or whatever, and drink a beer and no one is going to bother you. You do that on Pennsylvania North you’re going to Central Booking. And that’s the reality. That’s real. That’s not made up.
So, when things start to change in Baltimore, it will only happen when the people of Baltimore stop tolerating it. That’s the frustration to me, is that people who live in the safest neighborhoods tolerate people living in the worst conditions. If you had an earthquake and ten of the of houses on the block were affected and falling down, would you leave the two people in the two houses that weren’t affected there? No. You’d get them the hell out of there because it was so dangerous. Right?
But instead, what we have done all these years is allowed these communities to be completely abandoned of investment, but mostly of care and concern. Freddie Gray’s death was a complete…
WOMAN: From what you’re saying they’re benefiting from communities being blighted. If that’s not…
JANE: Do you think it’s an actual benefit?
WOMAN: To the communities that are in the L, that they don’t benefit from the blight surrounding those communities?
JANE: I don’t know that they… Yeah, but I don’t think people on a day-to-day basis, I don’t think that they necessarily benefit from it. I’ll tell you what. They benefit a lot more, everybody would benefit a lot more if we had stable communities all over the city, because everybody’s property values would be higher.
WOMAN: I agree with that wholeheartedly.
WOMAN: But I think that’s part of the thing, though, right? In this country is that people allow for blight to exist, and poverty to exist, because to some extent they benefit from that being the case. They might be some… it might be a subconscious thing, but…
WOMAN: Could be.
WOMAN: The white L and the black butterfly were created by straight-up racism. I think I saw where… in one specific area in Baltimore, Edmondson Village, within a ten-year period, from I think it was 1955 to 1965, went from completely white to completely black. And the reason was straight racism. What were called speculators going into the communities and telling white people, white families, that blacks were moving in and offering them prices for their houses and they fled because of that reason.
And then we saw in this documentary, and upping the price and then having black people move into these communities and at that time the houses were becoming more dilapidated, the price was astronomical, they were doing these rents option to buy. So, the point is, this situation of segregation and racism that created Baltimore and Baltimore … the structure and neighborhoods is still the foundation upon which the entire city operates. So, no elected official, no mayor of the city, it hasn’t happened yet, is under any belief that it’s necessary to talk about ending these effects of racism, discrimination and segregation in order to get elected. It hasn’t been necessary to do. Because oftentimes the campaign financiers are those slumlords that create dilapidated housing profit from them, and benefit from continued lead poisoning.
WOMAN: The power structure in this city and region remains in the white community.
WOMAN: Absolutely. This is America. So…
WOMAN: But even in a city with a majority black population, all of the power is in the white community. Not necessarily political power, because there is, obviously, we have black elected leadership, but we do not have black people with economic power in a profound sense.
WOMAN: So, there’s the benefit. It’s a lack of competition. So here you are in a city with your majority population that does not compete with you on an economic basis? Right?
WOMAN: And that is a benefit. And that there’s going to be… a lot of that’s also true around the United States, but it’s really profound here. And that is… until that formula starts to shift, you don’t see change and you don’t see improvement until you have a change in the paradigm of who has all the economic power.
MAN: But amid all this, the $600 million tax break. How is that politically feasible? In a city for people — and these tax breaks, a $600 million one for Under Armour, the $100 million one for Harbor Point — these all go to people that don’t live in the city. Right?
MAN: These are people who live in the county.
MAN: For the most part they live…
MAN: How is that political tenable.
MAN: They live in the county, yeah.
STEPHEN JANIS: And I’m being kind of naïve, but still I… as a reporter wonder at this, because it is so not beneficial to the people of the city, and maybe you could talk a little about the psychology of it here.
MAN: I do want to make a point about psychology, because when we started this, Stephen, you said that you wanted to study the psychology of poverty.
MAN: And at first I cringed because usually when people talk about the psychology of poverty they mean “why are poor people so stupid that they always act against their own interest?” But that’s not what you’re talking about.
STEPHEN JANIS: No.
MAN: You’re talking about the political psychology of a society, which will permit exploitation and injustice and enormous amounts of poverty that no other advanced industrial county has. So, I also want them to segue to begin to discuss this question of how does the white L benefit from poverty? More broadly, how is poverty and injustice in the United States maintained in a way that is foreign even to other capitalist countries.
And one reason is, in the beginning of the ’30s, in every other advanced industrial country, poor working people organized. And were very effective, particularly after World War II, in assuring that there was a redistribution of wealth and resources, and not just a safety net, but programs that everyone would benefit from. We’re the only Western country that doesn’t have paid family leave, for example. Right?
Most people who work here don’t even get vacation days more than a week or two. Right? They’re guaranteed six, eight, ten weeks of vacation in every other Western country. How about schools? My students have to spend enormous amounts of money that they don’t have and borrow and get into debt in order to get an education. That’s not true in any other Western country. College is free in Europe. It’s free.
Now, we have given up. We are disorganized, we the ordinary people are so disorganized in this country that we’ve not made the gains that poor and working people have made in every other advanced industrial country. I’m not suggesting that they’re utopias. You know, Denmark and Norway and Sweden are not utopias. But they have very small numbers of poor people, they have very little homelessness because they guarantee everyone a place to live. They have healthcare for everyone, and it’s based not on making profits but on people’s needs, and the only way to accomplish that by organizing.
MAN: I mean, Taya, do you think the barrier to that is the racial aspect of what we’re talking about?
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, I was just thinking… I think – thank you, Jeff – I think one of the things there is that they have very homogeneous societies. I think that race unfortunately plays a devastating role in preventing this country from being able to unite on common ground. For example, President Reagan very wisely found a way to take the white working class Democrats and switch them to becoming white working class Republicans, even though the Republican Party at the time their platform was completely against working class interests.
How did they do that? Using race. One image in particular of the black welfare queen who was taking in $80,000 and living in the lap of luxury, ideas like that, images like that, stereotypes like that, to create, to reaffirm the racial divide that was already there, but to use it to push those white working class Democrats into the Republican Party.
So, some of the social programs that the Scandinavian countries have, or some of the other countries in the European Union aren’t challenged in the same way we are, because race has been such a destructive powerful force in this country. And I think it really is what’s preventing us from uniting and progressing.
MAN: But people don’t have a vision. They’re not going to move. They’re not going to organize. They’re not going to do anything. And our vision is broken. The first point of our vision should be there’s enough for all. Because each of us knows there’s enough for all. If you took the wealthiest society and divided it up, everybody would have what they need.
Second thing is, the distribution system for need and wealth is broken. That’s why you need police and arms to enforce it. That’s why you have a mayor who gives away literally millions of our dollars to corporations, and school kids get cut short. Distribution system has got to be based on need. Not ownership or inheritance.
Thirdly, there’s no choice. The normal system that we had before of living, that is working and paying your bills, is broken. There’s no work. All the globalization, robotics, whatever you want to call it, there’s no Bethlehem Steel, there’s no … We need to own the gas. We need to own the oil. We need to own the vacant housing. We need to own the healthcare. And if we don’t think like that, we won’t move forward, because we keep fighting these old games. We work hard, get $15 an hour minimum wage, and … live on that, and we … what we want. I want peace. I want everybody to eat. I want everybody to have a house. I want everything that you need to be brilliant. I want a government to control the corporations. I want them owned publicly.
MAN: Well, thank you very much.
WOMAN: … society, as you mentioned, … and I think it’s our population growth worldwide. It’s more obvious in terms of work. And somehow we have to have a moral segment to society and that’s kind of what we’re lacking, because it is profit-driven.
MAN: But we do have a guaranteed income in Baltimore. It’s called police overtime.
MAN: I say this somewhat facetiously, but you know, if you saw the indictment of the seven officers, they said, on wiretap, that they didn’t have to work to get overtime. Now, you know, to put this relative sort of contrast, I think a police officer in where they’re making $60, $70 an hour, and they weren’t doing the work.
And in our city, we just pushed back a minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2022. So, I mean, but I think you’re right. If we don’t address these systematically and we don’t come up with a better system, maybe, it’s going to be very difficult for us given the fact that these abuses were going out to change us. Yes, sir.
MAN: But also in the L that you’re talking about there. You have, like, … Memorial where they … and you got that statue of Judge Tate who said that the black man has no rights to the white man’s boundaries. Statute is still there in … And then right now in the Inner Harbor, the waterfront, you got that nice coast guard … with the same name. You got two memorials to this guy.
So, that right there is kinda saying a whole lot to me. What … would put up with such things? What if somebody wanted a statue to Hitler? … Baltimore … so when a community tolerates this sort of thing and then by the way, black leadership does not mean interest in black people, because, you know, once you … in power…they’re losers. I’m a winner. That’s kind a like our president, right? And if he’s a winner, the rest of the people are losers. So, all those things, and all that mentality, is something to think about.
And you can’t judge this based on the amount of melanin or lack of melanin, just look at actions.
WOMAN: Those Confederate statues were put up in the late 1930s and 1940s. They weren’t done to memorialize fallen soldiers at the end of the Civil War. They were done during what’s called the Nadir of Race Relations. They were raised in order to say, as black people started economically improving, their social status began improving, they were put up to say that is your neighborhood, you stay in it. This is our neighborhood. Those Confederate statues were a line of demarcation. And I think…
WOMAN: And I think it’s absolutely incredible that we have a black mayor and a majority black city, and we still couldn’t get those statues removed. So, you’re right when you say tolerating something like that we know that, like you said, a statue to Hitler wouldn’t be tolerated. Why are these Confederate statues tolerated? There was a lot of pushback to keep them.
WOMAN: Where would you start to try to fix that neighborhood but then I guess using the people within that neighborhood, even to build up character, to build up where they live at. Where would you start to do all of this?
WOMAN: In the story in which we played out the amount of money, and the kind of the pattern of violence hasn’t changed, are you familiar on the east side of Baltimore with the Oliver Community? Know where it is?
WOMAN: It’s just kind of catty-corner to the whole Hopkins expansion. It’s a pretty good blueprint, and the problem is that it takes a lot of time, effort, money, but that’s a pretty good example. That was a very dangerous place in the 1990s. And had one of the highest homicide rates, had lots of drug trafficking going on there. And the way that started was with community organizing through the organization BUILD. And the churches that started to buy property. So, they got control of the land and the properties and started with that.
They did work in conjunction with very targeted law enforcement, because they had to get control of the safety issue. And they did targeted enforcement to get the drug trafficking element of that community out. Then they teamed up with private developers in terms of starting to turn around housing. In 2002, the Dawson family was torched. Seven people died when the house was firebombed. That was a shock to a city that has really, you know, so desensitized to violence, but even that was pretty much of a shock. It also was probably accelerated some of the development and redevelopment that was going on in Oliver.
But the point of it is, that if you can assemble the right parts — being both public, private, non-profit — and have what is probably the most important part of East Baltimore, which is an economic engine, and that’s Hopkins. Oliver is not part of the EBDI project as it’s known, but it is right next door to it, so it is dramatically benefiting from the expansion of Hopkins. The problem on the west side is it doesn’t have that engine.
Who mentioned the NAACP, and the big church? When you go up Wabash and turn left on … Drive, you know what’s on the right? Social Security, 1,600 jobs in that building. That was the part of Social Security that was downtown at the Metro building. Imagine, you talk about vision? Imagine when you decided… the federal government decided we don’t want to be at Metro West anymore. We’re goin to move. That instead of moving out to near the Baltimore County line, you had said, we’re going to do this at Penn North. Imagine. Right?
If you want to instantly have an impact of economic development… the story of Hopkins and the story of the East Side of Baltimore is that if you have an economic engine, everything else starts to follow. Then you can get somewhere. You also are able to provide jobs; you’re able to provide employment, economic opportunity. But instead of thinking like that, we don’t have that kind of policy decision that gets made. And where people on the ground and community organizing can make a difference, is to really insist on it.
MAN: … do you want to…?
MAN: Yeah, I had a question. So, I know we keep going back to the issue of the minimum wage. You mentioned how Catherine Pugh said she was going to make the police department, she even said she’s going to take some money from overtime and put it towards school. But is that really going to be productive if there’s still so much inequality? Right? People are still going to be incentivised to change their behavior if they’re… for minimum wage, right?
WOMAN: I don’t think there’s any question. I mean, everybody in the community will tell you that $10 an hour doesn’t get anybody off the corner. Period. Everybody knows that.
MAN: Isn’t the police department going to backfire if there’s still lots of crime?
WOMAN: I think that when you look at the funding of the police department and what she’s looking at is — it’s like the council president said, look, we’re spending $40 million a year in overtime and what do you get for it? So, what she’s looking at is not just a number, but she’s looking at an efficiency and an effectiveness, and really trying to reform the police department in terms of its operation and deployment. So, that you get a better product out of it and better deployment out of it, and that you might be able to start to reduce the funding of it. It’s a $500 million operation. That’s actually be $520 million in …
MAN: … which is another… $150 million.
WOMAN: Correct. Yes. Correct.
WOMAN: It’s such a loaded question. You know, in Baltimore City there are about close to 80,000 people that are unemployed, 76,000 may be the number. One of the things that is handled currently under my current… my Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement is whenever there is supposed to be a city contract, there are some that are even higher than the minimum wage in many cases … contract, and what I’ve found, frankly, is that it just hasn’t really been… wage enforcement has been really understaffed, under-resourced and it hasn’t really been enforced.
And so there’s certain… there’s a 51% residency requirement that everyone, every contractor is supposed to have 51% of its people working on the contract a city resident. That hasn’t really been enforced. The prevailing wage and making sure that there’s compliance hasn’t really adequately been enforced. And this isn’t an indictment of anyone prior; it’s just been not a priority, under-resourced.
It’s not on the radar, so the issue of… even enforcing what we have and making sure that people are hired… many times on these contracts, because a lot of them are people that are coming back into society that you have about 10 or 11,000 a year people coming back into Baltimore that’ve been incarcerated, often unemployable because of their record — this is one way that many people can get employed.
Also, forcing the minority contractors, the MBE laws, and the reason that I say that is that there are too few big corporations in places that people can work, but one way that they can work is by enforcing those MBE laws and supporting small business and prioritize in these neighborhoods. All of these policies are things that sound good on paper, but they haven’t really worked or been a priority of any prior administration. And I think everything goes back to politics.
So, the answer to your question is no. Those things are not enough. It would take a collective but, again, I can’t stress this enough, it would take an uprising… the uprising must be – must be – ongoing. There’s not an uprising until all of these things, all of these needs are met. And that’s what I think would need to happen because the political disengagement, the lack of trust that even if you vote, or you’re engaged, that anything is ever going to change and kind of the expectation that nothing ever will, is too pervasive in so many of the abandoned, neglected neighborhoods.
Until that changes, I don’t think anything else will really change.