We blinked and the first six months of the year 2021 passed—or so it seems. There’s always a lot going on in Baltimore, but this year has felt heavier than usual. That’s why we are using this week’s Battleground Baltimore to reflect on what we have been through and highlight what we have learned and how the city has failed its residents.
COVID-19 and Vaccination Inequity
The year began with all of us still very much in the grips of COVID-19. The fight this year was not just to stop the spread of the potentially deadly disease, but over how soon we should resume elements of normal life that the pandemic interrupted.
The Baltimore Teachers Union pushed back as school administrators looked to reopen in-person education during the pandemic. Corey Gaber, The Baltimore Teachers Union’s Elementary School Vice President, told us that the union has always been firm that in-person learning should only happen when it’s as safe as possible for students and teachers.
“We should not be expanding learning in-person, until it’s safe,” Gaber said. “And we have some very specific ideas of what safety looks like. And they know that we believe they’re nowhere close to meeting those standards, not just our own standards, but their stated standards for what should be in place before moving to in-person learning.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has been trying to hold steady here in the city as Gov. Larry Hogan pushed more and more for further reopening. He urged Marylanders to go get a vaccine shot and then head to Ocean City even though, as we noted, “Hogan’s assertion is both untrue and unsafe: with both the Pfizer and Moderna versions of the vaccine, recipients must get two doses of the vaccine and then wait two weeks to be considered fully vaccinated. With the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, recipients are considered vaccinated two weeks after a single dose. If someone was to go to Ocean City after getting a dose, they would still be at high risk of contracting and spreading the virus.”
As Battleground Baltimore has noted throughout the year, inequitable vaccine distribution has been the primary reason why the city, which is over 60% Black, has continued to struggle.
“If vaccine distribution were equitable, we would expect to see comparable rates of vaccination across racial groups and jurisdictions, but vaccination rates are not tracking with the size or racial demographic of county populations,” Scott said back in March.
Currently, Baltimore’s vaccination rate is at 55%. Scott has said that when the vaccination rate reaches 65%, the indoor mask order will be lifted.
Residents’ Calls to Defund the Police Ignored
Two Baltimore Taxpayers’ Night events—town hall-style events where residents show up and express their excitement, and more often anger, about the city’s proposed budget—were dominated by demands to defund the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). Mayor Brandon Scott’s 2022 budget proposed an additional $28 million for BPD, and in response, the group Organizing Black mobilized, getting residents from all across the city to speak out. It was a powerful public response from a city scarred by decades of police incompetence and corruption.
At the second Taxpayers’ Night in late May, Dr. Gwen DuBois, a primary care physician who lives in the Mount Washington neighborhood and one of more than 50 people who spoke, declared, “I love Baltimore so I must speak out and urge you to reduce the amount of money we are investing in policing while ignoring the root causes of violence.”
Police spending in Baltimore has exploded over the past two decades, and it has not made Baltimore safer: “As the police budget grows each year, homicides and nonfatal shootings increase as well. Baltimore City, with a population of only 600,000, recently surpassed 100 homicides for this year, before New York City, a city of almost 9 million, reached 100 homicides,” we wrote last month.
This week, however, Scott’s budget passed with no amendments, so BPD got the additional $28 million, putting its annual budget at $555 million. According to Organizing Black, the city spends more than $900 per person on policing. For every dollar spent on policing, 50 cents is spent on public schools, 20 cents on public housing, 12 cents on homeless services, 11 cents on recreation and parks, and 1 cent on mental health services.
The police budget increase has left many residents asking why these Taxpayers’ Night events are even held if the overwhelming majority of residents speaking out against the budget are ignored. Scott praised the passed budget in a statement.
“You can determine a great deal about a city simply by looking through its budget. From immediate necessities to long standing priorities, a budget offers an intimate glimpse into how a city truly sees itself and what it values,” Scott’s statement read in part. “I vowed during the State of the City address to restore faith in City Hall and prove that local government can operate effectively and efficiently in the public’s best interest. The swift, unanimous support in passing this budget is a clear and direct sign of progress.”
The Saga of the Mosbys
We have discussed the Mosbys a lot this year. A married couple, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby both hold high offices simultaneously, an inherent conflict of interest no one in power seemed willing to challenge. But beyond these unaddressed conflicts of interest, it turns out that as of March, as The Baltimore Sun reported, they are both under federal investigation.
We asked: “Should Nick Mosby, who sits on the Board of Estimates, have influence over the way the city spends its money when he himself is under increased scrutiny for his own financial matters? Should Marilyn Mosby continue to work with federal agents as part of her job heading up the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office if she is also under federal investigation? Would either Nick or Marilyn be taking a step back while the investigation played out?”
The announcement of the federal investigation followed months of reporting by Baltimore Brew. The couple responded to the Brew’s reporting by attacking the outlet, and also striking out at the Baltimore Office of the Inspector General, accusing department head Isabel Cumming of racial bias after she conducted a review of travel that Marilyn Mosby requested.
Meanwhile, Nick Mosby has been dividing the city council, shoring up support from some council members, and, Battleground Baltimore has learned, vindictively leaving certain council members out of the loop on key information and slowing down crucial legislation introduced by council members who dared to go against him. As Baltimore Brew reported just this week, Nick Mosby pulled a bill that would benefit the LGBTQ+ community because its sponsor, Councilperson Odette Ramos, reconsidered her position on a troubling renter’s bill introduced with the support of venture capitalists.
We also wrote about Marilyn Mosby’s decision to give the middle finger to a man who asked her to free Keith Davis Jr. Davis’ wife Kelly, along with supporters, have maintained that he is innocent.
When it happened last month, we said “Mosby is one of the city’s most visible and highest-ranking officials, and her position means that she weighs in on life-or-death matters involving the mostly Black and Brown residents moving through Baltimore’s criminal justice pipeline. It’s imperative that someone in her position be a person who can be trusted to keep their word. That she was able to lie so easily about something so easy to disprove raises the question: what else has she been dishonest about? And if Mosby was willing to use the State’s Attorney’s Office’s social media account, which is supposed to be used to educate the public, to further her own agenda, what other public-facing entities is she willing to utilize to her personal advantage?”
People Power Stopped Predatory Renter’s Bill
One of the rare examples of people power being able to take down the entrenched power structures of the city (who generally do whatever they want) was the mass mobilization by residents against a “rental security insurance” bill. Pushed by Council President Nick Mosby and Councilperson Sharon Middleton, among others, this bill was highlighted by activists who called it “a scam.”
Framed as a way of helping renters who cannot afford a security deposit, the bill, we explained back in April, “would allow renters to pay [a security deposit] off in three monthly installments—which few have a problem with—and codifies the option to purchase ‘rental security insurance’—which most housing advocates in Baltimore have a big problem with. That’s because ‘rental security insurance’ is really a surety bond which can easily trap tenants in fees they can never escape.”
A major problem with the bill was the involvement of Rhino, a venture capital-supported startup in the business of selling security deposit insurance that was for a time lobbying without a license, and has pushed these kinds of “rental security insurance” bills in other states. Battleground Baltimore spoke to an activist who dropped banners around city hall, which called attention to the bill: “Allowing a hedge fund-backed company like Rhino to come into Baltimore and treat us how they like was not a so-called ‘renter’s choice’—it was a choice made for us, by some rather wealthy people who do not face the conditions we do,” the activist told us.
The bill, which passed the council easily, was eventually vetoed by Mayor Brandon Scott.
“I simply cannot ignore the significant concerns over the security deposit insurance option in the legislation. This provision could potentially hurt the very people this bill seeks to help. In this case, the benefits of an installment plan for security deposits do not outweigh the potential costs of the security deposit insurance provision to already vulnerable residents,” Scott said in a statement.
That veto was upheld when a number of councilmembers who had voted for it, chose not to challenge Scott’s veto.
“The bill’s passage would have harmed the very people its supporters purport to want to protect, and instead would have enriched New York-based venture capitalists at our expense. We do need real solutions for tenants, but what this bill offered was exploitation,” Baltimore Renters’ Union (BRU) said after Scott’s veto.
Baltimore Co-ops Reopened on Workers’ Terms
At the height of the pandemic, the restaurant industry sought to overturn Baltimore’s ban on indoor dining, arguing it was the only way they could stay in business. But studies linked indoor dining with increased COVID-19 infection and death rates, so Baltimore’s cooperatively-owned restaurants Red Emma’s and Joe Squared voted to take a different path: they put the safety of their workers over the need for profits.
In March 2020, Red Emma’s, one of Baltimore’s oldest co-ops, temporarily closed its doors, and lost their primary sources of revenue—a typically bustling bookstore, restaurant, and bar, all of which doubled as an organizing and event space. They then shifted to deliveries, outdoor events, and opened a “General Store” with other local co-ops.
Around that same time, Joe Squared, which was not yet a co-op, felt like COVID-19 would be a death blow for them. After 15 years as a fixture in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood, co-owners Joe Edwardson and his mom Kathy Palokoff closed the doors of Joe Squared.
But the former workers and owners began exploring worker ownership. And after receiving a number of pandemic-related grants, loans, and support from other worker-owners, Joe Squared was able to reopen in December of 2020, as a cooperatively run restaurant.
Now, both Red Emma’s and Joe Squared are open once again, and, thanks to their co-op model, were able to protect their workers at a time when very few other workers were protected. Joe Squared is currently open with limited capacity, and Red Emma’s has recently begun limited seating.
This people-first approach stands in contrast to the recent response by nearly 40 business owners in the Fells Point neighborhood who claimed they would not be paying their taxes until the area, a haven for partying and drinking, received additional police and public safety resources. It was the latest example of the decades-old rhetorical battle Fells Point business owners have waged in which they demand far kinder treatment (and far more resources) than most of the city.
“If these Fells Point businesses get away with their tax strike because they want more police and more policing, does that mean we get to stop paying city taxes until the police are defunded? Is that how this works?” Red Emma’s tweeted.
For more coverage of cooperative models in Baltimore and elsewhere in the United States, check out the series on co-ops by Battleground Baltimore’s Jaisal Noor.