“Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.” - Emma Goldman
Nothing happens in a vacuum. The Baltimore Uprising, as it’s been dubbed on Twitter, is not just the community’s response to Freddie Gray’s murder at the hands of Baltimore police. While it may have started out that way, the anger that has exploded across Maryland’s largest city is a response to three systemic issues – staggering levels of unacknowledged poverty and persistent unemployment, the occupying military force known as the Baltimore Police Department, and the complacent and corrupt Baltimore city government.
Staggering Poverty and Inequality
Across the bay from Baltimore is Somerset County, home to a small community named Princess Anne. Earlier this month in Princess Anne, Rodney Todd, a single black father, and his seven kids between ages six and 16 were found dead in their home. There was no power in the house, and the generator that had been running to heat the home through the night was switched on, but out of gas.
The power was off because Delmarva Power, the local electric company, had found what they called a “stolen meter” connected to Todd’s home and disconnected it. Todd, his two sons, and his five daughters, were found dead in sleeping positions. Family members recalled how Todd, who was a utility worker at the University of Maryland’s Eastern Shore campus, had complained of having trouble paying his utility bills. The last night anyone saw Todd alive, temperatures had dipped into the twenties. With no electricity, Todd bought the generator to keep his family warm while they slept.
Even though Todd’s family lived across the bay from Baltimore, they were trapped under the same boot that treads upon communities like Ferguson, Mo., Detroit, Mich., and Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray was illegally arrested. The destructive actions by a small minority of protesters in recent days are the desperate expressions of a community whose cries for help have fallen on deaf ears.
While it’s well-known that the big banks were terrorizing poor communities everywhere with subprime loans in the run-up to the financial crisis, their behavior is no more apparent than in Baltimore. Between 2005 and 2008, Wells Fargo preyed on Baltimore’s black community by targeting black churches, hoping that the ministers would convince congregations to take out subprime loans with Wells Fargo. More than half of the Baltimore properties in foreclosure with a Wells Fargo loan from 2005 to 2008 are currently vacant. In 2012, Wells Fargo was forced to pay out $175 million for pricing discrimination. Internal communications at Wells Fargo showed how employees called the subprime loans “ghetto loans,” and referred to their victims as “mud people.”
In Sandtown-Winchester, part of ZIP code 21217, the unemployment rate for the mostly-black neighborhood’s 9,174 residents is 51.8 percent. In 2011, all ZIP code 21217 residents were experiencing a 19.1 percent unemployment rate. 33 percent of buildings there are vacant (compare that to a much smaller rate of 5 percent vacancy for all buildings in Baltimore). And while national median income is $51,939, Sandtown’s median income is $24,000, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of four. To contrast, in ZIP code 21210, which is just on the other side of Interstate 83, median income is $50,000 higher, and average real estate sale prices are $300,000 higher. And across Maryland, white unemployment was just 5.6 percent in 2012, while black unemployment rates were in the double digits.
With the three-hit combo of globalization, union-busting, and racial bias, Baltimore’s inequality has been a decades-long trend. Between 1950 and 1995, the city lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs, and the local economy has been suffering ever since – particularly in the black community. 75 percent of black men in Baltimore had jobs in 1970, yet just 57.5 percent of black men were employed in 2010. But in that same year, 75 percent of white men in Baltimore were employed – a 20 percent gap. This level of persistent poverty in black communities has a profoundly negative effect. In Baltimore, black infants are nine times more likely to die before age 1 than white infants. That’s a worse infant mortality rate than Moldova and Belize.
A Traitorous and Corrupt Local Government
While Baltimore’s top politicians are mostly black and affiliated with the Democratic Party, they’re just as ruthless at redistributing the community’s wealth to rich developers as any white Republican. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who called the Freddie Gray protesters “thugs,” and her henchmen in the Baltimore City Council, like council president Jack Young, continue the Baltimore city government’s tradition of giving developers tax breaks hand-over-fist while short-changing residents on essential services.
Most recently, Rawlings-Blake signed off on a plan to shut off water for the city’s poorest residents. As I reported in ThinkProgress, 25,000 ratepayers who have overdue bills of just $250 or more are losing their access to water. Baltimore water rates have skyrocketed by 31 percent in just three years, and another 11 percent rate hike will go into effect this July. This plan to shut off water comes on the heels of the Rawlings-Blake administration’s failed attempt to privatize city water systems through the Veolia Corporation in August of 2014.
Half of the city’s residents are renters, meaning that if the property owner neglects to pay the water bill, the tenant loses access to water through no fault of their own. To rub salt on the wound, families with children who live in homes with no running water run the risk of having their children taken by the state and put in foster homes. Meanwhile, 369 of the city’s largest delinquent corporate customers – which owe $15 million of the $40 million to be collected – are being ignored for the time being.
Just like her colleague Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Rawlings-Blake and her city council are taking money out of public investments for schools and infrastructure, and using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) accounts to redistribute that money to private developers who donate to their campaigns. The most notorious example is Michael Beatty, a millionaire developer of the Harbor Point area, getting a $107 million tax break with TIF money after donating to the campaigns of five city council members and Rawlings-Blake. None of the recipients of that money disclosed the gifts during or after the TIF debate.
As Baltimore Brew reported, Beatty donated $5,750 to five city council members, and his wife, his development firm, and his general contractor gave $16,000 to Rawlings-Blake. Beatty launched a focused lobbying campaign to push the city council to pass the tax break. Ryan J. Potter, who donated $1,000 to Rawlings-Blake’s campaign, was paid $20,722 to lobby for the TIF money. One of the lobbyists, John A. Pica, Jr., is a former state senator from Baltimore who was paid $1,500 for his lobbying on the condition that Beatty got his tax break. But the Rawlings-Blake administration is just the latest in a long line of craven politicians who will throw constituents under the bus to help out wealthy developers.
One of the worst ideas ever floated in Baltimore city hall was the PILOT program, which stands for Payment in Lieu of Taxes. The program, which has been criticized for catering specifically to real estate developers, is made to absolve developers of up to 95 percent of all property taxes for up to 25 years. In the 1990s, John Paterakis won $25 million in tax breaks, plus a $5 million loan and $5.5 million in grants to build a Marriott hotel in the Harbor East neighborhood. This was all done with the blessing of former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, who, at the time, was chairman of city council’s taxation and finance committee.
As Dan Rodricks wrote for the Baltimore Sun, this has the negative impact of not only depriving schools of necessary property tax revenue, but depleting state aid for funding Baltimore’s public schools. Maryland’s model for funding city schools is based on the property tax value of the city. The higher a city’s property tax value is, the less state funding its schools receive. What makes PILOT and TIF money so dangerous is that it ensures gentrification projects get two decades of almost zero property taxes, which means two decades of almost no school funding from some of the richest neighborhoods in the city. Baltimore currently stands to lose $14 million in state aid because of this problem. It’s no wonder that less than 60 percent of Baltimore’s high school students graduate.
Baltimore’s Violent Police State
In March, a friend from Baltimore drove me through one of the city’s highly-patrolled neighborhoods. One police car parked adjacent to a sidewalk had its light bar on. I told my friend to slow down, since the police had pulled someone over. But there was no car in front of the police, and there was nobody on the sidewalk being interrogated.
“Nah, he didn’t pull anyone over,” my friend said. “Cops just ride through the hood like that. People here see police lights all the time. They’re just part of the background, like the rest of the neon signs.”
Baltimore is currently under martial law – militarized police vehicles are roaming the streets, national guardsmen strapped with machine guns are guarding opulent neighborhoods, protest organizers are being seized by the police on live TV, journalists are being shot by police with less-than-lethal rounds, and the rabble is being restricted with a strict curfew (which nobody is appearing to take seriously). The fact that most of the protests have been peaceful, with a few exceptions blown way out of proportion by the media, is astonishing, given the police terror that Baltimore’s forgotten communities have been forced to endure for the last several decades.
While Baltimore is the 26th largest city, it has the nation’s 8th largest police force. Residents there describe Baltimore PD as an occupying army. This label comes not just from killing 109 people in the last four years – 70 percent of whom were unarmed, 40 percent of whom were black – but because only 25 percent of Baltimore police officers actually live in the city of Baltimore. Their record is marred with numerous unjustified shootings, beatings, and intentionally rough van transports of arrestees has led to over $5.7 million in civil settlements against the police just between 2011 and 2014.
As The Atlantic documented, one of the more egregious police brutality cases that police were sued for include Venus Green, an 87-year-old grandmother who complained about her wounded son not getting medical treatment after he was shot. Rather than helping her son, police forced their way inside Green’s home without a warrant, tackled her to the ground and put her in handcuffs, dislocating her shoulder. Green won a $95,000 settlement for her injuries.
Baltimore police also tased a 19-year-old meningitis patient five times while he was in his hospital bed. Even though the teenager later died, none of the officers involved were charged. In 2014, two BPD officers escaped animal cruelty charges after slitting a dog’s throat. Officer Thomas Schmidt held down Nala, a 7-year-old Shar Pei, on the ground while his partner, Officer Jeffrey Bolger, slashed her throat. Bolger’s lawyer said his client was “just doing his job.” Just a month after Bolger’s attack, another Baltimore police officer pled guilty to felony animal cruelty charges after beating and choking his girlfriend’s Jack Russell terrier to death.
Baltimore police have been especially brazen in their violence since the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights (LEBOR) was passed by the Maryland legislature in 1974. As The Intercept reported, the LEBOR was intended to stiff-arm lawsuits from damages and establish narrow standards of accountability for police misconduct. The law dictates that officers can’t be questioned by supervisors about any misconduct until 10 days has passed since the incident took place. And if the officer does face an internal investigation, punishment can only be meted out by a panel of fellow police officers, all of whom belong to the same police union and are bound together by oath.
Police unions are currently lobbying against the milquetoast reforms that have been proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan, such as body cameras, a higher liability cap for civilian lawsuits from police brutality, and increased state collection of data on police behavior. Reforms demanded by members of the community, like civilian review boards and independent prosecutors appointed to investigate police killings weren’t even on the table. And it doesn’t help that in Baltimore, these reforms are stymied at the local level. Mayor Rawlings-Blake vetoed a 2014 proposal to equip Baltimore police officers with body cameras.
Baltimore’s riots have become an uprising. And citizens won’t stop until they have a new police department that’s accountable to the public, deep investments in their community to provide schools, housing, food, and healthcare, and an end to city hall’s sweetheart deals with cronies in real estate. The people have demanded to be heard, and now, the city, state and federal government have to listen. The real fight is just beginning.