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The mostly black electorate of Baltimore elected a white candidate to be the next mayor in 1999. My editor at The Boston Globe asked me to go find out why. I was walking the derelict blocks of the city when I came upon the answer: a picture fastened to a splintering telephone pole that residents had turned into a makeshift memorial.
The picture was of Angus Breen, a grinning teenager, much younger looking than his 14 years, who had been savagely murdered — stabbed to death during a robbery over some trifle. White or black, the people I talked to 16 years ago said the meaningless death of that boy represented what was rotting away the core of Charm City: crime.
As mayor, Martin O’Malley inherited a troubled police department. When he departed Baltimore for Annapolis to become governor, many critics say he left behind an organization built on padded numbers, mass arrests, lies and a culture of capriciousness, racial targeting and random acts of violence. O’Malley announced Saturday he was running for president.
Like many other big cities, the late 1990s brought a crackdown on crime that translated into the gradual disintegration of the 4th Amendment and the effective criminalization of black youths in poor neighborhoods.
Freddie Gray was 9 when Angus Breen was murdered and O’Malley rode into office with promises of a safer city. Gray’s death at the hands of police last spring after he was stopped for giving a cop a lingering look — an act that passes for probable cause in many big-city police departments these days — didn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with big-city policing in poor black neighborhoods.
What did come as a surprise, to the city and the world, was the reaction.
Award-winning photographer Robert Stolarik remembers when he drove into Baltimore the night of the riots, looking at the chaos and feeling it might never end.
He raced past one fire after another, one group of young people after another, mean-looking bricks in their hands ready to throw. Civilization seemed like it could disintegrate and never be restored. A fire truck drove past a car engulfed in flames to get to a worse conflagration. As the fire truck passed, rioting youths pelted it with jagged bricks and bottles.
But order did return. Residents made their way out of their homes to take in the devastation, like people who survived a sudden and violent storm, emerging to see what was left.
The young people became an essential part of the cleanup. Many organized groups began the intimidating prospect of restoring a major American city after a civic cataclysm.
Riots are often Rorschach tests. People see what they want to see in the images of burning buildings and looting stores: either as animals who need to be thrown into a cage, or young people in need of jobs, criminal justice reform and an education system that prepares them for something more than street hustling.
Much like many big U.S. cities, Baltimore struggles to deal with its intractable problems of drugs and crime and youth with no prospects. As the Baltimore commissioner of health, Leana S. Wen, reminded us in a recent Washington Post editorial, her city’s police department arrests 7,000 juveniles a year. When you add people under the age of 25, that raises the number to one-quarter of the 73,000 people arrested in the city on average a year. Many of those charges are directly or indirectly related to the drug trade. Of the 622,000 people in Baltimore, 62 percent are black. Of those arrested juveniles, 95 percent are black.
Whatever policy prescriptions you might read into the images that played out in west Baltimore earlier this month, those numbers are not going to change without someone doing something. Whether it’s reform that takes place in the halls of the State House or more riots in the burning city streets, is up to the political leadership and grassroots organizers to determine.
Recently, a peaceful but impassioned protest suggested that the unrest unleashed in the wake of Freddie Gray’s funeral is taking on the shape of a movement. Protesters carrying signs that read "Mr. Governor Education Not Incarceration" and, "Education Over Bondage and Incarceration" temporarily brought traffic to a halt in the Pigtown neighborhood of Baltimore.
The crowd delivered a pointed message that put incarceration squarely in the middle of the conversation over how to rebuild in the wake of the riots. Led by the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, a group of about 40 people blocked exits on Interstate 395, calling for Gov. Larry Hogan to halt a new juvenile facility and put the money into the school system.
New city, same problems
I moved to Brooklyn shortly after the story about crime catapulting O’Malley into office. I spent the next 15 years covering criminal justice in New York City. A lot of times that meant running out to cover breaking stories.
One incident soon after I moved here drove home the fact that things in Brooklyn weren’t any different than they were in Baltimore.
As part of a retaliation for some prior confrontation, two gunmen hunted down and killed two young men in the Ingersoll Houses, a cluster of garden apartments located in one of the poorest pockets in the city. One of the victims, Shaun Grant, lay crumpled on the sidewalk in the series of criss-crossing walkways in the projects. I remember a cop at the scene nodding at Grant’s lifeless body and turning to me with a grin.
“Looks like that one didn’t make the track team,” he said. “And now he never will,” he continued.
In the last year, I think about how the ubiquity of phones has brought what I saw on a nightly basis as a crime reporter to the rest of the world. I have been surprised at how intense the response has been. The spate of killings of young black men at the hands of police in the last year in Ferguson, Mo.; New York; Cleveland, and Baltimore have spawned what many consider a civil rights movement for the 21st century.
Beneath the banner of “Black Lives Matter,” people, many of them young, and many of them parents with young children, have taken to social media and in some cases the streets to demand an end to unconstitutional and often violent policing that disproportionately targets young black men.
But after reporting on the frontlines of this civil rights disaster for more than a decade I have my reservations. I wonder if the real lesson here is that black lives will continue to not matter as long as the same policies and tactics continue to go by new names; and so long as voters continue to elect politicians who do nothing to change the culture that sends the message to the police that when it comes to poor, black neighborhoods anything goes.
Back to normal
On the last day of the Baltimore curfew, police put the media behind tape on Pennsylvania Avenue, where most of the confrontations between officers and protesters had taken place. The acrid smell of smoldering fires still hung in the air, but with the news of indictments of the police officers for Freddy Gray’s death, tensions had eased. One protester, wearing a T-shirt that read “Fuck the Police,” remained, a provocateur taunting the officers and refusing to agree to the final night of the curfew.
Officers responded by pepper spraying the young man in the face and slamming him to the ground. One officer in a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of blue jeans held his feet in the air. A uniformed officer hooked his right arm through the cuffed wrists and grabbed the man’s pants by the elastic with his left hand. Stolarik snapped a picture just as the officer’s face lit up with a broad smile, like a hunter posing with an impressive kill. The officer’s face is filled with an almost guileless joy.
Another officer doused the protester’s face with a bottle of water as he sat, hands cuffed behind his back. He writhed in agony, wailing an almost inhuman sound, while other officers stood over him.
This all transpired in front of dozens of journalists from around the world. It was almost as if the police were saying things were going back to normal.