Baltimore’s Inescapable Inequality
Freddie Gray died after he tried to run from the police. Some might think he was wrong for provoking a chase, but the thousands of people now protesting across the country know that getting killed as a consequence of running away is like getting killed for trying to breathe: you can’t be blamed for wanting to bolt when the system is stacked against you at every turn.
But in the wake of the massive uprisings, many are still standing together, not just against the ongoing police terror, but against what they see as a broad assault on the city’s working-class and black communities. Activists on the ground understand why a kid might want to run from the system, and some are seeking a new path to "development," one that intertwines resistance to state violence and economic justice activism.
United Workers (UW), a Baltimore-based human rights and labor organization, is pushing a broad-based program of “fair development,” as a grassroots alternative to city policies that they believe are steadily hollowing out the city with “redevelopment” schemes that aggravate inequality.
By prioritizing commercialization over social equity, UW organizer Cherkis says, “The jobs that the city produces are low-wage service sector jobs, tourism jobs down at the harbor, where you can't really make it. And there was this kind of boiling point.”
Although the city has touted massive, publicly funded development projects led by the insular political elite—aimed at restoring the damage wrought by a historic loss of traditional industrial jobs—UW sees these efforts as an economic dead-end.
According to a 2011 investigation by UW and National Economic and Social Rights Initiative on the city’s program to revitalize the Inner Harbor, the project has led to jobs plagued by “systematic failure to pay workers a living wage; chronic wage theft; and working conditions offensive to human dignity, including verbal abuse and bribery by supervisors.” Basic benefits like healthcare are sorely lacking. The group has demanded that the city authorities and investors work in collaboration with community members to create “Fair Development Agreements… that mandate living wages through vendor lease-agreements and the establishment of a fund to address workers’ healthcare and educational needs.”
Some UW members came from the same area as Gray, Gilmore Homes. In recent months, they've seen community recreation centers and schools shut down, amid scandalous levels of joblessness and housing vacancies. And thousands of residents are facing the threat of their water getting cut off because of what the city calls “delinquency” on bills--a term that activists say lets the government of the hook after years of letting water infrastructure deteriorate while rates rise, and leading a botched deal with water privatization giant Veolia.
In the context of such economic collapse, Cherkis says, when the government uses its public redevelopment funds “to build...the Inner Harbor, these kind of playgrounds for well-to-do folks, and [they] let the neighborhoods just decline and grow abandoned, with all these abandoned houses, it's a struggle."
In contrast to the glittering waterfront, UW notes that poor residents are reluctant to even walk outside at night because their neighborhoods go completely dark. But the day-to-day safety concerns of poor communities are only intensified by an even more menacing police presence. From a community perspective, Cherkis adds, local activists understand “all human rights are indivisible,” so “safety” can’t be achieved by aggressive policing at the expense of the security of civil rights.
Beyond Gray's killing and the current fallout, the dangers of hardline law enforcement are underscored by Baltimore's program of “broken windows” policing, which has been criticized for criminalizing the poor rather than protecting safety. A long-term study of Baltimore schoolchildren by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander seems to illustrate the link between racialized policing and racialized poverty:
At age 28, 41 percent of white men—and 49 percent of black men—from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction, but the white employment rate was much higher. The reason...is that blacks don't have the social networks whites do to help them find jobs despite these roadblocks.
The contrast between zero-tolerance police strategy and community visions of safety has resurfaced in the aftermath of the uprisings. Local members of SEIU 1199 turned out the next day to help clean up alongside large crowds. On the union’s blog, union Vice President Antoinette Turner recalls, “People were clapping and cheering. There were so many people cleaning up, and it was organized.” But then someone reported trouble was starting up again, and soon “the police asked people to leave and started spraying tear gas at the corners. That’s when we decided to leave.”
What looks like a night of “chaos” in Baltimore was just one freeze-frame in a long arc of urban crisis. According to Alexander's study, a young man growing up poor has few chances of escaping the poverty that often persists across generations. However, compared to black peers, even lower-income white men are advantaged in seeking high-paying jobs. Poor neighborhoods face other social roadblocks: an endemic crisis of poor public health and segregated, underfunded schools, though these pockets of devastation are ringed by patches of affluence. In Gray’s nearly all-black neighborhood, Sandtown, joblessness stands at about 24 percent, triple the citywide rate. About a third of local homes stand empty, while housing costs are crushing for poor families.
With so much weighing Gray’s community down, the impulse to run away seems tragically rational.
"What you see out there...is a hunger for democracy, a hunger for a voice in the community, and to be heard,” Cherkis says. To deal with these issues through community investment, “We are calling for processes around development that are transparent…accountable to the community, and participatory."
These aims may seem a far cry from the frontlines of the unrest in Charm City, but not to the residents who have been fighting in those same streets for years to demand a living wage. Not to people who see real security not just as a matter of criminal justice but as the right to decent housing and education for their children.
They know why Freddie Gray ran that day, and that’s the reason why they march today.