Thursday, May 7, 2015
Except where gentrification has reclaimed core urban real estate – like Brooklyn in NYC – there are too many American cities where inner cities represent hell on earth. For minority kids growing up in crime-ridden neighborhoods, they face rule-by-gangs, substandard and dangerous schools with dropout rates north of 50%, housing where the only comfortable residents are rats and roaches, and futures where their idols are actors, musicians (often the designees of local gangs), athletes and successful criminals. Escape-by-education is a joke. There is no “safety” with police protection, they learn very quickly, because they are always the suspects, the perps, and the cops, black, white or Latino, are “them.”
Social and fiscal conservatives have clamped down hard on “social programs” and public education. We can’t afford it anymore, they cry. People have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but most such cries emanate from folks in comfortable homes in safe neighborhoods with good local schools. Public education budgets have been slashed to the bone, early education and accessible childcare from public sources have been relegated to history, inner city training is non-existent, the few stores willing to risk the inner city are usually way more expensive than their suburban counterparts, and the biggest element lacking in these “hoods” is hope.
Whether the neighborhood is in Ferguson, St. Louis, New York, Los Angeles, Boston or Baltimore, the story repeats itself. I grew up in Washington, D.C. and frequently made the trip to Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay. I have a client with offices across from Camden Yards, the “cleaned up” part of downtown in city that is mostly a giant slum. Every time I drive through Baltimore, I am deeply saddened by what I see.
Democratic Presidential contender, Governor Martin O’Malley, was mayor of Baltimore before his ascension to Maryland’s top spot. In his tenure as mayor, the city adopted a zero-tolerance policy (much like Rudy Giuliani’s policy in New York City), and crime rates fell, rather along the same lines that they fell across the entire United States. But it never hurts to look behind the numbers and understand exactly what the real picture looks like.
To get an idea of the problem that Baltimore (reflecting so many other big cities) faced and continues to face, I am aided by the fact-checkers at the Washington Post (April 28th): “Some criminologists measure the number of homicides to measure crime levels. In 2009, Baltimore saw the lowest homicide rates since O’Malley took office. (Prior to his tenure, however, there was a high homicide rate following the crack cocaine epidemic.) But the city’s homicide rate was still ranked second highest out of cities with more than 500,000 residents.
“Baltimore was not alone. The city’s drop in crime rates mirrored a national trend, as other major cities saw large drops leading up to 2009, with some at decades-low levels… One of O’Malley’s strategies, which he refers to in the Iowa speech, was the measuring of input and output. Baltimore began using CompStat, which started in New York City in 1994 and closely tracked arrest data and practices. This strategy is linked to the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy that some large police departments adopted at the time.
“Such approach to policing led to increased arrests. By 2005, well into O’Malley’s tenure as mayor, Baltimore police arrested so many people that judges had to free arrestees because they could not get court hearings within 24 hours, as required, according to the Baltimore Sun. That year, there were 108,447 people arrested in a city of roughly 600,000 residents. According to a June 2010 report by the Justice Policy Institute, about two-thirds of the people in jail were there for non-violent offenses… A new police commissioner switched the arrest strategy to target the most violent offenders, driving down arrest numbers to 77,595 in 2009, the Baltimore Sun reported.”
Arrest records soared, budgets were slashed in uplifting social services and education, and a city of racial minorities slumped into an economic abyss from which most local residents will never recover. The April 19th death of 25-year-old Freddie Grey while in police custody represents one more black life lost at the hands of the police. It is a story told repeatedly across the United States, a tale of horrific police-community relations that even the Director of the F.B.I. has described as unacceptable and in dire need of a big fix.
While prosecutors have filed charges against six officers as salve for raw wounds, this effort is hardly a cure for the underlying malaise. Critics were claiming effort this was nothing more than a premature and ill-conceived attempt to buy peace, but the effort was working at least. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake invited the Feds to mount their own investigation, and on May 7th came this announcement from the U.S. Justice Department: “Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch has decided to launch a federal investigation into whether the Baltimore Police Department has engaged in a ‘pattern or practice’ of excessive force.” The Washington Post, May 7th.
That this needless loss happened at the end of a chain of comparable deaths, that it happened in a black city (Detroit East, if you will) where poverty defines the area, is not an excuse for the massive destruction and looting of the ensuing riots. Such senseless violence cannot be condoned, but in a community with less than nothing to lose, it is very sadly understandable.
O’Malley’s presidential aspirations probably vaporized, but the story of racial and income inequality, the failure of government remotely to address the needs of those born in horrible neighborhoods and dysfunctional families, where joining a gang is often a means for survival and self-protection, is increasingly the story of an America that just doesn’t care. When I hear the “they have to take responsibility,” I see deplorable neighborhoods and horrible schools. But mostly, I see the faces of the little children born into these circumstances, and I see a fat rich white guy looking down at these pre-schoolers, yelling at them that they have to take responsibility for themselves.
Police unions are also shuddering under all the pressure: “During the urban crime epidemic of the 1970s and ’80s and the sharp decline in crime that began in the 1990s, the unions representing police officers in many cities enjoyed a nearly unassailable political position. Their opposition could cripple political candidates and kill police-reform proposals in gestation.
“But amid a rash of high-profile encounters involving allegations of police overreach in New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., the political context in which the police unions have enjoyed a privileged position is rapidly changing. And the unions are struggling to adapt.” New York Times, May 5th. In short, popular support is no longer automatically going to follow police union demands or let unions protect their members in light of unacceptable behavior. But will they really accept this new world order or will they fight against the tide? And will we, as a nation, accept that we must address underlying issues that have undermined such a large class of American citizens?
If we are ready to accept the extremes of polarization our society’s rules have fomented, if pulling back on the social and educational programs that once (but no longer) represented the “great equalizer” of upward social mobility (now mostly an historical fact of days gone by) is deemed necessary as fiscally prudent, then let’s understand that violence and various forms of insurrection are a natural consequence. And without addressing the core values and basic inequalities, we really need to prepare for matters getting a whole lot worse.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder how many “fiscal and social conservatives” actually factor in the hard dollar costs of a society that ignores its poorest citizens.