Part II: How Did We Get Here?
“We have time-warped back to 1971—when Marvin Gaye’s song, “What’s Going On” first came out—and 1972—the ‘last’ time Baltimore was in such a seemingly lawless state!”
—Baltimore UpRising: The Struggle Continues
Part I: What’s Going On?!?
Fifty years ago, Baltimore was not unlike Ferguson, Missouri, in that black communities were policed by white officers. But that is about the only similarity I see in these two cities, then or now. For one thing, the current population of Ferguson is 21,113 (in 2013). Baltimore, on the other hand, has a population of 622,104 (in 2013).
So it would be a bit ingenuous to compare these two cities’ “uprisings” beyond the fact that the killing of a black man by white officers occurred in both places and generated violent protests. Besides, the history of Baltimore has more in common with the history of other large urban centers, particularly on the East Coast.
The Segregated Melting Pot
Fifty years ago, Baltimore was a largely racially segregated city. Yet it was, then, and remains, now, an ethnically diverse city, with large subpopulations of Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish residents, as well as Black residents, who somehow managed to coexist—and even to interact—to varying and seemingly incongruent degrees. For example, in the Black West Baltimore neighborhoods of the 1930s–1950s, many store owners, pharmacists, and the like were Jewish, and they lived in these Black communities. [One of my aunts has often told stories about having played as a child with (future) Baltimore lawyer, Arnold Weiner—father of WBAL-TV anchor, Deborah Weiner—in the area of Bloom Street, West Baltimore, where the elder Weiner’s parents owned a neighborhood store.]
On the other hand, there were patterns of migration into and out of various parts of the city that were ethnically, as well as racially, segregated and driven by real estate developers, as much as they were by municipal interests. Thus, as Jewish residents in the 1950s and 1960s were steered out of West Baltimore and into “suburban” communities in Northwest Baltimore, such as Park Heights and Pimlico (home of the Pimlico Race Track, where The Preakness is held), Pikesville, and Randallstown, Black residents were steered into those very West Baltimore neighborhoods vacated by Jewish residents. However, neither the Jewish nor Black residents were welcome in other, more “exclusive” neighborhoods, such as Roland Park.
In addition, during the 1960s Civil Rights era, a great deal of blockbusting occurred, so that many previously all-white communities were, in fact, integrated by new black residents. My own family was a part of this integration—first, when my paternal aunt and uncle bought a home on Lynchester Road, in the Ashburton neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore in the late 1950s, and again in the early 1960s when my parents bought a home in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Lauraville.
Ironically, in the ensuing round of migrations, “Jewish” Park Heights, Pimlico, Pikesville, and Randallstown became, at first, “middle-class Black” communities (1970s–1990s), until the middle-class Blacks themselves moved on to other, more desirable suburban communities, leaving “lower-class” Blacks in their wake. In the end, the City re-segregated itself.
But what really decimated our City was: (1) the Riots of 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King; (2) white flight from the city, accompanied by an essential abandonment of the remaining black population; and (3) a shift in government focus away from an inclusive neighborhood/community development policy (best promoted by Mayor William Donald Schaeffer in the 1970s) to a targeted cash-cow development scheme (i.e., the further development of the Inner Harbor—originated by Schaeffer—and the Stadiums—Camden Yards and Ravens Stadium—to the detriment of the rest of the City). This shift includes Urban Renewal schemes and botched highway extensions into the city that ensured the destruction of previously stable neighborhoods—including, but not limited to Sandtown-Winchester, the epicenter of the Freddie Gray murder.
Where once there were black communities in West Baltimore with well tended homes, good schools, and local stores and movie theatres, bolstered by Head Start and other social programs, these neighborhoods have become ghost towns of blight, looking as though they had been nuked.
Fifty years ago, the Baltimore police force was not just white, but as in many other large cities (e.g., New York, Boston), it was largely and traditionally Irish-American. But, unlike Ferguson, Baltimore had already made important—albeit slow—strides in adding Black officers to the police force, and in the mid-1960s, there was a concerted effort by then (progressive) Republican Mayor, Theodore R. McKeldin, backed by the Democratic Governor, J. Millard Tawes, to begin truly integrating the force. Together, they hired Donald D. Pomerleau to be the Police Commissioner for Baltimore City.
Pomerleau, who had been a consultant to the City following the 1965 riots in Watts, had reported that “the Baltimore City Police Department was amongst the nation’s most antiquated and corrupt police forces which had practiced excessive force and had a nonexistent relationship with Baltimore’s large Negro (then Black, later African American) community.”
Over the course of the past 50 years, mayors have come and gone, both black and white, with two women among them. And many police commissioners have come and gone; their philosophies, policies, and actions have reflected those of the mayors who hired them, ranging from progressive, community-based programs to the zero-tolerance, broken-windows approach of former Mayor, Governor, and now-Presidential candidate, Martin O’Malley, to the seemingly rudderless tenure of our current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
As well, the department has weathered its own scandals and backlash, of both a professional and a personal nature, over the years. After a period of relatively stable and positive leadership by Commissioner Fred Bealefield (2007-2012), and with significant reductions in overall crime in the city, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hired the current Police Commissioner, Anthony Batts, to replace him. It is Commissioner Batts who has “presided” over the ongoing UpRising in present-day Baltimore, in something less than a transparent fashion.
When a 3-year-old girl named Mackenzie Elliott was killed by a stray bullet as she played on the porch of her Waverly neighborhood home last August, Commissioner Batts had the temerity to promise that her killer would be brought to justice within the week. Ten months later, the police department is no closer to finding her killer than it was last summer.
And the recent spike in shootings since the 2015 UpRising in Baltimore has been attributed to gang warfare over—of all things—the cache of drugs stolen by looters from pharmacies during the riots. Not the reported slow-down of police work by the force in retaliation for the indictments of 6 officers in the murder of Freddie Gray.
To summarize this overview of Baltimore as a “complicated” matter is an understatement, to say the least.
In the final installment of this series ("Part III: What's Really Going On"), I will share the opinions of several friends (both current and past Baltimore residents), as well as my own, about where the Baltimore UpRising fits into the broader environment of the City we love.