Monday, June 8, 2020

At the intersection of way too many calamities, Baltimore is holding up well

And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. (Ta-Nahesi Coates)
The intersection of a pandemic, unrest about police violence, a White House occupant who is entirely off the rails, an unabated high crime rate, and a never ending local primary is so complicated that it can't be managed as an all way stop, in which each side gets a turn, one after the other. Instead, the issues plaguing this city are connected and intertwined, in many ways going back to the root cause of America's original sin.
A mural of local anti-violence activist Kwame Rose in West
Win McNamee/Getty Images via CityLab

This situation requires immediate nimble responses, but also a long-term strategy; none of the possible responses  are prescribed in a rule book. Baltimore isn't alone in this year of calamities, but few cities face so many challenges at once.

Surprisingly, so far, the news for Baltimore are not all bad. In many respects Baltimore is faring better than many of its peers.

  • Take the pandemic, in spite of Baltimore's many pre-existing conditions, the City so far has a lower death rate and better results than the surrounding County and better than Prince George's or Montgomery Counties. 

  • Take the unrest about police violence: Baltimore is one of the few larger cities with significant protest turn-out that hasn't seen any major property destruction or violence, a fact that found national recognition in this CityLab article
  • And take the election: After lots of sputtering and many questions about fair access it emerges that the City can do more than recycle old faces and ideas. And when it comes to the country's president, the man stands no chance in this city anyway.

Peaceful in Baltimore
Just as the initially violent national protest movement in the wake of George Floyd's public execution quickly became peaceful after it was clear that the White House occupant was just itching for a martial fight. Baltimore was one of the few cities which showed that other ways are possible. Positive models and precedents quickly reshape a narrative. DC Mayor Bowser's street art, no matter that some criticized it as more "performance" than action, provided a powerful counter point to a bumbling president holding awkwardly on to a bible.

Baltimore, provides a powerful image of a city that, although deeply affected by police violence, can avoid another conflagration by way of communication, strong community leaders and a police that is trying to learn the bigger lesson from a disastrous past.

Imagine the power that would come from a young black mayor, elected because his trustworthiness is bigger than his ambition and personal agenda?
Too close to call: Scott/Dixon race for Mayor

The intersection of those large forces that are much bigger than this city, and even bigger than  this nation, is not a place to be which anybody would select voluntarily.

COVID19, an unstable and ineffective police, high crime, a psychopath in the Oval Office and another mayoral election needed because of malfeasance of the previous office occupant, are traumatizing circumstances, each by itself. Their combination can be devastating, to individuals, to the community and to the body of politic.

Race is in some form or another the connecting tissue of all of these issues, it plays a role in how people are affected by the virus, by the sagging economy and by an ineffective but abusive police. All the while, a subset of privileged white men seems to be willing to do just about anything to hold on to power, no matter the demographic odds. The way in which race drove the Baltimore mayoral scandals is harder to explain, but one aspect is the enormous extra pressure to which black female leaders are no doubt subjected.

At this particular intersection, every turn could lead to the cliff and every day can provide another opportunity to fall off. Every day opens unknown risks, but also previously unknown opportunities. It looks like we have to live with this for some time to come and not only adapt but also act. Potentially attend a large protest in the midst of a pandemic. Prepare for a protracted fight over the elections in November. Trust a young new Mayor, or forgive an older one who abused our trust once before. Learn how to be safe and still participate. Be radical but also caring.

How much the ground has shifted under our feet can be seen in the public discussion that has now become mainstream. For a moment many white Americans seem to feel guilty. For a moment drastic change seems to be within range. For the moment a country used to barging forward becomes reflective. Various shifts that were previously only wishful thinking have become a topic of serious discussion:

  • For example the demand to utilize the COVID recession for turning the society towards a more sustainable future,  one where long-term public good trumps personal profit. and where the god of growth gets finally replaced with quality of life. This was until recently seen as a radical position, it is now advanced in a conservative business magazine such as the Economist.

Radical language and symbols in mainstream media

  • For example defunding and potentially disbanding some current police departments. This was a fringe position even in Baltimore, where the police has been deeply discredited and where a strange structure makes it a State agency within the city. 
  • Think about Hopkins doctors, Baltimore policemen and congress people kneeling in awareness of racial inequity. What was first highlighted through the pandemic and now again by  police brutality has dramatically increased the breadth, depth and width of "Black Lives Matter". 

The dust hasn't settled, the fog hasn't lifted and at the moment this is written, it isn't even clear yet how the Baltimore mayoral primary will end.

Baltimore's future crime rate will depend as much on the new Mayor as on police reform.

The prospect of the general election in November can be very dark or it could be a final act of liberation. So far, so good for Baltimore. At least when one considers all the other possibilities at this particular intersection.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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