BALTIMORE — One sawed-off shotgun, six weeks, and 11 brazen robberies later—including two separate holdups at New Bazar Halal Meat—the FBI is still trying to find the “Shotgun Four”—black boys and young men in their late teens or early twenties, judging from the TV-quality video footage of them.
This isn’t The Wire. This is the real-life Baltimore that will confront its next mayor: a city besieged with violent crime, a police department prone to corruption and brutality, and a community drowning in false dreams and misspent hopes.
Tuesday, the Democratic primary will effectively decide the next mayor of crime city. It’s all but certain that the most powerful voting block in the city, black women, will elect one of their own—either State Senate Majority Leader Catherine Pugh or former Mayor Sheila Dixon, with decades of public service between them.
No matter who wins, the next mayor isn’t likely to be up to the job of keeping the sons and grandsons of her voters from living desperate lives, and, too often, dying meaningless deaths.
In the year since the uprisings that followed the death of Freddie Gray marred the city and forced Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to give up on re-election, one might have some tough lessons would be learned. After the indictment of six city police officers and a massive payout to the Gray family, one might have expected a full-scale review of policing policies. Instead, the city has seen only cosmetic reforms, even as the Baltimore Police Department stepped back and let crime rise.
Yet, if their public statements are any measure, Pugh and Dixon could go by “Status” and “Quo,” The moms of the kids lost to the city’s streets keep backing candidates who ensure that won’t change.
That won’t do in a shrinking city that just saw its deadliest year ever, with 344 homicides, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2014. The murder rate shot up in the months after 25-year-old Gray suffered a fatal neck injury in the back of a police transport vehicle, suffering what appeared to be a nasty police department-wide case of the blue flu.
Former police commissioner Anthony Batts, who was fired in July, outright said in September that cops “took a knee” in response to community demands for reform. “Is this going to be the tactic, where police don’t feel supported, so they allow the crime rate to go up, and the reformers lose their job?” he asked.
But that’s not what either of the two women vying to lead the city are talking about.
Pugh, a three-term state lawmaker and City Council member before that, talks about “impression” rather than reality when it comes to the broken relationship between law enforcement and the communities it serves. Endorsed by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), her website includes pedantic language about strengthening civilian review boards and increasing transparency and diversity within the police department. What Sen. Pugh doesn’t say—about anything—is how.
Dixon, who boldly proclaims, “Baltimore wants their mayor back,” has unveiled a remarkably similar cookie-cutter plan—including officer foot patrols and youth jobs programs—that lacks specifics.
Both women’s feel good, all sky and no pie, ideas harken back to the mid-’90s—an era that resulted in more locking up than lifting up.
They are not offering serious answers to Charm City’s many chronic problems past the prevalence of illegal guns. Not for affordable housing, mass incarceration, environmental racism, and commercial redevelopment after the area lost some 100,000 manufacturing jobs. Not even for creating a better-trained, community-connected police force.
The table of issues is full. But in Baltimore, at least in this election, the table has no legs.
The problem is not a lack of available leadership. In fact, the city is teaming with volunteer activists who are fighting to increase the quality of life for those living on and within the margins. You will find them working in after school programs, lining auditoriums at various town hall meetings, and lobbying the state legislature and the City Council. You will find them, working to repair and revive their neighborhoods one brick at a time. One of them, DeRay Mckesson, whose national profile appears to exceed his local support (we’ll know for certain Tuesday), is even running for mayor.
Then there’s 17-year-old Makayla Gilliam-Price. Makayla is a high school senior who co-founded a grassroots organization called City Bloc and led school walkouts to protest proposals to arm school resource officers.
And Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a community-driven think tank that has taken the fight from the street to the statehouse, engages in political advocacy for a host of criminal justice reforms. Led by CEO Adam Jackson, LBS receives “no funding from any foundations, nonprofits, or political parties.” Rather, they are “are an independent group of concerned leaders engaging hands on with the political sphere.”
Local Black Lives Matter activists, including LBS, claimed and renovated one of more than 16,000 vacant houses to create a community center. City leaders have threatened to shut down the Harriet Tubman House because the “1619 Coalition” started rehabbing the building without city permits.
It is not enough to walk among them—as Pugh and Dixon did during the 2015 riots. Real reform means deciding to work among and with them.
Luckily, no one has been hurt in any of the robberies. It is not hard to understand how the suspects got their hands on a sawed-off shotgun and concocted a scheme to raid convenience marts. Similarly, it is not hard to understand how that kind of audacious criminality bred itself so early in a place like Baltimore. It is difficult, however, to grapple with the political cowardice that appears to be unfolding in the mayor’s race.
Historically, black women have represented the largest voting bloc in Baltimore City elections. And the young men and boys who allegedly carried out the series of robberies could have been anyone’s sons. Freddie Gray was somebody’s son too. But, for the grace of God, their last names could have even been Pugh or Dixon.
It’s time they started acting like it.