Baltimore City is an incredible place. It is beautiful, it is horrifying, it has unlimited potential and yet it remains a train wreck.
Baltimore’s citizens have been lead poisoned by government decisions and by the city’s toxic relationship with Johns Hopkins. And sadly, despite court findings in favor of the poisoned citizens, the city still has never paid a dime in reparations, just as it will likely be in Flint, Michigan. And it likely never will, at least not during the victims’ (inevitably-reduced) lifetimes.
Johns Hopkins, with their billions in untaxed profits, their horrific development practices, and their blatant and unapologetic environmental racism, has not simply eaten Baltimore alive, it has skinned the city, put on its corpse like a suit, and walks around pretending to be Baltimore like some sort of horrific corporate-educational version of Edward the Bug from Men in Black.
Ironically, under any normal tax structure Johns Hopkins would have paid tens of billions of dollars into the city’s tax coffers over the years, but because of the favorable regulations for Hopkins institutions they pay next to nothing and the city from which they leech and whose citizens they poison is too poor to pay the victims.
Another of the reasons for this eternal non-payment is the completely unexplainable power of Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, despite his department literally raping the citizens they are supposed to serve (yes, coercing women to have sex with you so that their children do not freeze to death or get brain damage from toxic mold or other substances, that’s rape), among other crimes. Graziano is the man responsible for the city not paying its part of the lead reparations, and has been investigated by state legislators for it. And yet Graziano remains, largely due to his connections with very powerful people in Baltimore City.
The money of the Cordish family, a major power player in Baltimore’s institutions, has been found nesting next to Vladimir Putin’s ill-gotten gains in the newly uncovered Panama Papers.
Among those powerful connections is the hub of the political money machines of Graziano-protectors Martin O’Malley and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: Colleen Martin-Lauer. The Leveller previously took Martin-Lauer Associates to task for their role as funnel for establishment, white supremacist money.
It is incredibly likely that Martin-Lauer was shocked by these allegations. At the very least from private meetings it has been reported that Martin-Lauer describes herself as the force behind the rise of black political representation in Baltimore, and the likelihood is that she truly views herself this way.
But this is more than simply white-savior delusion, ignoring decades of powerful black families in the city. No, it is apologism for the blackwashing of white supremacist interests in the city. One way or another, at the time Colleen Martin-Lauer was hitting it big on the political scene, black people were going to start getting elected as a fact of demographic necessity.
What Martin-Lauer did was ensure that only those black faces that were palatable to white business interests and cops would make it through her vetting process and be granted access to the resources necessary to attain and sustain power. And she is a self-described feminist powerhouse, but again, the kind of white bourgeois feminist who happily trots out a black or brown female body when it helps her cause, but ignores the needs of black and brown women on the institutional level.
The new Amazon distribution center is simply another trap for Baltimore’s poor
How bad is the corruption of Baltimore’s political money trail? So bad that the money of the Cordish family, a Baltimore fixture with ties to the City Housing Authority, the Harbor Endowment Foundation, Johns Hopkins, Loyola, and also a major contributor to top Martin-Lauer clients, has been found nesting next to Vladimir Putin’s ill-gotten gains in the newly uncovered “Panama Papers.”
And yet, following the light that’s been shone on Martin-Lauer, some of the city’s best reform candidates have signed on with her services, receiving establishment money with probably white-supremacy connections in exchange for promises of who knows what. Even her rumored retirement after the 2016 elections is not cause for celebration: With Martin-Lauer gone, it merely becomes harder to see the money trail, but it will no doubt remain even without its now-observable funnel.
“What reformers have to understand is that they’re never going to get anywhere without radicals and revolutionaries to betray”
Even developments hailed as great successes for the people of the city are in fact just more institutional establishment traps. The new Amazon distribution center (dubbed a “fulfillment center” by the Orwellian wordsmiths at Amazon and echoed by Baltimore politicians) that was hailed as salvation by bringing in 1000 new jobs to one of the poorer areas of the city is simply another trap for Baltimore’s poor: take a merciless, benefit-less minimum wage job with no job security, or stay with the more profitable jobs preexisting in the criminal economy. These “bullshit jobs” are being hailed as wonders by former reformers who are now taking Martin-Lauer money, which is easily explained by the fact that Amazon has paid tens of thousands in lobbying fees to Martin-Lauer connection Venable, LLP.
As David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, eloquently put it: “What reformers have to understand is that they’re never going to get anywhere without radicals and revolutionaries to betray.” Sadly, in many of the political races where there was the most room for hope, the candidates being hailed as reformers haven’t even waited to be elected to betray the radicals. A shocking number have skipped their chance to amplify the people’s cries and have instead hitched their financial wagons to the powers that be.
It’s not shocking that the establishment has pursued these reformers. There is a reason the powerful remain so for so long: they can smell inevitable change, and they know how to harness it. They find the reformers and they make sure to own them. No, what’s shocking is how many well-informed reformers have knowingly chosen to throw in with the forces of white supremacy in the city, assuming in all likelihood that they won’t turn out like all the rest of those who turn corrupt after taking dirty money.
“We need a City Council that engages and builds community across lines of difference”
Often revolutionaries become mere reformers when they get elected. It is the mediating force of electoral office. But when those revolutionaries who could have overthrown the corrupt system instead decide to throw in with it, they are little more than a face lift.
And as we come in to the home stretch of the 2016 primary elections, the only election that actually matters in a one-party city like Baltimore, the conventional media makes it sound like the only net change will be the face of power, not the structures or use. Of course, that same conventional media has long been a tool of those powers they claim will not be changing.
Amazing how all of this corruption is connected, isn’t it? We’ve got nothing new to report, we’ve got no uplifting evidence to give us hope that the title is true, that another Baltimore is possible. Yet, unlike Martin O’Malley who in 2002 asked the city to “risk action on faith” and then ate the city alive, we do not “BELIEVE” in a better Baltimore. The thing that gives us hope that another Baltimore is possible is YOU.
Sure, there’s institutional challengers who could upset things a little. Zeke Cohen and Deray McKesson are definitely high on our list, as are Dea Thomas and Kristerfer Bernett. And some incumbents even give us hope, like eternal pain-in-the-ass Bill Henry who the establishment keeps trying to unseat. Yeah, there’s little rays of sunshine here and there throughout city politics.
In an interview with The Leveller, Zeke Cohen, a candidate for City Council in the oh-so-white First District, sounds like the voice of the Baltimore Algebra Project made palatable for white people, or perhaps a more polished David Simon. He’s an outlier in Baltimore, having made the unglamorous subject of education policy his top issue. In the rare moments he’s not talking about schools and students, Cohen admits why he doesn’t sound quite like his activist allies:
“Baltimore is really polarized right now. And it breaks down in the kinds of ways you’d expect…That’s the trouble of my campaign: people zone out when you talk about race. So how do you talk about public policies like ‘Zero Tolerance’ policing that have eroded trust between officers and citizens, and disproportionately hurt communities of color, in a way that people can listen to without zoning out while still holding true to your values? We can’t continue to have areas of deeply concentrated poverty or it will spill over into your own neighborhoods. That’s why we need a City Council that engages and builds community across lines of difference”.
But Cohen doesn’t just get his moment because he wants it, and certainly it’s got nothing to do with that institutional Democrat logic of “it’s my turn”. In our interview, Cohen declared “I’m not against development. The city needs to grow its population. I just don’t think we should PAY them to come in and TAKE the best waterfront property left in the state of Maryland!”
From his tone you can tell he’s used that line before, and he knows it resonates. And the thing is, that line only resonates because you, the people of Baltimore, got fed up and said “No More!” And because that line resonates, the former incumbent in Cohen’s district, developer-cozy incumbent Jim Kraft, gave up his seat under threat of your anger (though there’s another Martin-Lauer-supported bank-cozy development-lover vying to take Kraft’s place instead of Cohen).
It’s resonating in other districts, too. Dea Thomas, candidate for City Council in District 11, is up against another developer-loving white guy, Eric Costello, who was roundly despised by locals for his gentrifying efforts before he was appointed to the City Council in 2014. But Costello’s still establishment, and like Graziano, establishment figures with enough economic backing can weather any storm in Baltimore. Or at least that’s how it used to be. Thomas’ challenge to Costello is only possible for the same reason that Cohen’s is possible: your rage.
In an interview with The Leveller, Thomas went in-depth into her plans for bringing her district and the city into the light, discussing issues of development, education, housing and jobs in a way that really highlighted an understanding of the city’s needs. She rounded it out with a real all-encompassing pitch:
“We are approaching one year since last April’s Uprising and it seems some of our leaders and candidates have not learned that the age of business as usual politics will not suffice. We must champion communities that are working to empower themselves through development of community economics, cradle-to-career education, employment with an eye to recidivism, and safe, quality, affordable housing.”
But just like for Cohen’s district, Martin-Lauer sees the changing winds in the 11th, too, and has put her resources behind business-friendly challenger Greg Sileo to make sure a real change agent like Thomas doesn’t make trouble. But she’s still waving the “No More!” banner, and her chances don’t look bad. Because of you.
“Deray came into this thinking he was walking into a marketplace of ideas, when it’s really a street fight”
Deray McKesson, whose Mayoral campaign arranged and then cancelled two separate interviews for this article, built his entire framework on that exact same declaration that you made: “No More”. The rest of the mayoral field is made up of what Dave Troy, local entrepreneur and founder of 410Labs, calls “Tribes”:
“In a city like Baltimore each candidate has their own personal social network, which forms their ‘base.’ Being a ‘city of neighborhoods’ is a homespun way of saying that we are a city of relatively isolated cliques. So what we find is that rather than selecting from a marketplace of ideas, Baltimoreans tend towards rooting for the candidate with whom we have the most friends in common.
It boils down to which part of the extractive strip mining economy you inhabit. So, the MBE contractors/developers cluster around Dixon, because those are her people. The corporate lobbyists cluster around Pugh, because that’s her tribe from Annapolis. Warnock’s people are all in finance, venture capital, and private equity. Embry’s folks are all people she knows from law school or from working with Bernstein and Frosh, (jobs she got because of the law school networks).
It’s personal, and self-interest is reinforced by the personal, by where you live, by the kind of art you like and don’t like, which really boils down to coded spaces, where people feel comfortable, etc. We are like a dozen small cities inhabiting a single municipality.”
Deray, on the other hand, is not attached to any tribe in the city. And the people’s declaration of “No More” is the reason that Deray’s chances of tribeless victory seemed so high. But on the subject of Deray, Troy had this to say:
“I like McKesson too, and find it fascinating how much people absolutely can’t stand his candidacy; again, the tribalism at work; they want to flush him out so bad, and he’s FROM here! Deray’s tribelessness is precisely why he is having trouble getting any traction. He grew up with a few people here and a couple dozen folks seem to know and vouch for him locally. He came into this thinking he was walking into a marketplace of ideas, when it’s really a street fight.”
“This whole hatred of Deray is really misplaced… I have interviewed him, spent time with him. I think he’s genuine. He did not decide to be famous – the media decided he was to be famous. One can criticize him for not being part of this city for a long time then “parachuting in” to run for Mayor but he has serious ideas. He has never taken credit for starting protests here. The factionalizing we get into border on the petty, and is part of what destroys the ability to build a movement in this city.”
It is for this reason that Deray is not our shining beacon on a hill. The candidates are not what gives us hope. You are. You, the non-tribal voters and activists of Baltimore City, none of them get their moment without you taking your moment.
Between 2006 and 2011, I met many energetic Baltimore community organizers making a strong case for revolt, for an Uprising. But as I worked for reform candidates, not revolutionaries, I watched them make their cases from the sidelines, and I was always impressed with how quickly, how succinctly, how easily the black women they were trying to incite to rebellion give them a reality check: “How the fuck am I gonna have a revolution when I have to work three jobs just to feed my kids?” It was the realism that revolutions ignore at their peril.
By taking institutional money and support, what should have been “new blood” is now merely a new face for those same entrenched interests
But in 2015, the city reached its tipping point, and people realized that even if they work three jobs to feed their kids, even if they raise those children responsibly and law-abidingly, the state and its enforcers will nonetheless rape them and murder their children, be it through police brutality or lead poisoning or sex-for-repairs. You finally lost all hope and you finally found your rage, and with it your voice. You rose up and you said “No More”. And you terrified the establishment.
Why do you think the establishment powers like Martin-Lauer did such a reshuffle after the riots? The Baltimore Uprisings gave us a chance to have these conversations, but of course the powers that be want to make sure, no matter how many nice conversations we end up having about race and prisons and jobs and poverty and structural inequality, we never actually address the systemic corruption in Baltimore City that lines their pockets.
Don’t buy their platitudes that now that you’ve voted your civic duty is done. Keep them scared
And so establishment money-funneler Colleen Martin-Lauer dumped some of her longstanding puppets and latched on to her own crew of “reformers”, who talk a good game but won’t be rocking the boat. By taking institutional money and support, what should have been “new blood” is now merely a new face for those same entrenched interests.
But you rose up, and you haven’t sat back down, and we don’t think you’ll be sitting down now either. If they bow to those same interests, that pretty new reformer face is going to have the same metaphorical bruises and bloodied lips you gave the last one a year ago at the start of the Uprising.
This city has been ruined from the ballot box for decades, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote. The façade was just burned to the ground. Now is your chance to rebuild the city yourself, instead of letting the same moneyed interests of white supremacy who so fear you continue to control your lives by failing to cast a ballot against them. Vote. Vote intelligently. Vote for radicals and reformers who won’t take institutional money. Vote against the powers that be. But don’t buy their platitudes that now that you’ve voted your civic duty is done. Keep them scared, the reformers and the revolutionaries too. Make it clear that you will shut it all down again at the first sign of corruption and backsliding. The power is finally in your hands because you took it.
Don’t ever back down.
Image: Maryland National Guard