In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, which occurred as a result of a spinal injury he received while in police custody, U.S. media outlets ran a familiar gambit on the ever-controversial topic of race and to a lesser extent police brutality. The recent spate of high profile police shootings of unarmed black women and men has triggered global outcry. While the media-crazed dialogue on race and violence in America has led to excellent analysis of state brutality’s links to institutional discrimination, the conversation over the airwaves largely produces a frenzied cycle of hyperbole that drowns out the stories of the residents of West (and East) Baltimore in favor a superficial narrative on individual behaviors.
Baltimore is a city colored by the ripples of the economic ‘race to the bottom’ which defined the last quarter of the 20th century. As cheap labor and ‘heavy strings attached’ Foreign Direct Investment turned several Late Developing Countries into hubs for the transfer of working and middle class American jobs, densely populated urban centers, like the one where Freddie Gray was arrested, were turned into zones of desolation. If unemployment, capital flight from the inner city, and the mass exodus of white middle and working class residents were the ‘accidental’ symptoms of the tectonic neoliberal Washington Consensus on Baltimore, then the ever-present threat of police violence is the mechanism that ensures these symptoms will perpetually explode into outcry and unrest.
Baltimore is the marriage between ‘broken windows’ policing and aggressive structural adjustment. Urban city spaces are transformed by the modalities of capital movement. In some cases, gentrification brought about by land developers acquiring property in economically decimated areas can create shifts that displace poor or underemployed residents. In the city of Baltimore, as distinguished from the greater Baltimore area, capital flight from the loss of the steel industry and the systematic departure of white residents, heavily inspired by racial fears, resulted in a permanent state of economic depression for the city’s majority Black population.
According to Think Progress Baltimore lost over 100,000 manufacturing jobs between the years of 1950 and 1995. Nearly one third of the city’s residents left between 1975 and 2000. The overall unemployment rate is almost 9 percent, although the numbers are much higher when race and location are taken into account. As of 2010, 57.5 percent of black men between the ages of 16 and 64 were employed, compared to nearly three quarters of white men. The overall number of black men employed from 1970 to 2010 has steadily declined by more than 15 percent. Freddie Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood has an unemployment rate of 1 in 5, twice that of the rest of the city. More than half of those in this neighborhood between the ages of 16 and 64 are out of work.
Baltimore’s downward economic spiral triggered an increase in criminality and the illicit sale of narcotics from the 1970’s onward. The police response, ostensibly aimed at targeting organized criminal networks, turned toward policing the behavior and the spaces of Baltimore’s black residents. Minor offenses justified sweeping arrests aimed at cleansing the streets of any and all crime. The heavy-handed response to street violence in Baltimore was part of the federal War on Drugs, a multi-faceted initiative launched in the early 1970’s as a response to rising drug use and drug-related violence. The War on Drugs signified the largest militarization and mass mobilization of police in American history prior to the 9/11 attacks. In the year 1997 the population of Baltimore was slightly above 640,000, yet there were over 100,000 arrests. Many of these arrests do not lead to criminal charges and are for minor offenses or non-violent crimes whose penalties are greatly enhanced as part of the War on Drugs. The controversial stop-and-frisk policy that allows officers to randomly search individuals for drugs or weapons has been routinely described as a vehicle for racial discrimination and has been consistently challenged in federal court.
Aggressive policing is often linked to confronting violent organized drug-related crime, while in reality police had already infiltrated urban black areas throughout the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Political pacification of black radical and non-radical organizations through brutal tactics of counterinsurgency and the later containment of criminal violence within the same spaces are linked by decades of police intimidation, aggression and mass arrests. In Baltimore, encounters between residents and police, despite a reduction in scope, are riddled with violence and mistrust.
A six-month-long investigation conducted last fall by the Baltimore Sun newspaper concluded that since 2011, $5.7 million was paid out in settlements by the city as a result of civil suits filed against police. Over 100 victims filed suits against the police during this period, as the city spent close to $5 million in legal fees fighting civil cases related to police violence. The investigation included a review of thousands of pages of court documents and interviews with victims of police brutality that received civil court settlements.
Data gathered by Think Progress also demonstrates that systematic housing discrimination is another long standing feature of the neoliberal package that fundamentally reshuffled urban space in Baltimore. During the volatile late 1960’s era of black upward mobility, mortgage companies such as Morris Goldketer, deliberately stoked racialist fears amongst white residents living near growing black neighborhoods. As white homeowners sold their houses in greater numbers, black residents would be sold the same homes for as much as a 69 percent markup. In 2012 a former loan officer with the mortgage lending company Wells Fargo, under Federal subpoena, testified that the company deliberately targeted black residents and communities in Baltimore for predatory sub-prime mortgages by creating links with community organizations. Homeowners with good credit were given loans with unfairly high interest rates. Poor residents were given what bank employees called ‘ghetto loans’ or loans, many of which had adjustable rates, without paperwork or a down payment. When the housing market crashed in 2008, many homeowners who could not afford their mortgages or whose interest rates increased faced foreclosure. Currently more than half of all Wells Fargo homes foreclosed on in Baltimore from 2005 to 2008 are currently vacant. Sub-prime mortgage lending practices have been linked to the American housing bubble collapse which helped trigger the global financial recession in 2008.
A shrivelled tax base and a steady nation-wide increase in municipal budget deficits forced the city of Baltimore to seek private money for public problems linked to economic decimation. A prominent public-private partnership between Maryland development tycoon James Rouse and then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke in the mid 1990’s poured $130 million over the course of nearly 8 years into the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. This initiative, which spurred a wave of community participation and support, largely ended when the political leadership changed and the money stopped flowing.
The toxic combination of surgical economic devastation coupled with police violence underscores the paradox of urban spaces throughout the world. As people, particularly long abused populations, are victimized by decades of political and economic warfare, they turn away from the formal institutions of society. In the case of Baltimore such a shift away took shape politically and economically in the form of black radical groups and black criminal organizations respectively. The potential for violence is obvious, yet reordered urban spaces are prized commodities for generating wealth—especially for economies in chronic recession. The protests in Baltimore, similarly to the protests of 1968, underscore the reality of the urban center as the zone of confrontation between deliberate forces of economics and ordinary citizens. While no one in recent anti-police brutality protests has engaged in targeted killings of police officers as many American radical organizations in the 1960’s and 1970’s did, the conditions that create such actions in Baltimore—and throughout the world—remain firmly in place.