Are Baltimore’s Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?


“Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.” – Emma Goldman

Nothing happens in a vacuum. The Baltimore Uprising, as it’s been dubbed on Twitter, is not just the community’s response to Freddie Gray’s murder at the hands of Baltimore police. While it may have started out that way, the anger that has exploded across Maryland’s largest city is a response to three systemic issues – staggering levels of unacknowledged poverty and persistent unemployment, the occupying military force known as the Baltimore Police Department, and the complacent and corrupt Baltimore city government.

Staggering Poverty and Inequality

Across the bay from Baltimore is Somerset County, home to a small community named Princess Anne. Earlier this month in Princess Anne, Rodney Todd, a single black father, and his seven kids between ages six and 16 were found dead in their home. There was no power in the house, and the generator that had been running to heat the home through the night was switched on, but out of gas.

The power was off because Delmarva Power, the local electric company, had found what they called a “stolen meter” connected to Todd’s home and disconnected it. Todd, his two sons, and his five daughters, were found dead in sleeping positions. Family members recalled how Todd, who was a utility worker at the University of Maryland’s Eastern Shore campus, had complained of having trouble paying his utility bills. The last night anyone saw Todd alive, temperatures had dipped into the twenties. With no electricity, Todd bought the generator to keep his family warm while they slept.

Even though Todd’s family lived across the bay from Baltimore, they were trapped under the same boot that treads upon communities like Ferguson, Mo., Detroit, Mich., and Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray was illegally arrested. The destructive actions by a small minority of protesters in recent days are the desperate expressions of a community whose cries for help have fallen on deaf ears.

While it’s well-known that the big banks were terrorizing poor communities everywhere with subprime loans in the run-up to the financial crisis, their behavior is no more apparent than in Baltimore. Between 2005 and 2008, Wells Fargo preyed on Baltimore’s black community by targeting black churches, hoping that the ministers would convince congregations to take out subprime loans with Wells Fargo. More than half of the Baltimore properties in foreclosure with a Wells Fargo loan from 2005 to 2008 are currently vacant. In 2012, Wells Fargo was forced to pay out $175 million for pricing discrimination. Internal communications at Wells Fargo showed how employees called the subprime loans “ghetto loans,” and referred to their victims as “mud people.”

In Sandtown-Winchester, part of ZIP code 21217, the unemployment rate for the mostly-black neighborhood’s 9,174 residents is 51.8 percent. In 2011, all ZIP code 21217 residents were experiencing a 19.1 percent unemployment rate. 33 percent of buildings there are vacant (compare that to a much smaller rate of 5 percent vacancy for all buildings in Baltimore). And while national median income is $51,939, Sandtown’s median income is $24,000, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of four. To contrast, in ZIP code 21210, which is just on the other side of Interstate 83, median income is $50,000 higher, and average real estate sale prices are $300,000 higher. And across Maryland, white unemployment was just 5.6 percent in 2012, while black unemployment rates were in the double digits.

With the three-hit combo of globalization, union-busting, and racial bias, Baltimore’s inequality has been a decades-long trend. Between 1950 and 1995, the city lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs, and the local economy has been suffering ever since – particularly in the black community. 75 percent of black men in Baltimore had jobs in 1970, yet just 57.5 percent of black men were employed in 2010. But in that same year, 75 percent of white men in Baltimore were employed – a 20 percent gap. This level of persistent poverty in black communities has a profoundly negative effect. In Baltimore, black infants are nine times more likely to die before age 1 than white infants. That’s a worse infant mortality rate than Moldova and Belize.

A Traitorous and Corrupt Local Government

While Baltimore’s top politicians are mostly black and affiliated with the Democratic Party, they’re just as ruthless at redistributing the community’s wealth to rich developers as any white Republican. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who called the Freddie Gray protesters “thugs,” and her henchmen in the Baltimore City Council, like council president Jack Young, continue the Baltimore city government’s tradition of giving developers tax breaks hand-over-fist while short-changing residents on essential services.

Most recently, Rawlings-Blake signed off on a plan to shut off water for the city’s poorest residents. As I reported in ThinkProgress, 25,000 ratepayers who have overdue bills of just $250 or more are losing their access to water. Baltimore water rates have skyrocketed by 31 percent in just three years, and another 11 percent rate hike will go into effect this July. This plan to shut off water comes on the heels of the Rawlings-Blake administration’s failed attempt to privatize city water systems through the Veolia Corporation in August of 2014.

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