We Need Another Plan

Somehow, our new normal is three-hundred killings a year. A five-year-old getting shot would have once galvanized the city. But a five-year-old was shot on November 19. Her seven-year-old sister was shot and killed back on July 5. A three-year-old was grazed by a bullet on November 27. A thirteen-year-old was shot on December 9. 

Are we moved?

The death count rises, our police department falls apart. No permanent commissioner for most of this year. Someone’s finally been picked for the job in a sham process. The experts who were part of it recommended a different choice — someone who has done the things we need to do here, like cut homicides and implement a federal consent decree. But those experts were ignored, just like the rest of us.

Two things are certain. We need to wake up. And we need another plan.  

This starts with understanding how we got here. We aren’t facing a crisis of leadership because we chose wrong in the last election. We’re facing a crisis of leadership because the choices were wrong, and we are still not demanding better.

Plan B is a vision, a coalition, and a leadership that can hold together post-Freddie Gray Baltimore City, deal with its past, and chart a new course. 

We have the chance to make this happen. But the work has to start now.

The opportunity we have. 

The 2015 unrest created the space to deal with the problems Baltimore has had for decades. All the excuses, all the delays, all the times someone said “that can’t work here” — all that nonsense was supposed to be swept aside so we could do what was not possible before 2015 to make a city that was not possible before 2015.

But we haven’t made a new start. In fact, right now it seems like no one is in charge.

The crisis in City Hall is clear enough. But beyond its doors, there are no political machines or gatekeepers deciding who gets to go in. The leaders and the institutions that had control over the politics, over whose “turn” it was, don’t have control anymore. 

There are still plenty of people who hold important positions or who have money. But position isn’t power. If it was, the establishment would have figured out how to right the ship long ago. 

All the excuses were supposed to be swept aside so we could do what was not possible before 2015 to make a city that was not possible before 2015.

This establishment class is called Smalltimore. Before 2015, the role of Smalltimore was to hold together a divided city. It did this with policies and programs sponsored by the government, the nonprofits, the foundations, business, churches and the “anchor institutions” to make it possible to tell a simple story: that Baltimore was getting better.

But Smalltimore got punched in the face on April 27, 2015. The facts on the ground could no longer be managed or hidden. The policies and programs had not made things better. In fact, things were much worse than the people with influence ever thought – although our steady drop in population, and steady rise in vacancy and abandonment, should have been a hint.

This is why the Rawlings-Blake administration fell apart after the unrest. Stunned by what it saw and, like the rest of Smalltimore, ill-equipped to respond, it quickly disintegrated.

A void opened up, and we were presented the opportunity to fill it.

But we didn’t.

Wasting time. 

The goal in 2016 was to elect people who could rise to the challenge presented by old problems rising to the surface. What we wanted was leadership that could capitalize on our strengths, deal with the realities that could no longer be denied, and help us weave a fragmented city back together.  

What we got was two years wasted.

The problem isn’t anyone’s qualifications, or smarts, or willingness to work hard. The problem is that our key leaders grew up in Smalltimore, and were groomed by it.

They’re built for what came before. They aren’t built for now.

Remember, Smalltimore before 2015 was a place where no one spoke about “dismantling” our police department. Or spending $20 million a year on affordable housing. Or living wages. Or “taking back” control of our major institutions from the state control — like schools or police.

No one was running for office to tackle the effects of government-sponsored segregation before 2015. Only when its effects in our city became national news did that change, and did politicians who had been around for many years shift gears.

Our current mayor won in 2016 with a long list of promises, trying to rise to the moment. We weren’t just going to reform the police. We were going to raise the minimum wage. We were going to fund and build affordable housing. We were going to take real responsibility for the school system. We were going to invest in neighborhoods. 

But these promises, it turned out, were just bluffs. This wasn’t a new leadership. It was the old leadership, failing to meet the new challenges.

We need to capitalize on our strengths, deal with the realities that can no longer be denied, and weave a fragmented city back together. That vision? Still missing.

For example, two years later, all the key questions about our police department remain unanswered. How will we balance the need for reform with the need for essential public safety? How will we build a department that can ensure public safety without sacrificing the rights of our citizens? What’s the vision and purpose of the BPD today?  

Instead of answers, we have a demoralized department, a distrustful people, and violent streets. Instead of answers, it’s the same talking points – about cops “on the beat” not in cars, about “understaffing” in a department whose budget has gone up every single year, a department that’s one of largest in the country relative to our population.  

Meanwhile, the demand for living wages and affordable housing needed to be met with a broad, sustainable vision. But all we got was division.

The mayor broke her promise to raise the minimum wage because the business community revolted. Then the mayor agreed to raise property taxes to fund affordable housing because the community advocates revolted. The advocates were already angry about the first broken promise, and were louder than the businesses community, which was outraged over the tax increase, and still is.

As our leadership lurches back and forth to please competing interests, the vision is still missing. There’s no written strategy to spend the millions sets aside under the affordable housing deal. And the money won’t build a single unit of affordable housing anytime soon, if ever, because city government isn’t in that business. The Housing Department runs no rental subsidy program. And it does not build housing.

We’re not solving problems, we’re just making deals to placate the loudest voices.

Between now and 2020.

If those of us still waiting for a rebound from 2015 and still waiting for a year under 300 murders don’t start demanding more soon, all we’ll get between now and 2020 is politics and posturing.

The plan for the status quo is to get something, anything, done in time for the next election. The city has put up four big projects for bid in neighborhoods that need investment the most. But the fine print has a timeline that is unrealistic and politically motivated: “The ideal respondents must . . . complete the project by April 2020.” There’s also a “neighborhood reinvestment fund” that, at first, was going to be a billion dollars, but is now $52 million. Like the affordable housing fund, it’s another pot of cash with no strategy. The plan seem to be to spent it spend it somewhere in “two-thirds” of the city, but without goals or standards it seems a lot like one big slush fund. 

We don’t need a younger version of the leadership we already have. And we don’t need a better or more efficient version of the status quo. We need something new and very different.

Meanwhile the chatter about potential challengers has already started. But the options sound a lot like what we said in our mission statement won’t be good enough.

We don’t need a younger version of the leadership we already have. And we don’t need anyone offering a “smarter” version of it either – a better or more efficient version of the status quo won’t cut it. We need something new and very different.

The risk we need to take. 

The 2020 conversation should not be about candidates. It should be about a vision for the city, the courage needed to fight for it, and the capacity to build a coalition to make that vision a reality.

The conversation we need hasn’t even started, not because it’s too soon, but because we’re too scared. Few are still willing to defend the status quo. But few are willing to go on record against it.

We understand why, because we understand the risk of speaking up. But we know change is possible, and fighting for it will be worth it.

A critical mass is out there waiting to emerge when the time is right. Our goal is to help make that critical mass happen, and to make sure everybody is part of it.

Baltimore Now is developing a narrative and a platform for action, designed to move us past the current leadership and the status quo alternatives, and to propose a real course forward. Very soon we’ll need the resources to tell that story widely, to spark the city-wide conversation we think thousands of people want to have.

But we’re not quite ready to ask for your time or your money. We have more homework to do.

And we’re not quite sure you are ready to give it.

All of us have to reflect on just what we’re willing to do to get our city — our home —to a better place. This is a committee for “political action,” but we’ve learned it might be too soon for that. Because action takes risk. But at some point, those who want something better have to say so out loud. It won’t happen today, and probably won’t happen tomorrow, but it’s got to happen.

A critical mass is out there waiting to emerge when the time is right. Our goal is to help make that critical mass happen, and to make sure everybody is part of it. Or at least, enough of everybody to make a difference – whether you’re white or black or immigrant, whether you’re rich or poor or in between, whether you live near the harbor or far from it. Because it’s now or never.

Dan Sparaco