The Accountability Reset (Part 1)

We were on the cover of the New York Times magazine this past weekend. The story was called “The Tragedy of Baltimore.” It traced the history of our efforts to prevent violence — from the 1990s crack era, to the zero tolerance 2000s, to the Gun Trace Task Force, to what’s going on today.

What’s going on today is unacceptable. But is it a “tragedy?”

A hurricane is a tragedy. A tornado ripping through a small town is a tragedy. We call it tragic when something befalls us and it’s no one’s fault. The course of a storm is no one’s fault, and usually the most you can do is wait for it to pass.

Calling the state of our city a tragedy suggests it just happened, like the weather. But it’s not tragedy. It’s choices.

To call the state of our city a tragedy suggests it just happened like the weather. But that’s just not true. Segregation wasn’t a hurricane made by God. It was made by laws written by humankind. Redlining wasn’t a tornado. It was a policy made by government. Jobs didn’t float away in a flood. De-industrialization was the result of tax policies and economic decisions made by real people.

It wasn’t a “tragedy” that we didn’t build a regional transit system in the 1970s. We didn’t build a regional transit system because politicians decided not to build it, and politicians decided not to build it because loud voices in our surrounding suburbs revolted against the idea of Black city residents having direct access to suburban jobs and housing.

Firing a police commissioner, then hiring another who was a criminal tax cheat, then not having one for almost a year – these were not “tragedies.” These were choices.

Outrage, not tragedy.

Our problem as a city is that we look around and call what we’re experiencing today a tragedy. As if it all just happened. As if no one is accountable.

For those who bear the brunt of our challenges, it probably feels like it all “just happened.” One day, the whole block became a row of vacant homes. One day, the factories closed and the jobs left. One day, the shooting got worse. No doubt it’s a tragedy that anyone has to live through this.

But these things didn’t just happen.

When a major institution decides to waste precious resources on books no one wants rather than providing resources that children really need, it’s is not a tragedy. It’s an outrage.

We’ve certainly had “tragic” figures in Baltimore, overcome by their own hubris or desire — like MacBeth, overcome by ambition, or Hamlet, overcome by indecision.

Consider, for example, an elected official, with life-long dreams of becoming mayor, leveraging a position on the board of a very powerful institution, full of very powerful people, to profit from a book deal, then not fully disclosing it — only to become mayor, and then face losing it all, when the secret deal comes out.

This is a sad, sorry tale. But when a major institution decides to waste precious resources on books no one wants rather than providing resources that children really need, it’s is not a tragedy. It’s an outrage.

The performance of our police department is not a tragedy either. Nor is the performance of City Hall.

When we call the state of our city a “tragedy” it lets our institutions, and the people who run them, off the hook. It pretends that no one is responsible or accountable for anything – and that, sadly, is what it feels like right now in Baltimore City.

The Accountability Re-Set

We live in a city that’s had over three-hundred murders a year since 2015 and somehow it’s no one’s fault. It’s not the mayor’s fault. It’s not the fault of anyone in City Hall. It’s not the State’s Attorney’s fault. It’s not the fault of the many police commissioners we’ve had.

The fault seems to lie only with faceless “root causes” that no one has a plan to address. As if our present came upon us like a natural disaster. As if it’s a storm we can just wait to pass.

We live in an unaccountable status quo too busy keeping secrets and blaming ‘root causes’ for problems it has failed to solve.

There are a great many people served by this kind of thinking because it creates an unaccountable status quo. A status quo where results don’t matter. A status quo where leaders can get re-elected despite the state of our neighborhoods because nothing – not the problems, not the solutions – is their fault.

This kind of no-accountability environment leads to corruption, and those who want to continue with “tragic thinking” should at least be honest about our “tragic flaw.”

It’s not ambition. It’s not indecision. It’s not even greed.

It’s the secret-keeping. It’s the denial.

It’s the number of people who knew of the Gun Trace Task Force and did not speak up.

It’s the number of people who knew about the rampant tax evasion in our police department that took down the mayor’s very first choice for commissioner, but who did not speak up.

It’s the fact that the city’s chief auditor just quit in protest because one of our city-wide elected officials asked to do something unethical, and no one in City Hall has dared to say a word about it.

It’s the number of people at the University of Maryland Medical System who knew of the institution’s hidden financial arrangements with its board members – including our mayor, but not limited to her – who did not speak up.

We are trapped in this web of secrets, passively tied together by them, and the powerful people and institutions who benefit. We’re witnessing the corruption it breeds. Meanwhile, our real challenges as a city keep piling up.

It’s time to demand more. It’s time to re-set our expectations of our institutions, and ourselves.

“Changing the narrative”

Many of us just hate to see stories like “The Tragedy of Baltimore” in the news for the same reason many Baltimoreans hate HBO’s The Wire, because it reinforces a narrative about our city we are so desperate to change.

But maybe there’s a reason we’ve had such a hard time shaking off the image of that television show – which is all about secrets and institutional corruption in Baltimore City.

cedric and marla 2.jpg

The show ends with one of its heroes faced with a choice between a truth that, if told, will destroy those around him, and a lie that will let him keep his job and the people around him keep theirs, but that will destroy the police department. Acting Commissioner Cedric Daniels has this debate with his ex-wife, Marla, who is now a Councilperson, and who would be endangered if Cedric chooses the truth:

–Marla: The way [the Council President] expressed it is that she wanted you to stay if you could come to your senses.

–Cedric: Come to my senses. She wants me to juke the stats for Carcetti, this quarter and the next, hide the crime, get him elected as governor and make her the Mayor.

–Marla: So do it. Burrell juked them before you. Warren Frazier before him. And, after you're gone, Rawls or whoever will juke them. So what?

–Cedric: I'll swallow a lie when I have to. I've swallowed a few big ones lately. But the stat games, that lie, it's what ruined this department. Shining up shit and calling it gold, so majors become colonels and mayors become governors.

You know how this ends. The stats get juked.

But real life can be different than the television show.

We can change the narrative, but only if we change the institutions that keep producing it.

In other words, if we want to stop being compared to The Wire, then we need to stop acting like it.

Dan Sparaco