Thursday, April 30, 2015

Baltimore Mayor Treads Fine Line in Divided City
APRIL 29, 2015

BALTIMORE — With buildings ablaze and looters rampaging through city streets, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake faced television cameras Monday night and sternly denounced the rioters as “thugs.” The next day, with some black residents in an uproar over a word they call racially charged, she walked it back.

“There are no thugs in Baltimore,” the mayor, who is African-American, said at a church, where she met with members of the clergy. “Sometimes, my own little anger translator gets the best of me.”

The episode demonstrates the fine line Ms. Rawlings-Blake, 45, walks as she tries to lead this majority black city out of what she calls “one of our darkest days.” It is also a vivid reminder that the presence of a black mayor (and black police commissioner) does not guarantee a bond or rapport with poor black residents that might help calm a city going through the kind of trauma facing Baltimore.

Any mayor would surely face challenges under such circumstances. But for Ms. Rawlings-Blake the challenges are especially acute. She must try to bring together two Baltimores, neither of which she is entirely a part of: the gentrified Baltimore of the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards and the frustrated, low-income black Baltimore, with its boarded-up rowhouses.

“She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t,” said Billy Murphy, the lawyer for the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose death after a spinal cord injury in police custody set off the unrest. “She’s in a Catch-22.”

In other American cities, like Ferguson Mo., and New York, which have been roiled by protests over police treatment of black men, white mayors grappled with complaints from black residents. In that sense, Baltimore is different. On Wednesday, with the city in a tentative peace, Ms. Rawlings-Blake tried to tamp down expectations that the police would make public on Friday the results of an investigation into Mr. Gray’s death.

With her elite upbringing (her mother is a doctor, and her father was one of Maryland’s most powerful politicians) and serious, reserved political style, Ms. Rawlings-Blake has not endeared herself to people in Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods, where she is seen as out of touch. Now Mr. Gray’s death has exposed those tensions as never before.

“A lot of us don’t like her,” said Jasmine Squirrel, 25, a high school classmate of Mr. Gray’s. “She don’t really do a lot for our city, the inner city, the schools and the youth. We don’t see her face in our community — the only time we did see her was around the time when it was time for her to get elected. The only reason why she’s out now is because they tore it up.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Rawlings-Blake was out in city neighborhoods, as she has been all week, day and night. She turned up — dressed in an elegant navy three-piece knit suit and matching patent leather heels — at a school in Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where Mr. Gray grew up, and later met community leaders at New Shiloh Baptist Church, where his funeral was held.

At a morning news conference at City Hall, the mayor said she was sensitive to the plight of people in the inner city — if not from her own experience, then from that of her family.

“There’s a lot of pain in our city, and when you are in a position like mine, a lot of the frustration is, you know, fairly or unfairly, directed at you,” she said. “My parents grew up in Baltimore; I grew up in Baltimore. I’ve had cousins in jail, on drugs, killed; my brother was almost killed. I have cousins that are extremely successful, and I have family that are unemployed. We run the gamut, and I understand the problems. I can’t fault anyone for not understanding what’s on my heart.”

Ms. Rawlings-Blake grew up around politics and civil rights. Her father, Howard Rawlings, who was known as Pete, was a civil rights activist who became the first black man to become chairman of the powerful appropriations committee in Maryland’s House of Representatives. When she was a little girl, friends say, Ms. Rawlings-Blake would race through the corridors of the State House in Annapolis, telling her parents she wished they could live in the capital city full time.

With her father’s help, Ms. Rawlings-Blake became, at 25, the youngest City Council member in Baltimore history. Eventually, she rose to become the council president. In 2010, when her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, was forced to resign amid scandal, she stepped in as mayor. She won election in her own right the next year, and is up for re-election in 2016.

Ms. Dixon — hugely popular among black residents — is dropping hints about running against her.

At Mr. Gray’s funeral on Monday, when Ms. Rawlings-Blake was introduced, there was polite clapping. But when Ms. Dixon was introduced, the congregation roared with enthusiasm. “We love you, Sheila,” a woman shouted from the balcony.

On the national political scene, Ms. Rawlings-Blake’s star has been rising. She has taken high-profile posts in the United States Conference of Mayors and the Democratic National Committee, and has been mentioned, but has ruled out running, for the Senate seat being vacated by Barbara A. Mikulski, who is retiring. Some see her as a potential governor.

Whether that will change as a result of the Gray case remains to be seen. Carl Stokes, a member of the City Council, was among those criticizing the mayor for her use of the word “thugs.” On CNN, he likened it to the word “nigger.” Mr. Stokes says Ms. Rawlings-Blake does not “have her ear to the ground,” and pays more attention to developers than poor people.

“She puts a lot of money into the harbor and gives a lot of money to billionaire developers,” he said. “Meanwhile, the neighborhoods haven’t gotten better in 40 years.”

Aides to the mayor say she has worked hard to improve living conditions in neighborhoods like the one where Mr. Gray grew up. They say she is building new recreation centers — one opened last year and two more are planned — and 3,000 homes have been demolished or rehabilitated on her watch. She has secured $1 billion from the General Assembly to repair or replace aging schools, they said.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
Supporters of the mayor say she is being unfairly blamed for problems that go back decades.

“You’ve got alcoholism, you’ve got drug abuse, we have parents that don’t value school, but you want to blame the mayor?” said Munir Bahar, a founder of 300 Men March, an antiviolence initiative.

After Mr. Gray died on April 19, he said, Ms. Rawlings-Blake reached out, asking activists “if anything she’s saying seems wrong or feels wrong, to let her know.”

But as protests grew, Ms. Rawlings-Blake’s language has provoked questions.

She has come under particular criticism for a comment she made Saturday, when peaceful demonstrations briefly turned violent, when she said she faced a “very delicate balancing act” in trying to maintain the peace and protect First Amendment rights, and that in doing so, the city “gave those who wished to destroy space to do that.”

Critics quickly accused her of giving license to those who would commit violence; she said the news media distorted her remarks. “Taken in context,” she wrote on her Facebook page, “I explained that, in giving peaceful demonstrators room to share their message, unfortunately, those who were seeking to incite violence also had space to operate.”

But it is the remark about “thugs,” for which the mayor has repeatedly apologized, that seems to have rankled the most.

At the Academies at Frederick Douglass High School on Wednesday, where the hip-hop artist Wale made a surprise visit as part of an effort by the school system to manage anger over Mr. Gray’s death, Montrez Watt, 17, trembled as he spoke of it. “She doesn’t understand,” he said. “She called us thugs, yo.”

The Rev. Jamal Bryant, who delivered the eulogy at Mr. Gray’s funeral, told the students that they could hold the city’s black leaders, including the mayor, accountable, and that they had the power to vote politicians in or out of office.

“Next year,” he said, “she needs your vote.”

No comments: