“I can’t tell the difference, even in some of the areas that were supposedly hardest hit by looting … because some of these areas that the protesters are in even before these so-called riots have already looked like they’ve been burned down,” one activist tells MintPress.
Children play at a party at the public housing complex where Freddie Gray was arrested as a six-day curfew was lifted, Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Baltimore.
BALTIMORE — The world watched last week as protesters stormed the streets of Baltimore to oppose police brutality and demand justice for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man, who died of spinal injuries suffered in police custody on April 19.
But racist policing policies aren’t the only factor leading police officers to allegedly treat Gray, and others like him, inhumanely and disregard his cries for help inside that police van.
Contempt for black life in Baltimore and indeed across the United States is also manifested through a legacy of discriminatory housing policies, which include federally mandated discriminatory housing and lending practices, as well as predatory redevelopment projects which benefit one group of people while displacing and disregarding others.
Lawrence Grandpre, a Baltimore resident and long-time activist, told MintPress News that living conditions in some areas of the city are so bad he was unable to tell whether residents had rioted or not. He said: “I can’t tell the difference, even in some of the areas that were supposedly hardest hit by looting and that’s largely because some of these areas that the protesters are in even before these so-called riots have already looked like they’ve been burned down.”
He added, “And that’s why they are rioting.”
Grandpre serves as assistant director of Research and Public Policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think tank, which advances the public policy interests of black people in Baltimore.
Gray’s neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester, was the victim of a federally mandated practice called “redlining,” which color-coded neighborhoods according to inhabitants’ race, religion and ethnicity, explained Antero Pietila, author of “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” to MintPress. The practice was implemented in Baltimore and 238 other American cities in the 1930s.
In a recent interview with KPFA, a radio station out of California, Pietila said: “This [redlining] in my mind is the start of the two-tier system in subprime and so on.”
He was referring to subprime loan providers who were found guilty of discrimination in 2012, which included steering minority borrowers toward risky loan packages and giving them higher fees and rates than white borrowers. These were the loans that helped to facilitate the 2007-08 financial crisis.
Pietila’s book explains how redlining was used to determine how banks gave loans to various segments of the population. According to Pietila, wealthy Anglo-Saxon neighborhoods with restrictive covenants — contracts included in the deed of a property that prohibited owners from renting or selling properties to black people and Jews — were coded green. People who lived in these neighborhoods were deemed the least risky borrowers, and so found easy access to home loans and other types of steppingstones to wealth and assets.
The next level of neighborhoods was coded blue, and these neighborhoods included non-Protestants, although the federal government stipulated that restrictive covenants against black people and Jews should be enforced in these areas as well. Then there were areas coded yellow, which designated a type of transitional area. The bottom red area, which housed blacks and Mexicans, was deemed to contain the most risky borrowers.
Banks aiming to lend in yellow or red areas were advised to extend loans with more restrictions and higher interest rates. The typology for these restrictions was created by the chief economist at the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Pietila told MintPress.
When the practice was still in use, Sandtown-Winchester was coded red.
Johns Hopkins and Middle East
More recently, city governments, real estate developers and NGOs are implementing practices that force poor, mainly black and brown residents, out of their homes to make way for projects that benefit wealthy individuals in so-called “mixed community” developments.
One of the most infamous examples of this type of development project is currently taking place just 4 miles from Sandtown-Winchester in an East Baltimore neighborhood referred to as “Middle East.”
The neighborhood was slotted to be redeveloped beginning in 2001 by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI) is the entity that was created to spearhead the redevelopment project.
At the time, it would have been the largest urban redevelopment project in the country. In order to make way for the new biotech park and homes, 750 homes were to be razed and over 600 residents were forcibly removed.
A potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, protesters in Baltimore heckled O’Malley when he made an appearance during the unrest for his role in housing conditions and zero-tolerance policing policies.
According to a Jan. 31, 2011 investigative report in The Daily Record, a Maryland-based daily, the East Baltimore Revitalization Initiative, estimated to cost $1.8 billion upon completion, was a failure because only one of the five planned biotech buildings had been filled by then. Meanwhile, plans for faculty and student housing to be built around those buildings had largely fallen through.
This is not a one-off event. Johns Hopkins’ expansion has been instrumental in the slumification and gentrification of neighborhoods surrounding its property for decades. The university buys properties, including homes in areas where it plans to expand up to 60 to 80 years in advance of redevelopment, and allows those neighborhoods to socially and economically whither away until it can buy up even more property at fire sale prices.
As Johns Hopkins is one of the city’s most economically powerful institutions, the local government and real estate developers respond in kind by divesting resources and allowing those areas to rot, rather than investing in redevelopment plans that could revitalize communities.
America’s unfurling myths
People pray during a rally at City Hall, Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Baltimore. Hundreds of jubilant people prayed and chanted for justice days after the city’s top prosecutor charged six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest. Gov. Larry Hogan has called for a statewide “Day Of Prayer And Peace” on Sunday after civil unrest rocked Baltimore.
Yet Baltimore is not a city where moneyed interests easily intimidate residents. It’s not a city where people sit idly by after police violate human rights. Following the publication of the EBDI’s plans for Middle East, residents of the community swiftly moved to establish a group called Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC).
SMEAC fought the city and EBDI over the removal of hundreds of residents in Middle East. While they were unable to keep families in their homes in those neighborhoods, they effectively raised the sums of money residents were being paid to relocate from $22,500 per household to as much as $250,000.
Marisela Gomez, former executive director of SMEAC, told MintPress that resistance around housing issues, demands for justice for Freddie Gray and the uprising in Ferguson all show how the myths of America are unfurling. Gomez is also the author of “Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore: Rebuilding Abandoned Communities in America,” a book about what happened in Middle East.
“White America tends to think that everything’s good, but they know it’s unfurling,” Gomez said. “When you start hearing people like [Ta-Nehisi] Coates talk about reparations and get space and time for it. It scares white-majority America.”
Mainstream media institutions and other dominant cultural paradigms and structures, she explained, respond to this unfurling by trying to roll it back up. “The seams are opening, so what do you have to do? You have to keep trying to close it up,” she said.
One example of this came while CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was speaking to Deray McKesson, an activist and former Minnesota school administrator. During their exchange on the recent events in Baltimore, Blitzer attempted multiple times to direct the conversation toward property damage and away from police brutality and the loss of human life.
Referring to some of the defaced property, Blitzer asked McKesson: “There’s no excuse for that kind of violence, right?”
McKesson responded: “Yea, and there’s no excuse for the seven people that the Baltimore City Police Department has killed in the past year either, right?” He continued: “You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines. And what we know to be true is that police are killing people everywhere.”
Middle East Baltimore, explained Gomez, represents one of America’s unfurling myths. Indeed, EBDI’s project and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions are viewed with disdain in the city for their role in creating urban blight and fostering disrespect toward Middle East residents.
Gomez told MintPress there is a problem with the way city planners and developers view redevelopment. Speaking on gentrification and the current model for redeveloping urban areas, she said, “If you feel that only the gentrified class can make this community better, then we got a whole lot of thinking to do.”
Instead, Gomez advocates residents being an integral part of the rebuilding process. “People have to understand,” she said, “folks in communities like Middle East Baltimore never said they didn’t want their communities to be rebuilt … No one’s ever said, ‘We don’t want our community improved.’ No one ever said, ‘We don’t want all this boarded up housing to be changed, and to be inhabited by people.’ What they said was, ‘We wanna be part of the process.’”
Constructing a new framework to facilitate change
Grandpre, of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, had a similar take on the city’s redevelopment process, which he believes to be fundamentally flawed and racist.
He told MintPress that alternative development strategies for the city do exist. He explained:
“There are things like economic development strategies that prioritize small business, local business, and the indigenous cultural technologies and cultural resources of people in communities as a framework for economic development as opposed to the current framework of economic development, which is displacement and trying to bring people from the suburbs and the county into the cities.”
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, along with a number of other notable grassroots institutions in the city, has been working to create a framework to facilitate the types of deep structural changes he advocates. Over the last few years, the think tank has created a debate camp and an advocacy-training program, and it’s gotten involved in a number of entrepreneurial business projects.
Grandpre argues that these ideas about structural change extend into the area of criminal justice as well, and could even serve as a model for rehabilitation.
“If you have young people that go into the criminal justice system, why don’t they just intern or work with these independent black institutions instead of going to jail?” he said, adding: “So you begin to have what looks like a comprehensive system that all starts from the basis of empowering the people who need empowerment the most.”