The conflict between motorists and squeegee kids dominated headlines in Baltimore throughout October after a story appeared on three local TV news stations of a driver whose car window was shattered by a washer when he refused to give him money.
“This is what we face every day on the road in Baltimore City,” the man told WMAR news, though he added that he “feels bad” for the many young window washers who are “good kids.”
The news reports included a video taken by the driver that showed a young black man, his face blurred, striking the passenger side of the SUV angrily before walking away, as well as pictures of the rear window damaged.
The next week, the Downtown Partnership announced that it would place unarmed guards at busy intersections in order to help address the issue.
An intense public debate followed, based mostly on anecdotal reports that sound like they come from two different Baltimore universes. Some motorists have described feeling constantly menaced by the window washers. Others have expressed positive experiences or sympathized with them.
While stations aired the story as an exemplary bad experience between a motorist and a young person out washing windows, no data has actually been collected to describe how frequent or dangerous these interactions really are. The broader context behind the driver’s story is also noteworthy.
The owner of the SUV, Andrew Hahn, 36, agreed to be interviewed for this story. On Oct. 3, he was driving his usual route home from the store he owns in Federal Hill during rush hour. He stopped on the corner of Russell and W. Hamburg streets at about 5:30 p.m., when he says he was harassed by two young men with squeegees. One of them vandalized his car.
Hahn originally shared his story that same night by posting on a Facebook group called South Baltimore Community, which covers Federal Hill. He posted the story several times in a few minutes that evening, with the same video and pictures that would later be shared by media. He also shared several close-up pictures of the young man’s face, not blurred.
“These squeeze [sic] boy are going out of control,” his first post read. “These animals broke my rear windshield when I refused to clean windows. He wasn’t afraid to be in the camera at all.” (English is not Hahn’s first language.)
“What is going on with this city?” he later posted. “Guess who is going to pay the deductible?”
In person, Hahn expresses a more nuanced attitude toward squeegee kids than in his posts that night.
“I know the kids there. Usually, when I wave at them or I shake my head, they just walk away. I never had a problem with them.”
Hahn has driven through that intersection “pretty much every day” for seven years without incident, he says. He doesn’t want people to judge squeegee kids because of “one rotten apple.” However, “when they commit a crime, there’s a judgement for that.”
On Oct. 3, he says, “I was seeing different kids.” The alleged vandal was “much older” than the usual boys on that corner.
Melissa McClennen, a small business owner who lives and works in the city, says she witnessed the vandalism to Hahn’s car, pulling up behind him while the conflict was underway. She provided him with a business card and called 911 immediately after the incident.
The young man “immediately ran behind our car,” she says. “He shouted: ‘He’s calling the cops. I don’t know why. He’s calling the cops.’” This all happened “probably a good two minutes before” the young man returned to Hahn’s vehicle, banging on windows then hitting the rear window “really hard until it cracked.”
“Frankly, I don’t think that was a kid,” McClennen also volunteered. “He was more in the 18-to-25 age range.”
Hahn feels he was targeted because he has a “nicer car” than other drivers that day.
In person, Hahn mostly expresses frustration with the police department’s failure to respond quickly. He waited for 15 minutes that evening before having to leave. Open Data records show two 911 calls for vandalism at that time and location. They are marked “low priority,” which is not surprising in a city averaging a murder a day over the last six months.
Hahn believes he saw the same young man a couple of days after the incident and alerted officers nearby. They wouldn’t act without first contacting the officer that processed his first police report. That took around 35 minutes, Hahn says. The young man was gone.
The Facebook Group
The South Baltimore Facebook group, which has almost 12,500 members, is where Hahn shared his story and encouraged people to share it on their own pages. Hahn’s posts gathered more than 500 likes and comments.
As an active member of the group, Hahn’s posts are typically genial and neighborly. Last year, he offered to collect packages for local residents at his store and posted frequent updates on ones he had received.
Hahn also has some history of posting pictures and video of people he considers to be dangerous or criminal. His public Facebook posts showed some increasing concern with Baltimore youth after the riots in 2015.
The broken car window was not the first time that one of Hahn’s posts caught media attention. In October 2015, he appeared on WBAL-TV with a video showing several young black children outside of his store who walked away just as a mailbox erupted in smoke.
When stations interviewed him this time around about his broken car window, Hahn requested anonymity because he was concerned about retaliation, pointing to Facebook requests from strangers.
His post about the most recent ordeal was right at home in a Facebook group that often demonstrates an us-against-them attitude towards Baltimore’s black youth. Comments about squeegee operators and other black youth are filled with language like “thugs,” “punks,” “creatures” or “animals” who belong in “cages.” Jokes about gold teeth and hoodies are also common. Some members express fear about living near the local magnet school, Digital Harbor High School, blaming students for criminal behavior, from harassment and vandalism to violence, when they leave for the day. (Federal Hill has one of the lowest crime rates in the city.)
Many responses to Hahn’s post went so far as to advocate violence or revenge:
“Get a can of mace. That’ll take care of that shit real quick,” one user wrote. “Or a gun,” another answered. A few commenters vowed to “get his ass,” “run the bastard over” and the like.
“I’m actually going to leave work a half-hour early and go to where all these morons hang,” one responded. “If the city won’t do anything, we need to.”
Hahn says he doesn’t participate in or endorse threats of retaliation. “I just ignore them. What’s the point or end of the revenge? On and on and on.”
Squeegee kids who spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl have their own tales of violent and retaliatory responses from drivers.
A group of four high school-aged boys who wash windows at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and Route 40 confirm that they incur frequent verbal abuse and harassment. One, who goes by the nickname Bam, describes being called a “dirty n—–” by one driver. He said such verbal attacks happen “every day.”
“Every day,” confirms his friend, who goes by Spider. The other two boys nod in agreement. “You gotta learn how to deal with getting upset, them and us do,” Spider says.
“Someone might get out of their car and get aggressive,” Bam says, “but I just walk away.”
The Councilman and the Partnership
Many of the users who responded to Hahn’s posts tagged local media outlets and City Councilman Eric Costello, who is a member of the Facebook group. Costello is often tagged into discussions, including by Hahn, who describes the councilman as “very helpful on different things.”
On Oct. 10, Costello spoke to the Council’s Public Safety Committee about the concerns of motorists regarding squeegee kids, referencing the media reports about the incident with Hahn’s car. While not a member of the committee, he was there to deliver a special presentation on the issue.
“They’re scared because they see TV reports of someone’s window smashed out,” he said. “These intersections are real problems.”
Costello requested that police leaders direct more resources toward W. Hamburg and Russell and other intersections, during a meeting at which those resources were acknowledged to be stretched.
While Costello referred to Hahn as his “constituent” during the committee meeting and later on social media, Hahn lives outside of the city. Costello declined to answer questions for this article, including about whether he was concerned by the threats and bias expressed in the Facebook group toward window washers.
The day after Costello’s council presentation, The Sun reported the Downtown Partnership’s new program to place unarmed guards at busy intersections to monitor squeegee kids, via an interview with Kirby Fowler, the organization’s president.
Costello also promoted the Partnership’s guards program on Twitter. He sits on the board of directors for the group’s Downtown Management Authority (DMA), which generates most of the Downtown Partnership’s revenue through fees from local businesses.
The Sun article on the organization’s program provided no details on whether the guards would be trained to work with children, or what exactly they would do beyond recommending window washers seek social services. Still, the mayor’s office said Mayor Catherine Pugh supports the program.
According to recent tax filings, the Downtown Partnership runs a few small-scale social service initiatives, including homeless outreach on the University of Maryland
campus and a Peace Ambassadors program that employs teenagers to intervene with other
youth. Most of the organization’s roughly $8.7 million budget is focused on supporting the Central Business District’s interests.
The Downtown Partnership did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Baltimore Fishbowl.
Michael Evitts, the group’s senior vice president for communications, later clarified to WJZ-TV that the guards at intersections are simply an extension of the program that already places security in key downtown areas. It was enacted, he says, in response to increased complaints from motorists about squeegee operators.
According to the Partnership’s website, their team of guards is comprised of officers from Wolf Security and Watkins Patrol. Many are known to be current and retired police officers. They don’t have enforcement capacity as guards, although some carry radios that can call into police dispatch.
On Oct. 21, Mayor Pugh announced a $2 million proposal to provide jobs and training for 100 squeegee kids. Like other initiatives she’s promoted, including her summertime YouthWorks program, this one will depend on the generosity of a private sector that, to date, has not come through to address the need.
The Downtown Partnership, whose membership includes more than 600 businesses, has not publicly committed to supporting the mayor’s initiative through internships, jobs and donations.
So far, the group has focused its response to the squeegee issue on what it acknowledges are “short-term” fixes to lessen the discomfort of commuters and tourists. It has not offered to support long-term fixes to address the discomfort of everyone involved.
Almost one month after the Downtown Partnership’s announcement, the organization has not provided any updates on its squeegee program. The corners have also gotten quieter during the week, with the cooler weather.
Brandon, 17, was working by himself at the intersection of S. President and Lombard streets during a busy and chilly morning rush hour. President is one of the streets the Downtown Partnership announced would be getting guards to monitor squeegee kids. Brandon says that he has not encountered any guards or even heard about the program, and there weren’t any guards out Thursday morning.
He was also unaware of any controversy, although he says drivers can get mad.
“A couple times they have started [driving] their cars, so I gotta move fast,” he says.
Brandon says that he has “finished with school,” but shook his head when asked if he knew of any programs offered by the city to help him get a job.
“I’m not trying to get in trouble,” he says. “I can make some money washing windows. At least I’m out here doing something that helps people, not just asking for a handout.”
After our interview, Brandon approaches a car and starts washing the window before she asks for it. When she waves him away, he moves on to the car behind her.