The fifth in a series of interviews with the top-polling contenders for the Democratic nomination for mayor.
This is Thiru Vignarajah’s second time running for elected office. In 2018, he tried to unseat State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in the Democratic primary, coming in third place.
If voters are satisfied with how Baltimore City has been run, Vignarajah flat out says “do not vote for me.” But if they want a mayor who will help write the “story of its rebirth,” he hopes they choose him.
“If you want someone who has been elected over and over and over again, you’ve got a menu of options,” he said during a recent phone interview with Baltimore Fishbowl. “But if you want somebody who has devoted himself to public service; who has worked in city, state and federal government; who is building a diverse coalition around ideas, then I’m honored to have the chance.”
After attending Harvard Law School, Vignarajah clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Guido Calabresi and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer. He went on to work as a city and federal prosecutor, including serving as the chief of the Major Investigations Unit in the State’s Attorney’s Office.
As Deputy Attorney General of Maryland, Vignarajah was the lead author of guidelines from the Maryland Attorney General to prevent discriminatory profiling by police. Now, he is a litigation partner at the law firm DLA Piper.
Vignarajah has pledged to bring the annual homicide rate below 200 in his first term or else he will not seek re-election.
Included in his crime plan is his support for the city’s aerial surveillance plane pilot program, also known locally as the “spy plane.” Candidates Mary Miller, Sheila Dixon and T.J Smith have also expressed their support for the surveillance plane.
Supporters of the program say it could help the Baltimore Police Department investigate crimes. But opponents have criticized the plane’s use, which they say will infringe on Baltimoreans’ right to privacy and further creating distrust between police and community members.
John and Laura Arnold, the Texas billionaires who fund the surveillance plane, have supported Vignarajah’s campaign. John Arnold donated $100,000 to “A Safer, Stronger Baltimore PAC,” a super political action committee backing Vignarajah, the Baltimore Sun reported. The Arnolds donated the maximum individual amount of $6,000 per person, as did the plane’s operator, Ross McNutt. Last November,Vignarajah said that he raised about $20,000 at a fundraiser hosted by the Arnolds in Houston, the Baltimore Sun reported.
In January, freelance journalist Justine Barron reported that police body-worn camera footage showed a September 2019 encounter in which a police officer stopped Vignarajah’s vehicle for not having his headlights on. During the traffic stop, the police officer discovered that Maryland State Police had issued an order for the removal of the vehicle’s license plates because Vignarajah had not sent in a form verifying that a previous repair order had been fulfilled.
A police sergeant, who was called to the scene, asked whether Vignarajah wanted the body camera to remain on, a decision that Vignarajah and the sergeant leave up to each other. After the sergeant kept his body camera on, Vignarajah later asked if the sergeant could turn it off, and the sergeant complied with the request before later turning it back on.
Vignarajah has said that the video surfaced as part of an effort to derail his campaign due to his polling success.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Your family emigrated from Sri Lanka to the United States when you and your sister were very young, and both of your parents taught in Baltimore schools. How did your family’s journey and your upbringing shape your perception of Baltimore.
Thiru Vignarajah: My family crossed an ocean in search of a better life. They had $200 in their pockets, two infants in their arms, and Baltimore gave us a chance. We actually started, as so many immigrant families do, in the basement of our cousin’s, in the Bronx. My father was working at a factory. My mom was calling down to city public schools.
My mom would start again at Poly and she finished her career at Morgan State many years later. She’d actually gone back at the age of 62 to get her PhD. My father taught at Edmondson, at Douglass, at Southern, at Western. When he retired, he was the oldest teacher teaching in the state of Maryland. He was 80 years old.
That journey, that upbringing, that’s the tradition in which I was raised. It was a tradition of hard work, of service, of gratitude, not taking anything for granted. I think that very much has shaped my view on how to give back, on how to serve myself.
BFB: You’ve worked as the deputy attorney general of Maryland and are currently a litigation partner at the law firm DLA Piper. How has your legal background informed your view of Baltimore’s criminal justice system?
TV: I devoted my life to fighting crime. I was a federal and city prosecutor even before I was deputy attorney general of Maryland, and so much of my perspective on how we can drive crime down is rooted in those days in the trenches. I have pledged to bring murders below 200, without mass incarceration, without mandatory minimums, without policies of zero tolerance, without cash bail.
So many of the policies that have gotten us in this mess are something we have to leave behind if we’re going to get us out. Those experiences as a prosecutor in Baltimore City, that’s why I know that we can bring murders to below 200 with diversion programs for victims of addiction and more federal prosecutions of carjackers and gun traffickers. That’s why I know that using probation as a way to get a person into an apprenticeship and a job, which is part of our Court to Career program, is a terrific complement to testing burglary crime scene evidence, where 40 percent of the DNA and fingerprints collected from those crime scenes hits off the federal database.
Those experiences showed me not just the architecture of the strategy, but also how to actually build the building. I don’t think there’s any candidate in the race that has a clear sense of what to do about crime except us.
If you look at other cities: Detroit elected a prosecutor, crime went down; Chicago elected a prosecutor as mayor, crime went down; New York City elected prosecutor as mayor and crime went down. That’s no accident. Having someone at the helm who knows how important crime fighting to the future of a city, but also knows how to do it in a just and responsible way, I think that’s going to make all the difference in the world.
BFB: Baltimore mayor’s have grappled with the city’s violent crime for years and since 2015, the annual homicide rate has surpassed 300 people killed. Why is your plan the best to solve violent crime in the city?
TV: Our crime plan is 26 pages long. It begins with a two-page summary of 20 things that we are pledging to do that the city has never done before. And it starts by noting that candidates every campaign season say the same thing: “We’re going to go after guns and gangs. We’re going to go after violent repeat offenders.” The question is “How?” The question is “What are the next 150 words on how you will achieve this?”
Our crime plan lays out those details. We’ve certainly used wiretaps before, but we are pledging to do 12 simultaneous wiretaps of the 12 deadliest gangs in the 12 neighborhoods that account for over a quarter of the murders every year. We’ve done prosecutions of cold cases before, but we’ve never created a dedicated cold case unit to focus on homicides involving high caliber weapons, 10 or more casings at the crime scene and head shots.
Realizing that the hundreds of cases that go unsolved every year, we can’t go back and solve all of them. But certain homicides with a certain profile are being committed not by first-time offenders, but by repeat assassins. If you’re using 40-caliber weaponry, you’re leaving 10 or more casings at the crime scene and you’re finishing your victims off with head shots, those are people that have committed these crimes over and over and over again. If you solve that case, you can prevent the next one.
We’ve talked about recruiting, but we’ve never had a college cadet program that will allow us to recruit 600 more police officers, but also build a police force that is more diverse, that is more local, that has more women, more minorities, more immigrants. And training them on to be a next-century police force; training them in implicit bias, de-escalation strategies, community engagement, community policing.
Those kinds of details matter. In the crime plan, we talk about an expanded camera network, but not just by offering a $100 rebate to residential and commercial property owners to register their private cameras with city police. But also complementing that with an aerial surveillance program that is responsibly and constitutionally undertaken. That means limiting it to homicides and shootings and carjackings. It means requiring that police get a warrant each time. It means subjecting the program to an independent audit, where each instance where aerial surveillance is used in the context of a case is listed along with whether or not the case that was under investigation actually got solved.
Those are the kinds of concrete strategies that no one else in the race is talking about. I’m so confident we can do it in part because when I was chief of major investigations we had murders below 200. It feels like it was forever ago. It was just a few years ago. But in the last five years, we have confirmed that current city politicians have no idea–none–on how to solve crime. All the other candidates are just talking in sound bites and platitudes. They’re issuing promises to make plans and recycling the failed policies of yesteryear. This is an innovative, concrete, just strategy that will make us more safe, but will make us a more equitable city as well.
BFB: The current mayor and police commissioner have said that the current crime plan is working and yet homicides are close to last year. Do you feel the plan is working?
TV: Absolutely not. You don’t have to be a criminologist to realize that whatever plan they are representing they have, it is plainly not working. This city is as violent, despite a global pandemic, as it has ever been.
No, it’s not working. It’s not clear that there is a plan. I don’t think anybody in Baltimore thinks that we’ve got a cohesive strategy on how to bring violent crime down. There’s no coordination. There is no road map. There are no benchmarks for success. The kinds of things that you would expect a good leader to have to measure, to inspire confidence, none of that is present in Baltimore right now.
BFB: In your crime plan, you say that if you do not bring homicides below 200 within your first term, you will not seek re-election. What makes you confident that you will reach that goal?
TV: I think serving as mayor of Baltimore would be the honor of a lifetime. There’s no other job I ever want. I’m not going to run for governor. I have no interest in Congress. Congress seems like a hot mess. I just want to help fix the city that saved my family’s life.
I don’t set up that benchmark as some aspirational goal, some idle commitment. I share that because I’m confident we can achieve it. That confidence comes from experience. We were below 200 murders in 2011. It comes from the knowledge that our homicide rate is literally off the charts. Not that long ago, if you cut our murder rate in half tomorrow, we would still be the third deadliest city in America.
When you are so far off the charts, it is confirmation that there is something that is broken, but that other cities have fixed and that Baltimore in its recent history has fixed. My confidence comes from my experience in the trenches of fighting crime in Baltimore City.
BFB: You ran for Baltimore City State’s Attorney in 2018, finishing third in the Democratic race, and you have not held elected office. Why should Baltimoreans elect you to the highest position in city government?
TV: I think now more than ever, there’s such an appetite for change. We went from a longshot candidate in last April to a bona fide front runner. We have raised more money than any campaign in the state of Maryland in 2019 and 2020.
Voters are responding to our message of change. They’re responding to concrete solutions to the city’s biggest plans. We’re running a positive campaign that is building a diverse coalition. What I’m most proud about is we were also the campaign that had double digit support in every demographic in every poll: young, middle aged and old; white and black; men and women. No other campaign can say that.
I think that’s because we are talking about problems that are affecting everyone. If you want to recycle yesterday’s policies, if you want business as usual, if you want a career politician, if you think things are working and you want to stay the course, do not vote for me, you’re going to be disappointed.
I am coming in to rewrite the script. I am coming in to clean house and clean up the streets. I can’t be bought. I don’t owe any political favors. I’m not part of the the city machine politics that have destroyed our city for a generation. If you want someone who has been elected over and over and over again, you’ve got a menu of options. But if you want somebody who has devoted himself to public service; who has worked in city, state and federal government; who is building a diverse coalition around ideas, then I’m honored to have the chance.
For the longest time people said: “Thiru, you’ve got the right solutions on the biggest problems. You’re building this amazing coalition. But how can you win when you’re not a career politician?” Then starting in November, December, January, something changed. Independent polling showed that we were leading the field. The enthusiasm and momentum showed that we were driving excitement in every part of the city.
I actually think that’s because we are not a career politician. We are not one of the people that’s been at the helm while the ship has been going down. We are not the people that are responsible for this mess. We’re coming in with a different set of solutions, a different approach, a different road map. In some respects, the outsider insurgency is part of the strength of our campaign.
BFB: What will your administration do to help residents, businesses and nonprofits after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed?
TV: I think Baltimore now needs more than ever a proven leader who can fight a two-front war. This global health crisis has exposed and amplified any number of crises that were already there. We now have the crisis of crime that has defined Baltimore City for too long. We also have this crisis with respect to our economy.
We outlined a comprehensive, three-horizon plan called “From Recovery to Prosperity.” It had an immediate commitment, a $250 million stimulus injection to help safeguard homes, to help keep businesses and families afloat. It was disaster relief meant to get us through the storm. It was what we needed to do in the immediate wake of the hurricane, this terrible pandemic.
As part of that, we pledged to draw from the rainy day fund, which everybody has done. But we’ve also pledged to borrow against our bond rating, and no campaigns are talking about that. Cities have done this for years, but we have treated our AA bond rating like it’s some trophy to be admired on the shelf. It’s not. It’s an asset that we need to use, particularly now, when our city is in crisis, when our economy is in free fall. That’s when you turn to these assets.
The second part, which is meant to focus on the six- to 18-month horizon, includes a commitment to cut property taxes in half over the course of 10 years. You’ve got to start that now. It includes a commitment to cultivate 10 specific industries. These are industries that are ready for a meteoric rise here in Baltimore. Other cities like Pittsburgh, they knew that their legacy industry like the steel industry would not be part of their future. So they made a conscious, deliberate decision to invest in a new one. Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh, the city of Pittsburgh, got together and made a claim to robotics and artificial intelligence.
For Baltimore, it’s going to be cybersecurity; it’s going to be biotech; it’s going to be small businesses, arts, film and music; it’s going to be culinary arts, cannabis cancer research; it’s going to be port logistics; it’s going to be driverless vehicles; it’s going to be tourism. Those industries, which are not only meant to capitalize on distinctive advantages that our city has over other cities in the region and other cities across the country, are also the industries where we can build an inclusive economy.
I want to make Baltimore the culinary capital of North America, not only because we have a foundation of great restaurants, an affluent suburb, and a location between the political and financial capitals of the world. It’s also because we know that the food and beverage industry is the highest employer of ex-felons in America. Over 50 percent of people that work in that industry have prior engagements to the criminal justice system, because no one cares if you have a college degree or a conviction if you know how to cook. Identifying industries that both take advantage of natural assets that Baltimore has, but also helps us build a prosperous economy for everyone is going to be a real hallmark of our plan.
In the long term, we have pledged a next generation New Deal. We’re going to use that bond rating to borrow $3-4 billion to rebuild our roads and bridges, which are collapsing into the ground; to rebuild our water and sewage system, which is in violation of federal law and has placed us under a consent decree; to renovate our schools, which are twice as old on average as the schools in the rest of the state; to make commitments to an inclusive public transit system, which includes dedicated thoroughfares west to east where only public transportation is available. Pedestrians, bicycles, electric scooters, free buses would go along Edmondson Avenue, would go along the diagonal arteries that connect some of the most disinvested neighborhoods in Baltimore to the downtown. As well as regional public transit commitments like high speed rail between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The fifth thing that that next generation New Deal would do would be to make investments in the Smart City infrastructure that would prepare us for the next century: universal, high speed internet for free to everyone across the city; environmental and weather monitoring systems distributed across a network in Baltimore.
Those kinds of commitments aren’t made by nickel and diming small businesses or adding a penny to your property taxes. It’s made by making conscious investments. And the city that built the first leg of the American railroad ought to be the city that builds the first leg of the American high speed rail. It ought to be the city that has the first public transit thoroughfares across the city in America.
Are we going to have to modify or adjust certain parts of the plan? Of course. But this framework conveys a level of detail just like our crime plan and inspires a level of confidence, which people in Baltimore so desperately need at a time when details and confidence are in short supply.
BFB: How would you improve and expand access throughout Baltimore to public transit, bicycling, walking and other transportation options, not based around single occupancy vehicles?
TV: Our transit plan ranges from regional commitments, like a Regional Transit Authority; like equitable high speed rail between Baltimore and D.C., where there would be a requirement that a commuter pass could not be more than a certain percentage of your income, just as the World Health Organization has recommended for water costs to be limited to a certain percentage of your income. But also commitments to public transit across Baltimore.
We have free buses in Baltimore. They go from North Baltimore to the downtown to Federal Hill. If you want to go along the most affluent corridor of Baltimore, you can ride a free bus. But if you want to get from West Baltimore to downtown and back home to your family for dinner, you’ve got to pay $1.85 each way. It doesn’t make any sense. We have committed to expanded free Circulator routes, again along those west-east corridors and those critical diagonal arteries, Harford Road, Pennsylvania Avenue. That is actually the first step to get to a completely free bus system here in Baltimore throughout the city.
We wouldn’t be the first, the second or the third. We would be the fourth city in America that would achieve that commitment. But it’s exactly what we should have here in Baltimore. In a city where there are so many transit deficits, where there are so many transportation deserts we need concrete commitments like that. But we also need to augment that with solutions when it comes to the last mile problem.
We have pledged that electric scooters and rideshares, Uber and Lyft, will be required in order to operate in Baltimore to have equitable pricing. Just as the top speed for scooter drops from 15 miles an hour to eight miles an hour when you hit the promenade at the harbor, so too would we require their rates to drop when they are doing rides in transit deserts. This is one way of evening the transit costs across our city.
We have also pledged to install a comprehensive bike plan. We have pledged to complete the 35-mile bike trail connecting the Gwynns Falls and Herring Run trails, which would allow there to be access to bike trails to 75 to 80 percent of the city. These are also commitments that we have to make. If you’re going to make Baltimore a green transit city, you can’t just take incremental steps and issue proclamations and sound bites. You actually have to make the investments, and we haven’t seen our city politicians willing to do that in a generation or more.
BFB: The area has been transfixed with the “squeegee kid” debate about window washers on Baltimore streets. What would your administration do to connect people who are eager to work with well paying jobs?
TV: We’re proud that we’re the only campaign that’s already started to do this. I’m an extrovert. I like to talk to people. For the longest time, as long as I can remember, I sat down and walked up and talked to the young men who are working on these corners. If you talk to them, you realize quickly that what we refer to as “squeegee boys,” this isn’t some monolithic institution.
Each of them has a story. Each of them has a different aspiration. Some of them want to work in construction, they want to work with their hands. Some of them want a job that has advancement opportunities. They make a lot of money out there. They come when they want. They leave when they want. They don’t have to pay taxes. It’s cash. It’s instant gratification. To compete with that, you have to offer them a job that has a measure of dignity, that has an opportunity to not only increase their salary but to take on more responsibility.
I was really proud that we were able to connect two young men with jobs in restaurants. One of them got a job at Cinghiale, the other got a job at Bar Vasquez. These were young men that wanted to get off the corners. They wanted to stop hustling there. Jerome, he had been squeegeeing since he was 13 years old. He had no record, he was charismatic, he was a hard worker. He just wanted a chance. He wanted a job where he could work from being a dish boy in the back to a server to a waiter to a manager to an owner.
There’s so many stories like that in the culinary arts. It’s a great example of the kinds of industries that we need to connect with the young men that want those kinds of challenges, that want those kinds of advancement opportunities. We’re already doing it, but that’s sort of the model.
We know that we have to address this problem. It’s not just a symbol of the chaos and lawlessness in Baltimore. It’s not just a reminder that our city officials haven’t been able to tackle any of the problems, big or small. It’s also a source of frustration for those people that want to give these young men more hope, a real path, meaningful opportunities to do better than this. They don’t deserve this. They deserve better than being on the corners; learning all the wrong lessons; believing that work is without supervision, without rules, without a start time and an end time. Our kids deserve better than that.
BFB: The acquisition of Legg Mason by Franklin Resources Inc., and the merger of WillScott Corp. and Mobile Mini Inc., signal the end of two corporate headquarters in the city. While that may not mean much to a lot of citizens, the city’s big companies, as the Baltimore Sun editorial board noted, populated the boards of many city arts, education and charitable enterprises, and had been leaders in the business community. Should the city be concerned by these transactions? And what will your administration do to attract the next Legg Mason and keep it?
TV: Yes, they should be very concerned. These departures are only confirmation that the population decline, that the exodus of business, the inability of the city to recruit investment and families is not some statistical anomaly. This is the story of Baltimore right now. It has been for the last several years.
The reasons for this are as tragic as they are obvious. We’re talking about high crime: Nobody wants to have their headquarters in a city with soaring record breaking crime. Broken schools: Nobody wants to struggle to recruit families and employees, knowing that one of the obstacles you’re going to have to overcome is convincing them that these schools are good enough for their kids, when they have obvious choices. And high property taxes: Nobody wants to try to rationalize paying twice as much in property taxes as you would in every neighboring county in the state of Maryland.
Businesses, just like families, have choices, and the businesses that we want have lots of choices. We have to be competitive for that. To turn this around to recruit the next great company–and we’ve had so many, this is the city that built the first leg of the American railroad–we ought to be a lightning rod for major investment, for a corporate headquarters, for industry. We have the western-most port on the East Coast. We have an international airport, the location between the political and financial capitals of the world. This ought to be an easy pitch.
But if we’re going to create the climate, not only do we have to cut property taxes in half, repair these broken schools, dramatically and drastically reduce violent crime. We also need to create the ecosystem for business. We have to make it clear that we’re open for investment.
If you look at other cities that have done this well, take Pittsburgh for example. They knew that steel was not going to be the industry of their future, so they found another one. They not only created a genuine commitment to those fields, they told the world about it. When Uber and Google and other companies were looking for their first headquarters or their second or third corporate headquarters, Pittsburgh became their destination.
Baltimore can do the exact same thing. And frankly, we have a lot more assets than Pittsburgh. We have a better football team and we have a deep water port. We have a location that is second to none. With those assets and that kind of affirmative commitment, we will create the foundation where a number of Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies are going to want to locate their corporate headquarters. With their corporate headquarters comes not only C-suite jobs, but the blue collar jobs as well to support those industries. Identifying industries around which we can build an inclusive economy has got to be a top priority for the next mayor.
BFB: While many major cities have seen population growth in recent years, the number of people living in Baltimore continues to decline. What are your main strategies for building healthy neighborhoods throughout Baltimore and making sure that investment is not concentrated in just a few areas so that current residents can participate in any resurgence?
TV: Let’s put this in context. Baltimore is the only city in the country that is declining in population and smaller in 2020 than it was in 1920. That’s unbelievable. It’s tragic. It’s not just the white flight of the 1970s, the black flight of the 1990s and 2000s and 2010s. We lost 6,000 people two years ago. We lost another 7,000 last year. We’re losing more than a percentage of our population every year, and that population decline is accelerating.
The reasons for this are also quite clear. If you’re going to create vibrant neighborhoods, they have to be places that families feel comfortable raising their children, feel comfortable having their parents go for a walk around the block, feel comfortable buying the home instead of just renting, feel comfortable investing in the home as a long-term asset. They have to feel comfortable sending their kids to the schools around the corner. They have to feel comfortable that the public transit system is reliable and affordable. So many of those things are not true in so many different neighborhoods in Baltimore.
If we are going to change the perception of Baltimore, we have to change the reality. This isn’t just a marketing ploy. You’ve got to make Baltimore actually attractive to families to curb this population loss. Then once it really has changed, you need to remind the world that it’s changed.
We’re going to go to all those newspapers that wrote about the most dangerous, the most lethal, the most violent city in America, and we’re going to acknowledge that their reporting was accurate, it was fair back when it was true. But that once we’ve changed, once it’s no longer true, we’re going to go to them and say, “Look, you owe us one.” The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, USA Today, all of these national and international publications have told the story of tragedy of Baltimore. Well let them now help us tell the story of its renaissance, the story of its rebirth.
That story, what I believe is going to be the greatest turnaround story in American history, it cannot be a fiction. It has to be a reflection of actual progress in the neighborhoods of Baltimore. That means coordinated investment. It means a blueprint. It means a strategy that connects transit to public health, that connects education to crime, that connects our economy to opportunity.
BFB: A bill to build new racetracks at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park recently became law. Aside from keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, what, if anything, should the city push for when the new Pimlico is being developed?
TV: There are a couple of key defining features of an inclusive, a visionary plan for Preakness, for the Pimlico racetrack, for Park Heights more broadly. Because this can’t be about rebuilding a racetrack. It’s got to be about rebuilding a neighborhood, about rebuilding a region of Baltimore. That requires at least three specific commitments.
Number one, this needs to be more than a racetrack. It needs to be a world class, year-round venue for a wide range of activities. It needs to be a center of the community, it needs to be a community center.
Second thing is, in addition to a world class, year-round, community venue, we need to make sure that there is co-investment in the neighborhood around the racetrack. For the money that we are putting into making sure that there are new seats and new fields, we need to make sure that there are equal investments, in some instances even more significant investments; that there are new streets; that there are new schools; that there are new commitments to the neighborhood around the racetrack. As the racetrack improves, as that facility flourishes, so too must the neighborhood.
The third thing that I want to emphasize is that that will require not just an investment in the neighborhoods. It will require the neighborhood to help rebuild Pimlico. The jobs can’t be jobs for contractors in Pennsylvania. The work to put in new heating and air conditioning facilities can’t be done by out-of-town contractors, by city contractors that are donors to city politicians. It needs to be done by local businesses, people in the community, by companies that are rooted in that part of Baltimore and Baltimore more broadly.
Certainly, that’s the kind of commitment we need to make sure we’re not just building a racetrack, we’re building a future for that neighborhood. Preakness is a source of pride for this city. It’s a reliable annual opportunity to highlight some of the good things that are happening in Baltimore. But it can’t just be an infomercial. It can’t just be some marketing brochure for the city if the neighborhoods in immediate eye shot, within a stone’s throw of the racetrack, are suffering and are the subjects of disinvestment.
BFB: We just passed the five-year anniversary of the Baltimore Uprising? What lessons did you learn from that?
TV: The earthquake of Freddie Gray not only shook so many of the the cornerstones of Baltimore, which were already fragile. It exposed so many pieces of rotten wood underneath. We are more a checkerboard than a city in so many ways. The way we have disinvested communities, the relationship between police and citizens, how segregated we are as a city, how divided we are as a people, it’s a generational challenge.
Former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote an opinion of dissent in a case out of Detroit called Milliken v. Bradley. He said, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.” It was a warning sign, it was a cautionary note about the consequences of living and allowing to exist a segregated society.
The earthquake of Freddie Gray reminded us that we are more segregated, our public schools are today, than at any point since 1968. How we treat public health, public education, public transit, in one neighborhood versus another, tracks the legacy of redlining that Baltimore had an unholy role in writing. We were the city that had in 1910 the first residential segregation ordinance. We are a city that has a humiliating legacy of racism. Freddie Gray didn’t start that. It was a spark that ignited the kindling that has been laid for a long time.
These inequities persist, and if anybody thinks they are part of our history, they are wrong and they haven’t been paying attention. Respectfully, as much as we talk about it, the city politicians that have allowed this to persist, that have allowed this to endure, that have contributed to it in subtle but significant ways, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. They shouldn’t be asking for a promotion or a raise, they should be tendering their letters of resignation. And they’re not. They’re pretending things are getting better.
I fear that for those people that want to bury their head in the sand and pretend that Freddie Gray was an aberration, a statistical anomaly, they are not living in the Baltimore with the rest of us. They are closing their eyes and allowing a fictional movie to play in their heads, while the rest of us have to reckon with a reality of a city that is divided by race and by class, and a city that is in so many ways getting worse, not better. If we’re going to honor the legacy of Freddie Gray and so many others, we can’t just talk about it. We have to do something about it. Right now, that is not what is happening coming out of City Hall.