Originally published April 27, 2017, on Beltway Bulletin.
Two years and one day after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, hundreds of people gathered in the War Memorial Building across the street from City Hall to demand change in their city and nation.
The first town hall in Baltimore since November’s election featured Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Elijah Cummings, John Sarbanes and Dutch Ruppersberger. Organized by the Baltimore Indivisible Coalition, it aimed to give citizens the opportunity to hear from representatives about how President Donald Trump and his administration will impact Baltimore.
“Indivisible” groups spatter the country with the goal of uniting Democrats in the age of Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress. The Baltimore Indivisible Coalition is the umbrella organization for smaller regional groups, like Indivisible Towson.
The memory of Gray, who became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement after he died from spinal injuries while in police custody, inciting riots and peaceful protests throughout Baltimore, was not lost on town hall attendees.
In the years following the unrest in Baltimore after his death, reports like the Department of Justice’s investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department or articles like The New York Times’ editorial “How Racism Doomed Baltimore” have exposed and commented on the reality that many of the city’s problems have existed for decades.
Rep. Ruppersberger, when asked about police reform, said that the issues facing Baltimore have been “simmering” for years.
Racism and segregation, poverty, crime, corruption… the list goes on for potential barriers to Baltimore’s success. A hotbed of socioeconomic struggles, Baltimore’s deep-rooted problems don’t have a quick fix.
The town hall pivoted on this point, centering on education, criminal justice reform and immigration — and how Baltimore, in particular, faces serious challenges with each of these issues. Town hall attendees expressed concern that progress in the city will be undone by Trump policies.
Education: Combatting Trump’s “two-prong strategy”
Kimberly Humphrey, an Education and Legislative Advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, introduced her question with background about Trump’s proposed budget and its implications for education.
Namely, plans to cut $2.4 billion from a federal teacher training program, $1.2 billion from a grant program for before and after-school and summer programs and investing $1.4 billion into voucher programs for private and charter schools, according to The Atlantic.
“We do not want our city students to be used as guinea pigs for these inefficient programs,” Humphrey said.
In Baltimore City schools, a financially-strapped district in an equally struggling city, there is significant opposition to slashing programs that, as Humphrey described, are proven to work.
Humphrey spoke about Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School in East Baltimore. In 2010, it was labeled a “turnaround” school in need of serious improvement. The school added after-school programs and grew its staff, ultimately tripling its enrollment and drastically improving its test scores.
Humphrey asked the legislators how they plan to address Trump’s “two-prong strategy” privatizing education and cutting funds from public schools, using Commodore John Rodgers as anecdotal evidence that such strategies aren’t effective — at least for Baltimore.
As each member of the panel responded to her question, Cummings used his turn to share a personal story of the Baltimore City public school system.
He shared that he spent his first six years of school in special education programs and was told he would not be able to read or write, but is now a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society and a congressman.
“If given the opportunity, they can all do it,” Cummings said about Baltimore City students. He went on to emphasize the importance of all students having access to similar resources.
“The greatest threat to our national security is the failure to properly educate every single one of our children,” he said to thunderous applause.
Criminal justice reform: “Ain’t a whole lot of black people in here”
Ray Kelly of the No Boundaries Coalition followed Humphrey, asking about how the legislators plan to ensure that police reform takes place.
He alluded to the Department of Justice’s 2015 report on the Baltimore City Police Department, referencing the statistic that 44 percent of police stops took place in two neighborhoods in Northwest Baltimore, including the one Gray called home.
Kelly also pointed out the dramatic racial bias of the police’s tactics that were exposed in the report. For example, 86 percent of criminal charges in the time period included were against African Americans in a city that is 63 percent black.
“This report was a factual report, and we needed those facts,” said Ruppersberger about the Department of Justice report.
Ruppersberger also pointed out that there are two sides to every story.
“I do not want to demean the police officers,” he said. “They get up every day … they try to do the job. But … the job was not being done.”
Elizabeth Alex, representing CASA, an advocacy group for Latinos and immigrants, joined by a CASA member, asked the representatives to commit to opposing Trump’s $30 billion supplemental budget to pay for the wall and expanded deportation efforts.
Baltimore is a sanctuary city. With Trump’s threats to block federal funding from sanctuary cities and municipalities, many worry that could be lost.
“We will continue to fight here, but we will need you to fight with us,” Alex translated for the CASA member who asked his question in Spanish.
Cummings responded first, emphasizing the need for change in U.S. immigration policy.
“We need comprehensive immigration reform, no doubt about it,” he said. “The other night in Howard County I watched children cry because they are afraid they’re going to be torn away from their parents.”
Trump’s signature wall came up time and time again as the legislators discussed immigration reform and border security. The consensus? A waste of money.
“I think all of us recognize that we need border security, but we need smart border security,” Van Hollen said.