Baltimore’s new police commissioner Anthony Batts says the city has a new gang problem and gangs are responsible for the recent increases in crime. “I was told,” the Baltimore Sun quotes him as saying, “that what [Black Guerilla Family is] doing is expanding and taxing other gangs, basically franchising out. If [those gangs] don’t want to franchise out, it leads to conflict, and that’s been part of the problem in areas that are spiking.”
This analysis puts Mr. Batts in the company of a long line of Baltimore politicians and police who have pointed to gangs as a prime mover of Baltimore crime and who have argued that the police must reorganize and be given more resources to combat what, each time, is characterized as a new and dangerous threat to the city.
For example, eighteen years ago, this headline appeared in the news: “Gang Prevention is Coming to Baltimore Courtesy of the 1994 Crime Bill.” The Sun cites then Rep. Kweisi Mfume at a briefing at police headquarters with then member of the House of Representatives Ben Cardin, who is quoted as saying, “It’s a great day for Baltimore and a great day for the crime bill.”
The article points to some of that era’s feared Baltimore gangs: The C. B. S group, named after the streets of Calhoun, Baker and Stricker; the Dutch Village Boys, the Old York and Cator Boys; the Pigtown Gang; and the Westport Boys.
In 1997 it was then another police commissioner who believed in community policing: “I believe in being open about the issue,” police chief Thomas Frazier said at the time. “If I’m not, parents will make decisions about how to raise their children with the mistaken belief that gangs are not an issue in the city.”
Mr. Frazier noted that he thought gangs were linked to 70 percent of the drug activity in the city; but he was hopeful that his new policing methods would make a change: “I think gang organizations here are fairly new, and we have a chance to intervene before they become entrenched.”
Ten years later, in 2007 it was Frank Clark, then director of the Gang Intervention and Investigation Unit for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services: “We do have a growing problem in the state, and my biggest concern is the kids that it’s affecting,” he said at the time. “We’ve got kids aspiring to be gang members. We’ve got gang members in Maryland as young as 7 years old. It’s an issue.”
In 2008 it was fear of Tree Top Piru Bloods and what was seen as such a dangerous new element in Baltimore gangland that the federal RICO laws needed to be employed to wipe them out once and for all. The Baltimore Sun wrote at the time: “In Baltimore more than 1,800 adults belong to about 45 criminal street gangs – including the Bloods and Crips – according to a database developed by the University of Maryland and the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.”
Even a cursory examination of the public archive shows the repetition of this pattern over and over in Baltimore and most American cities. Claims from law enforcement about gangs and their centrality to crime are almost always reported in the media as fact and attended by calls for increasing and diversifying law enforcement tools to protect the law abiding. Importantly, in each of these current and past narratives from law enforcement, gang membership–both implicitly and explicitly–always confers a deeper and more profound level of criminality and danger. For example, look at two of the recommendations in the 2009 report, Criminal Gangs in Maryland, from the state’s Department of Legislative Services.
Require Consecutive Sentencing: The report argues that the impact of Chapter 496 is “substantially diminished” because, as currently written, a court may order a sentence for a gang violation to run concurrently with the sentence for the underlying crime. The proposal would require that, where imposed, the gang offense be served consecutively to the sentence for the underlying crime …”
Juveniles – Prosecution as Adults: The report suggests that a juvenile who is 16 years or older and accused of gang participation be subject to the jurisdiction of an adult court …
Both recommendations reveal how significantly we alter our sense of crime and the law (and in the case of the later, the meaning of “juvenile”) by our increased fear of the criminal’s very identity, affiliation–his soul even, if you will.
This brief history of pronouncements by law enforcement and policymakers in Baltimore and Maryland is on one level a profound record of the failure of policing. That is, for all the gang talk and revenue expended and the vast armory of policing tools deployed, here we are in 2013 with a new police chief saying we got a gang problem in Baltimore and it is central to our crime problem.
On another level the repetition of this gang talk is both a failure of imagination and an unwillingness to acknowledge what a growing number of researchers and social justice advocates have been saying for years now.
Take as just one example, the University of Illinois, Chicago’s John Hagedorn in A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture (an extension of his important work in People and Folk: Gangs, Crime and the Underclass in a Rustbelt City) that looks beyond the gang talk in a place like Baltimore to look at a common reality of the dispossessed in American cities, and in the favalas, barrios, banlieues, slums and townships of our increasingly urbanized world. As the writer Mike Davis puts it in the introduction to Hagedorns’s book “gangs”
[r]epresent inner-city people coping with life in our post-industrial cities as rational actors and disenfranchised citizens rather than demons from the ‘hood or romanticized outlaws …
Hagedorn argues that the global gang is part of the continuum of crime and revolt that defines the new horizon of geopolitics in the twenty-first century. Indeed, from the standpoint of the abandoned and betrayed youth in our ghettos and favelas, we are all living in “failed” states, and we should not be surprised by the anrgy social combustion that accompanies the economic polarization of this new gilded age.
And, importantly, for Baltimore there are models of a way forward beyond another round of law enforcement officials hyping gang talk and a way forward that gets closer to acknowldgeing the reality Hagedon points to.
Take as just one model, the Advancement Project’s language and recommendations in its report on the city of Los Angeles’s Citywide Gang Activity Reduction Strategy. The whole report is worth reading to understand what Baltimore should do, but here is the flavor from the executive summary. “Suppression alone … can’t solve this problem:”
After a quarter century of a multi-billion dollar war on gangs, there are six times as many gangs and at least double the number of gang members in the region. Suppression alone—and untargeted suppression in particular—cannot solve this problem. Law enforcement officials now agree that they cannot arrest their way out of the gang violence crisis and that their crime suppression efforts must be linked to competent prevention, intervention, and community-stabilizing investment strategies. This report is about those strategies.
The City’s small and isolated gang prevention programs cannot reverse an entrenched epidemic. Comprehensive, neighborhood-based, schools-centered strategies for effective prevention, intervention, and community development will be needed in order to substantially reduce gang activity and violence in high crime areas, keep “tipping point” areas from tipping into routine violence, pull “sliding communities” with emerging violence back to safety, and keep safe areas safe.
In short, Los Angeles needs a Marshall Plan to end gang violence.
In the next post I will try to give some context to the gang the new Baltimore police chief feels is the prime cause of increased crime in Baltimore, the Black Guerilla Family.