Baltimore on the Brink

A Tale of Too Many Cities

In the past two weeks I’ve traveled throughout the east coast, and had scores of conversations with black, white, and brown people – including those eager to share and those who seem to feel that by ignoring or minimizing this “last incident,” it may somehow disappear or at least not reach their own geographical or psychological domicile. Yet far from disappearing, Baltimore is yet another milestone in a road dotted with flashing lights warning of the deeper realities we must collectively face… or be faced with.

In many ways Baltimore is similar to Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, South Carolina and so many of our cities recently in the news. In each case we have seen the familiar pattern of police brutality against minorities, the poor, the homeless and/or mentally ill members of our citizenry. In each case the scenes are captured and the stories told by otherwise helpless passersby armed only with their cell phones.

What is happening in Baltimore is also significantly different. It’s true that the collective outrage and consciousness among those who have been targets of harassment by law enforcement for at least a century has grown to a boiling point. In this way, Freddie Gray begins to mirror Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor in Tunisia, who, after being roughed up by police while he was trying to sell fruit, set himself on fire, igniting uprisings throughout the Middle East known as the “Arab Spring.” In the case of Baltimore, it was those who survived Freddie Gray who set parts of the city ablaze. This did not lead to fires encompassing the east coast or cities throughout the nation, because the heat was turned down by unusual, swift and decisive actions of State Attorney, Marilyn Mosby. Yet the embers of human anger and frustration in Baltimore are smoldering, not extinguished; and the dynamics and lessons from this city should be widely understood and quickly acted upon by leaders throughout the country.

Living on the Edge of Hope

This past year we have seen numerous incidents of innocent victims dying at the hands of those hired to protect them. Yet the reaction on the streets of Baltimore was very different than what we witnessed in, say, New York after a grand jury cleared the officers involved in killing unarmed Eric Garner by strangulation. The statistics between the two cities tell much of the story.

Among racial and ethnic groups in New York, Hispanics recorded the highest poverty rate (26 percent), followed by Asians (25 percent), blacks (21.7 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (15.2 percent). Noncitizens had a higher rate (27.8 percent) than native-born (19.9 percent) and naturalized citizens (17.8 percent). Not only is there less diversity among the poor in Baltimore than in New York, but the overall poverty rate in Sandtown, the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived, is roughly double that of either Baltimore or New York. Moreover Sandtown and neighboring Harlem Park, experience about double the shootings, unemployment, and homicides than Baltimore City at large. These neighborhoods also have more residents in jails and prisons than any other neighborhood in the state of MD, with an annual cost of $17 million for incarceration alone, according to the New York Times. In short, as one young man in Baltimore shared, “It doesn’t matter what we do, there’s no hope for us here.”

Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, that of the nine fighting grounds in which one might do battle, the most dangerous one was that in which the vanquished had no hope for escape, for their desperation would lead to unpredictable and incalculably deadly actions. Many of the residents of Baltimore in general, and Sandtown and Harlem Park in particular, feel hopeless and helpless in their situation. Pour a heavy and constant dose of injustice into the mix and the results are explosive.

One Man’s Gangster is Another Woman’s Youngster

It is difficult to find any black man in Baltimore who hasn’t been mistreated by local police. The abuse of Baltimore residents derives in part from the fear, anger and contempt by those outside of the neighborhoods who come to police the people within them. With less than 9% of the policing staff residing locally, many bring with them preconceived ideas about those they are hired to protect: They are often seen as the enemy, or at least unworthy of dignified treatment.

The unarmed and petite Baltimore mom, Toya Graham, demonstrated, by contrast, the extent to which a truly caring adult can intervene, even physically as she did with her own son, in a successful attempt to keep him out of trouble. While many question her approach of pushing and hitting her 16-year-old to keep him from participating in rioting, the point is that she was willing to do what it took to protect her child, and that even her use of force was understood to be out of concern for her son’s well-being. Had she not intervened, this easily swayed teenager would likely have been characterized by those who don’t know him as a hardened “thug” worthy of tasing and worse. Although the “Mother of the Year” title bestowed upon Toya by the New York Post might well be replaced with “Violent Father” had she been the boy’s dad, the larger point is that relationships rule.

Whether we look at research on managers who gain greater results with employees using concern for them vs. authority over them as motivator; how leaders in the army leverage loyalty more successfully than coercion in getting results; the outcomes lead us in the same direction. Decades of successful community policing, likewise, bear this point out for authorities as well: relationships are the key to getting desired outcomes with the least possible use of force and risk to all involved.

The Truck Stops Here

Morally-rooted, courageous and decisive action among leaders seems to be increasingly rare, as politicians in particular balance myriad interests and a constant focus on increasing their funding streams. Longing for the days of Harry Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” motto in action, thousands turned their planned protests to joyous celebration upon hearing the unequivocal statement of criminal charges against 6 police officers by Maryland State Attorney, Marilyn Mosby only a day after receiving the results of an internal police investigation and the official autopsy report. Mosby minced no words in proclaiming that five stops of the vehicle in question left ample time and opportunity to tend to the needs of the man these officers had shackled and taken for “a ride.” As one young Baltimore man shared, “Just the fact that we have finally been heard and acknowledged was huge for me!”

While a mainly sympathetic white onlooker stated “The charges seem to be delivered very quickly,” and Gene Ryan, President of the Fraternal Order of Police, called it an “egregious rush to judgment,” the charges sent a clear message that regardless of race (three of the six officers charged are black including Ceasar Goodson, who faces the most serious charge of second degree murder), it’s a new day in Baltimore: justice will be served. One might also ask how long it would take to charge Freddie Gray, you, me, or any other potential suspect for a crime committed. For that matter what crime had Freddie Gray actually committed?

Ms. Mosby’s promise to the family that “no one is above the law,” and that “(She) would pursue justice on their behalf,” is heartening. Yet Mosby’s battle ahead is taking place within the “legal system” which is unfortunately not the same as the “justice system,” and the odds are stacked against her winning. Luckily Ms. Mosby has taken on such odds before and won, beating out her opponent, incumbent Gregg Bernstein, for this position only months ago, although he outspent her 3 to 1.

Horizons of Hope, or Despair and Destruction?

One might think that the lessons above would drive local and state leaders, the Fraternal Order of Police and vanquished political opponents to some common understandings that also governed a way forward for our new Attorney General, Loretta Lynch; President Obama, and business and civic leaders throughout the nation. Transparency and justice regardless of race, creed, color or economics is bad for dictators, but it’s good business for democracies; real and accessible economic and educational opportunities foster hope and collective well-being while their absence breeds despair and destruction; relationships trump force every day of the week and in almost any context; courageous leadership fosters confidence and positive action, and in tandem with the rest of these lessons, can turn riotous outbreaks into joyous celebrations in anticipation of a brighter future.

Yet things may have to get worse before they get better. If the Baltimore police officers are not convicted, it is likely the combustible forces of hopelessness, despair and rage will lead to outcomes that no one would like to see unfold and few of us would condone. Moreover, brush fires can become wild fires as we’ve seen throughout history and the world, including in the USA (think Boston Tea Party; Rosa Parks).

Under-girding the inequities and injustice we experience is a flawed zero-sum game paradigm that states someone has to lose while someone else wins at their expense. However, research of enlightened practice by my coauthor, Pedro Noguera and I has shown just the opposite is true. In the long-run, suspending the win-lose mental model allows for a more powerful understanding, that we can all win, and that being surrounded by a society filled with winners creates prosperity and quality of life for everyone. The words of Martin Luther King, “We are all inextricably bound to one another,” are actually accurate in very practical terms, which I’ll take up in another posting.

For now, let’s hope for an enlightened review of the fundamental lessons coming from Baltimore, and actions aligned with those lessons. If this is the outcome, America will experience an exciting new dawning.

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