Believe It … Or Not: Measuring O’Malley’s March on Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Aug. 27, 2003

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Good news is never hard to find when mayors seek re-election. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s last political campaign in 1995 published a whole book of good news about his administration’s then-ongoing efforts in Baltimore. As is now widely recognized, though, the bad news far outweighed the good during the Schmoke years, which were marked by a cerebral approach to governance that produced paltry results and left the city’s psyche stigmatized by failure.

Schmoke’s charismatic successor, Martin O’Malley, was elected in 1999 on an ambitious anti-crime platform and a promising slogan, “For Reform and Change.” He won with a strong mandate that created high expectations and a refreshing sense of hope for the city. As he now runs for re-election as the distinct favorite in the six-way Democratic primary, O’Malley croons earnestly about the upturn Baltimore has seen during his four years in office. While his new campaign slogan–“Because Better Isn’t Good Enough”–suggests that his record has shortcomings he is willing to acknowledge, he’s still found plenty to boast about. Here’s a taste of some of the O’Malley campaign’s bragging points, lifted from its promotional materials:

  • “Baltimore has, in just a few years, achieved the largest [violent-crime] reduction of any major city in America.
  • “Baltimore’s per pupil spending increased by 15 percent [since 1999] . . . improving from 6th to 2nd highest in the state.
  • “In 2002 alone, the Baltimore Development Corporation’s efforts brought 6,000 jobs to Baltimore.”

Also available to help boost civic optimism during this election season is the Believe campaign, a multimillion-dollar advertising effort underwritten largely by the nonprofit Baltimore Police Foundation. The campaign aims to empower Baltimoreans to overcome the ravages of illegal drugs, and its most visible impact has been the thousands of images of the word “believe” that have placarded the city since last year. Believe’s latest media blitz, which started this summer and is ongoing, charts and celebrates the city’s progress since 1999. That’s the year before O’Malley took the reins of City Hall. Thus, Believe’s current feel-good message is not only about Baltimore’s efforts to tamp down its violent drug culture but also about O’Malley’s record as mayor.

Amid this propaganda, it’s hard to know what to trust. Critical thinking, after all, demands an innate skepticism of messages in advertising, because campaigns, whether political or commercial, are designed to make use of advantageous information rather than present a balanced picture.

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For instance, one could reason that Baltimore’s chart-topping reduction in violent crime is less remarkable than it sounds because, as the most violent city in the United States in 1999 (now the second most violent, behind Detroit), positive trends here have a greater statistical impact than in other, less violent cities. And while per-pupil spending increased 15 percent overall between 1999 and 2002, school enrollment during that period declined by almost 9 percent. With fewer students entering the system each year, per-student spending would increase naturally with a flat budget–and dramatically so with the modest budget increases that have been secured during O’Malley’s tenure in City Hall.

As for the 6,000 new jobs in 2002, attributed to the work of the city’s quasi-public economic development agency, that’s a lot of slots in a city where the number of unemployed people hovers around 25,000. The fact remains, though, that there were nearly 2,000 more unemployed people in the city’s labor force this June than there were in the beginning of 2002. And the unemployment rate has risen slightly rather than dropped during the same period. These facts strongly suggest that those 6,000 jobs were not filled predominantly by city residents but by commuters from surrounding areas.

Thus, the O’Malley camp’s upbeat take on the last four years begs other relevant ways to plumb Baltimore’s progress–different gauges than O’Malley’s people are emphasizing, ones that instead look at facets of city life not necessarily found in the campaign leaflets. The following results are mixed, and thus will please O’Malley supporters and detractors alike. And they show that O’Malley’s assertion that “better isn’t good enough” is dead-on in summing up his first term. The city’s stock has risen, but there’s room for improvement.

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On election day 1999, Martin O’Malley was the beneficiary of a very important statistic when he chalked up 53 percent of the votes in what had shaken down to be a three-way, racially charged Democratic Primary pitting him, a white guy, against former City Councilman Carl Stokes and then-City Council President Lawrence Bell, both of whom are black. “There is more that unites us than divides us,” O’Malley often said that summer–a sentiment that, along with his bold promises to reduce crime using New York City’s successful approach as a model, resonated with an electorate that seemed exhausted from years of decline, violence, and divisiveness.

After the votes were counted, even some of those who worked against him were ebullient. “Martin O’Malley has a clear mandate from the entire city,” said former City Council president, 1995 mayoral candidate, and current 14th District City Council candidate Mary Pat Clarke, who supported Bell in the 1999 race. “This city, black and white, voted for Martin O’Malley. And it was not marginal. It was resounding. He has a mandate to lead the whole city. It’s a wondrous thing to behold.”

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O’Malley’s votes in that race, nonetheless, reflected the realities of the city’s stark divide between poor African-Americans and everyone else. The precincts that supported O’Malley–including many predominantly black precincts–were spread thickly across the city, with the exception of two, hard-to-ignore areas: the blighted, poverty-stricken swaths on the east and west sides, which form a butterfly-wing pattern with midtown at the center. These neighborhoods–Upton, Druid Heights, Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park, Rosemont, Poppleton, Edmondson Village, and others on the west side, and Middle East, Berea, Clifton Park, Jonestown, Greenmount West, and others on the east side–did not buy into the O’Malley agenda as it was spelled out during the ’99 campaign. Stokes or Bell won most of the votes in these butterfly wings, which are overwhelmingly black and are home to about a third of the city’s population.

These neighborhoods, more than any others in the city, have the most to gain from City Hall’s policies since they suffer most from Baltimore’s famous ills. Here, according to data published by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (www. bnia. org), a Charles Village-based nonprofit that has taken on the Herculean task of collecting and analyzing myriad measures of Baltimore’s communities, a fifth of all serious crime is violent, vs. a 10th in the rest of the city. Here, more than a third of family households are headed by single mothers, vs. a fifth in the rest of the city. Here, about 60 percent of mothers receive first-trimester pre-natal care, vs. three-quarters of the mothers in the rest of the city. Here, nearly 40 percent of working people don’t use cars to get to their jobs, vs. less than 25 percent in the rest of the city. And here, out of every 1,000 juveniles, an average of 124 were arrested in 2001, vs. 95 in the rest of the city; the rate of juvenile arrests in these neighborhoods jumped to 142 per 1,000 juveniles in 2002. The list of disparities is long and poignant.

If, as his 1999 campaign materials noted, New York City was O’Malley’s model for success, then Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods would benefit most from his policies, as happened during New York’s renaissance in the 1990s. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s approach–while widely vilified, largely because of the man’s brusque personality and a few horrific incidents involving his police force–was to commit resources where they were most needed, and thus he helped spur revival in Gotham’s most hard-pressed areas as well as its most prosperous. And, despite opinions to the contrary, Giuliani achieved these gains while reducing the number of police-involved shootings compared to his predecessor. So, has the approach worked in Baltimore under O’Malley’s guiding hand? Yes and no.

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There’s just no arguing the gains made in the critical early grades of the Baltimore City public schools during the last five years. Scores in the nationwide TerraNova standardized tests rose dramatically across the board between the 1998-’99 and 2002-’03 school years in the city’s elementary-school grades. And those gains, reflected in a recently released school system report, have been greatest in schools serving the city’s poorest neighborhoods–though the situation is reversed in scores for sixth-graders. The greatest climb in average percentile rankings was in poor areas’ second-grade reading scores, which jumped an average of 23.2 points in the five-year period, while the scores rose 17.1 points for second-graders in the rest of the city’s schools. Sixth-graders scores in the poor schools, though, climbed an average of 9.6 points, compared to 19.6 at all the other city schools.

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O’Malley attributes this overall success in part to expanding programs that target kids before they enter first grade. “We have gone from 109 full-day kindergarten classes to 297, reaching that mandate five years ahead of when the state wanted us to,” he cited during a recent interview with City Paper in his City Hall office. “And we’ve gone from one full-day pre-K program to 91.” He also pointed out that the school system’s efforts to standardize course content have helped, too, given that “a lot of kids are in three or four or five different schools in the course of a year, [and are faced] with a different curriculum every time.”

Kids living in poverty, O’Malley observes, have to prevail over more severe obstacles in order to learn well, so the greater improvements in test scores at schools serving poor children are that much more impressive. “The neighborhood environment from which our poor children are drawn have a lot bigger societal problems . . . [such as] violent crime, drug addiction, and the sort of societal abandonment, familial abandonment, that those things fuel, than in other areas of our city,” he said. “Unfortunately, [these students] have to overcome a lot more of the baggage that we as a society still allow to be heaped upon them through no fault of their own.

“So I don’t think it’s accidental that our kids are doing better in school as the city’s becoming safer and as more parents are getting into drug treatment,” he continued. “I think all of this works together. And the expectations for their success I think are greater than maybe they’ve been in years past.”

Of any single area under city government’s bailiwick, though, the school system is the one over which the mayor has the least direct influence. This is the result of a partial state takeover of city schools during Schmoke’s last term–a negotiated outcome to settle a long-litigated lawsuit. Thus, while O’Malley has some say over schools policy by virtue of his control over nine appointments to the 18-member school board and the city’s 23.5 percent contribution to the system’s 2002 budget, he can’t take full credit for its success or failure. Nonetheless, his limited clout in the schools arena means he can tout–with a measure of modesty–the remarkable rise in test scores as part of his record as mayor.

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By and large, the city’s poorest neighborhoods fall in two of the city’s nine police districts, the Eastern and the Western. Examining the crime numbers in these two districts in 1999 and 2002, vs. the other seven districts, turns up mixed results. According to police department data, overall violent crime in the Eastern and Western districts combined has dropped 31 percent from 1999 to 2002, while nonfatal shootings have dropped almost 38 percent. But murders rose nearly 15 percent in 2002 compared to 1999–and the two districts’ share of the city’s total number of homicides has increased from nearly 30 percent in 1999 to more than 41 percent in 2002.

Running the same analysis on 2003’s year-to-date figures in the Eastern and Western districts as of Aug. 9, vs. 1999’s numbers on the same date, show that the disparity is even greater this year. Murders are up 50 percent from 1999, while violent crime has dropped more than 42 percent and shootings more than 18 percent. According to the police department’s own statistics, the Eastern and Western districts have become less violent but far more deadly.

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“I had never seen these murder numbers broken down like this before,” O’Malley commented while reviewing these statistics. “It’s an interesting way to break them down.” But his response was to repeat Giuliani’s mantra: “We apply our resources to where the problems are.” And then he opened his crime-numbers notebook and recited figures showing that violent crime is down dramatically in every district, including the Eastern and Western.

“You know,” he added, “all of this is a work in progress. I’m not happy with 253.” That’s the number of murders committed citywide in 2002–a far cry from the 175 he had promised by that date during the 1999 campaign and during the first two years of his administration. “We’re going to continue to go down from there.”

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And the mayor got exercised over projections of this year’s final murder tally, which as of press time is on track to reach about 285 by the end of December. “Everybody always wants to project that year-end number,” he said with palpable disgust. “I mean, they want to do it in July. And a half a year’s left. And it is awful and it’s morbid and it’s cold to talk statistics. One homicide is one homicide too many.

“But we deploy our resources to where the problems are,” O’Malley continued, getting back to the disproportionate violence in the Eastern and Western districts. “And all of this, it is still young. The open-air drug trade in this city was allowed to grow and flourish and develop and become as acute as it did over a 25-year slide. And so we are going to continue to hammer it.”

Another area that O’Malley has targeted is police corruption. It’s a ticklish subject, and one on which he mounted his bully pulpit starting in 1993, when he was a young councilman. “The few bad apples are just that–the few,” he said in an impassioned speech on the council floor 10 years ago. “But there is not a single knowledgeable person in federal, state, or local law enforcement today who will deny that we have a growing problem with street-level corruption.”

During the 1999 campaign, O’Malley repeatedly stressed the importance of “policing the police,” and continued to fuel the perception that the corruption problem in the department was acute. And he asserted that the problem had been swept under the rug for years. After he was elected, he hired a consulting firm, the Maple/Linder Group of New York City, to do a full assessment of the police department, including an internal survey of sworn officers. The findings on corruption were eye-popping. “While 48.7 percent of respondents believe that five percent or less of . . . officers are stealing money or drugs from drug dealers,” the report reads, “23.2 percent believe the number is greater than a quarter of the department.” Based on the buzz O’Malley sounded, many in Baltimore expected to see heads starting to roll.

It never really happened. There was one infamous case–Agent Brian Sewell, who was accused of planting drugs on an innocent suspect as a result of a sting operation. But the case tanked when the alleged evidence against him was pilfered by the lead investigator in the case from a secret internal-investigations office in Essex around Christmas 2000. (The department used its administrative procedures to fire Sewell. He appealed successfully, winning the right to a new trial-board hearing, but agreed to leave the force rather than go through another proceeding. Sewell recently died in an accident at Andrews Air force Base, where he had been assigned for duty with the Maryland National Guard.)

Other than Sewell, police department spokesman Matt Jablow says only three other officers–Jacqueline Folio, Scott Fullwood, and an unnamed member of the force–failed the 217 drug-related integrity stings staged by the department’s Internal Affairs Division since the beginning of 2000. The unnamed officer, Jablow explained, “struck a deal” and retired, so the department is unwilling to reveal his name.

“We’ve been doing 100 integrity stings a year for the last few years,” O’Malley explained, somewhat apologetically. “Some of them are targeted, a lot of them are random. Like everything else we do in this department, there is plenty of room for improvement as far as how we police our police. We’re doing more of it than we ever have. We have not come across that sort of beehive’s nest of every officer on a shift in a particular precinct [involved in corruption], like they had in New York, where they had a couple of celebrated cases. But [police Commissioner Kevin] Clark believes that we can do those targeted stings even more effectively than we have done them in the past.

“You don’t start a new effort like that and have it perfect overnight,” he continued. “And obviously from some of the problems that we had in some of those prosecutions [e.g., the Sewell case], it was pretty apparent that this was something new for us. But I had been somewhat surprised not to find more of that, given the way the drug trade took over big swaths of the city. But we’ll continue to be on the lookout for it and to improve the effectiveness of the investigations.”

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In 1999, as O’Malley was running for mayor on an anti-crime platform, critics sometimes complained that he was a one-trick pony. Even his economic development ideas were built on crime-fighting. When asked during an interview that summer what the government’s role is in creating jobs and improving the business climate, for instance, he responded that “you do both of those things by first accomplishing job one of any organized government, which is public safety. I think there is no way to create jobs or to improve the business environment if the only businesses expanding are these open-air drug markets.”

But there was more to his plan than boosting law-enforcement. It also involved “having a mayor more actively involved with our lending institutions and letting them know where opportunities exist in this city,” he continued, “where they can make a dollar and where they can help build this city again. Businesses, their knock on city government isn’t a whole helluva lot different than citizens. Nobody returns their phone calls and nobody listens. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Today, O’Malley likes to talk about the $1.6 billion in new construction that he says is underway in Baltimore. Apparently, by that measure, his one-two punch of crime-fighting and massaging the investing class has worked pretty well. While unemployment remains high–the June figure for the city was 8.8 percent, compared to 5.2 percent for the metro region and 4.3 percent for Maryland overall–that’s largely out of his control, given the national economic recession that took hold in 2000, just as he was getting traction as the new mayor.

“We haven’t taken as severe a hit to our overall job base [during this recession] as other cities,” says Anirban Basu, an economist who heads the Fells Point-based consulting firm Optimal Solutions. “And that’s a radical departure from the recession of the early 1990s, when Baltimore was a laggard in recovering compared to other cities, which tended to come out strong during the rest of the decade. A lot of people expected a repeat performance this time, and that never materialized.” Basu attributes that in part to the wealth in the region, which means more businesses and individuals qualify to take advantage of the historically low interest rates on bank loans: “That’s why we have had such a terrific housing market in Baltimore City, which has the cheapest housing stock in the region, so it is likely people are going to look there first for deals. And many would-be renters have been empowered to buy homes.”

Baltimore’s relative prosperity amid a recession is hard to attribute directly to O’Malley’s efforts. But his efforts have certainly helped. While several formal economic-development strategies have been conceived during O’Malley’s four years in office, two were much ballyhooed early on. First, and the one that was promised often during his 1999 campaign, was to leverage the power of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), the federal law requiring banks to make loans in poorer neighborhoods from which they draw depositors. And the second, adopted after he gained office, was to grow the local technology industry in a drive that was dubbed “The Digital Harbor.”

It’s hard to quantify how effectively O’Malley has wielded the CRA to bring new investment to Baltimore. But the extent to which he’s succeeded at all is an achievement, because the CRA has become an increasingly impotent tool in recent years. The main trend that has weakened the CRA is the fact that national mortgage-lending companies have increasingly become the lender of choice for many homebuyers and for those refinancing their mortgages. Such companies generally do not have local branches where consumers make deposits, and thus are not subject to the CRA’s provisions.

So, while O’Malley talked a big CRA game during the 1999 campaign–saying, for instance, that he would use “that hammer of monitoring the banks and the threat that you’ll mess up their business and their ability to merge and do what banks like to do in this era”–his tone has been much more conciliatory toward the banks since he took office. “A lot more of our banks were more savvy [on the CRA front] than we had anticipated,” he explained recently.

Despite the CRA’s increasingly limited reach, several local banks that do take deposits from Baltimore have outstanding CRA ratings, and they’ve stepped up to the plate with sizable CRA-eligible loans for local development efforts. Most impressive has been the Bank of America, which, by O’Malley’s tally, has financed or invested in ongoing local projects to the tune of approximately $170 million.

And O’Malley can take credit for getting banks to help underwrite the efforts of the Community Development Finance Corp., a quasi-public lending institution that makes risky loans for redevelopment in low-income areas and that was riddled with scandal under Schmoke. “Quite frankly,” he explained, “many of [the banks] were very reluctant to do it unless we put better checks and balances in place to safeguard the value of their loans. But I had several one-on-one meetings with them and lots of phone calls, lots of lobbying, begging, arm-twisting. We changed the rules at CDFC in terms of giving the banks some greater voice in the loans that we make and some greater oversight. But we got the banks to re-up, and that was to the tune of $26 million that they put into the CDFC.”

In the heady early days of his administration, Digital Harbor quickly became the most heralded piece of O’Malley’s economic-development package. “Our working waterfront,” O’Malley proclaimed in an early-2000 speech before a large gathering of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a national group that promotes results-oriented governance, “once again has become our port to a new economy with dozens of Digital Harbor companies filling revitalized space formerly occupied by manufacturing and warehouse equipment. We have made recruiting, supporting, and growing tech companies our highest economic-development priority because the Digital Harbor is Baltimore’s future.”

Digital Harbor was just getting up and running in 2000 when the tech-industry bubble burst. While little positive news has been heard about it since the tech collapse, local tech-industry leaders remain upbeat. “Baltimore City has done extraordinarily well” given the industry’s downturn, says Penny Lewandowski, who directs the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, a trade group based in the American Can Company complex in Canton. “I can name only three companies that did not survive–Cycle Shark, Gr8, and Tide Point LLC.” Her rosy take has required a slight shift in perspective. “Digital Harbor,” she explains, “is not just about companies that are exclusively technology, but how technology affects traditional businesses as well. So, did the mayor make the right bet? Absolutely.”

Basu gives a less optimistic appraisal of the tech industry’s status in the city today, but he backs Lewandowski’s basic conclusions. “The collapse hasn’t been quite the bloodbath it’s been nationally,” he says, pointing out that the large infusion of federal research dollars into the local economy and regional tech industry’s reliance on those federal contracts have helped. “Federal-government contracts account for about 40 percent of the state’s tech-industry revenues, versus about 10 percent in Silicon Valley.”

The main reason for tech’s resilience in Baltimore in the face of a national downturn, Basu says, is that Baltimore had less to lose than other cities. “Baltimore has not been a hotbed of private-sector technology in much of its history,” he explains. “It was late in coming to the table–and then, just as the momentum was building, the tech industry goes bust.”

O’Malley’s focus in the tech arena also has shifted since the tech collapse–from information technology and telecommunications, which were the hardest hit areas, to biotechnology, which is a less mercurial beast. “What we are trying to do,” he explained, “is to create the expectation that in our already fairly diverse economy, that we are ready and have the natural resources–the colleges and universities and research institutions–to be able to grow that sector of the economy which could be called the new economy. And I think our area, where we have greater strengths than others, is going to be in biotech.” To that end, the city is soon to become home to two biotechnology parks–one on the east side and affiliated with Johns Hopkins University; the other on the west side, being developed by the University of Maryland.

City government’s role in all of this is not so much “the bricks-and-mortar visibility,” O’Malley said, but work-force development–investing in programs that will prepare city residents to participate in the new economy. And he’s more than happy, along with his technology coordinator, Mario Armstrong, to recite a list of new initiatives. First and foremost, O’Malley and Armstrong explain, is the radical gain in the ratio of students to computers in the classroom. “We used to be at 10 to 1, now we’re at three-and-a-half to one,” Armstrong said enthusiastically. “That was us making it a priority,” O’Malley continues, “Carmen [Russo, the outgoing city schools chief] not fighting us on being involved in it, a million dollars of general funds, and 6,000 computers from the Social Security Administration, which we paid to have retrofitted.”

Armstrong’s list of other programs and accomplishments is long and sounds impressive. The Hewlett-Packard Digital Village program aims to train teachers to use computers and incorporate them into class curriculum so students learn in a tech-savvy environment. Digital Village Hubs, which are after-school centers that provide public access to computers, have been established at three locations on the east side. Many of the city’s public-housing projects now have computer centers, and about 1,200 people a month are using them. Five computer-oriented Youth Opportunity Centers have been opened around the city, giving children more occasions to use computers after school. And three Digital Learning Labs have opened, which provide computer-training courses that, in June, taught almost 500 people how to use the technology.

Whether all of this activity actually results in a more job-ready work force for the city’s still-fledgling new economy is the question. As Basu says of the city’s work force-development initiatives, “it will be interesting to see how well it works, but it’s good to see they’re trying.”

It’s less clear that the O’malley administration has been trying on another front where he promised progress when he first ran for mayor: maximizing budget efficiency by reducing the amount of money granted to contractors for “extra work” on city contracts. “I think there are areas where we spend too much [city] money,” he said during a campaign interview four years ago. “One of those is in the letting of public-works contracts through the Board of Estimates. I think that the additional work orders and the inflation on those contracts really needs to be checked.”

Just to be clear, we’ll call what O’Malley was talking about “contract add-ons.” They are routinely passed by the city’s five-member Board of Estimates, which approves much of the city’s spending on a weekly basis and which is controlled by O’Malley by virtue of his seat on the board, plus two mayoral appointees. When the board approves a contract add-on, they are granting city contractors payments in addition to the amount of the original contract. The payments were the subject of occasional controversy during Schmoke’s tenure at City Hall, based on suspicions that some such payments were unnecessary and wasteful. After O’Malley came into office, City Councilman Nicholas D’Adamo Jr. in 2000 announced that, based on numbers he had obtained, the city had spent $99 million on such additional work in the previous five years–though he never completed his promised report on the problem.

Board of Estimates records of two three-year periods of city spending–1994-’96 under Schmoke, and 2000-’02 under O’Malley–reveal a mixed bag of progress on this front. While the board has granted fewer add-ons under O’Malley than they did under Schmoke and has reduced the number of contracts receiving additional work, the amounts granted have grown–especially when measured as a share of the total value of city contracts receiving additional payments. While the city spent $24.2 million on add-ons during the three-year period under Schmoke, it spent $27.4 million on such additional payments under O’Malley–and the add-ons’ share of the total value of contracts rose from 3.3 percent to 6.5 percent.

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The mayor’s office provided alternative figures to City Paper, but they don’t square with the records of the Board of Estimates, which were the basis for City Paper‘s analysis and which are the only source available for the public to independently research city spending patterns. Raquel Guillory, the mayor’s chief spokeswoman, told City Paper the total value of contracts from 1994 through ’96 was $323,649,981, with add-ons comprising 8.4 percent of that total, while the figures for 2000 through ’02 were $379,340,369 and 7.2 percent, respectively. Thus, the O’Malley administration’s numbers show efficiency–add-ons as a percentage of total contract amounts–has increased under O’Malley, while City Paper shows greatly increased inefficiency under O’Malley.

City Paper asked Guillory to explain how city government arrived at their figures. She said that the city’s numbers were derived from the sum total of construction contracts that came before the Board of Estimates for contract add-ons. City Paper based its figures on the sum total of all city contracts–including everything from waste-water treatment improvements to consulting work to digital mapping of the city.

Guillory also explains that two projects worked on under the O’Malley administration–extensive and glitch-riddled contracts on the police headquarters building and Hopkins Plaza downtown–were held over from the Schmoke administration and made up for a large amount of the extra work passed by the Board of Estimates during O’Malley’s term. Also, O’Malley adds, city managers have “been trying to do a better job in terms of the degree of detail that’s in the contracts to begin with, when they go out for bid,” explaining that “if we put out better contracts, we might get the job done for less, without these expensive overages.” So far, the Board of Estimate records don’t reflect the improvements O’Malley suggested have had a money-saving effect, because both the amount and the share of additional work have risen markedly compared to the Schmoke administration in the mid-1990s.

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In the heady days after winning the 1999 primary, O’Malley sat down with a reporter to discuss his victory. One of the many interesting facets of the story was the demise of the once-famous friendship between O’Malley and his longtime partner in politics, Lawrence Bell, whom he trounced at the ballot boxes. Bell, O’Malley believed, had messed up his electoral fortunes with a variety of missteps, but primarily by ditching his long-established political persona as an independent rebel and choosing instead to align himself with the established political forces behind Schmoke.

“I said,” O’Malley recalled in 1999, “‘Even if you are lucky enough to stumble into this thing backwards, you are not going to be able to usher in the sort of change the city needs by relying on the old warhorses. It won’t be possible.’ I said, ‘How you win also dictates how you are able to govern.’ I said, ‘If you win this way, you won’t be able to govern.'”

O’Malley’s 1999 mayoral campaign, in contrast to Bell’s, was marked by efficient fund-raising and spending, a hard-working and diverse cadre of workers, a focus on a few key issues, backing from a panoply of state leaders, and support from an energized public. Like Bell, though, he relied on old warhorses–even older than Bell’s. Not Schmoke’s people (though many of them have since come into the O’Malley fold), but those of his father-in-law, state Attorney General Joseph Curran Jr., and those of State Comptroller (and former mayor and governor) William Donald Schaefer, whose long-loyal cronies turned up in thick numbers in O’Malley’s 1999 campaign and have been well represented in O’Malley’s brain trust. Among them are lawyer-advisor Richard Berndt and former deputy mayor Laurie Schwartz, who left O’Malley’s cabinet last winter after serving since he was elected.

If O’Malley’s advice to Bell was accurate–that “how you win also dictates how you are able to govern”–then O’Malley’s admirably well-run 1999 campaign would lead to overall good governance with fundamental reform limited by his reliance on “old warhorses.” Either way, O’Malley now sums up his first four years in office with the half-apologetic campaign slogan “Because Better Isn’t Good Enough.” And now it’s up to the voters to decide whether–given his record of improved school-test scores, more deadly violence in poor neighborhoods, limited success fighting police corruption, greater private investment and work-force development efforts, and inefficient city contracts–better was in fact good enough. We’ll find out when the votes are tallied.

Mainstream Extremism

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 30, 2014

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Anne Arundel County’s Fifth Councilmanic District is the whitest, most educated, and richest of the county’s seven districts, and its voters lean heavily in favor of Republicans. If that pattern holds true in November’s general election for the council seat, the district’s 75,000 residents — 87 percent white, 97 percent with a high-school diploma, and about half with a college degree or higher, and with a median household income of $111,000, higher than any Maryland county — will be turning for constituent services and leadership on local issues to the GOP candidate, Michael Peroutka.

Peroutka, a highly successful debt-collection attorney whose brother and law partner Stephen Peroutka is a board member of the Babe Ruth Museum, also is white, smart, and rich, but it’s doubtful that many of his potential constituents have used their advantages in the way he long has: to advance a militant theocratic agenda.

A decade ago, Peroutka already had a record of supporting the formation of local militias when he ran for U.S. president under the Constitution Party banner, with a campaign slogan — “God-Family-Republic” — that dressed up his extremism with rhetoric that run-of-the-mill patriotic Christians might find innocuously attractive. Similarly, the name of Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution (IOTC) fails to communicate its actual mission: creating theocratic governance based on both testaments of the Bible, similar to how extremist Muslims would like to establish states based on sharia law derived from the Quran.

Peroutka has now hit on a more pragmatic approach: run for something winnable, like a local race where the outcome is relatively malleable for someone like Peroutka, whose fundraising capabilities are virtually limitless within the usual legal constraints. He has more than a quarter-million dollars in his campaign chest as of late June, and surely much more has come in since. Top supporters include Roy Moore, the Bible-thumping chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court who believes the separation of church and state is an attack on Christianity and to whom Peroutka has dedicated a field and monument at his 40-acre Prince George’s County property called Gladway Farm; prominent Christian evangelical lawyers William Olson and Herbert Titus, a former Constitution Party vice-presidential candidate; and ex-con Franklin Sanders, a Tennessee metals-trader with secessionist sympathies.

Peroutka’s campaign treasurer is Tom Pavlinic, a sex-crimes defense attorney who specializes in defending clients accused by very young victims. Pavlinic was Peroutka’s attorney when he unsuccessfully sued a social worker who had helped Peroutka’s step-daughters when Peroutka and his then-wife, Diane Peroutka, despite his strongly voiced belief that the state should not be in the parenting business, had placed them in the care of the government’s foster-care system after one of them had accused Peroutka of sexual abuse and then recanted.

Though the Fifth District is a pretty solid GOP stronghold, most of its voters recently came out in support of something that Peroutka is stridently against: same-sex marriage. When the Maryland General Assembly in 2012 passed the law extending the right to marry to same-sex couples, Peroutka reacted by stating that “no earthly government body can redefine marriage any more than it can redefine the law of gravity” and that therefore “there is no reason to consider this a valid legislature or this a legitimate governor. Other than fear, I can think of no reason to further obey their dictates.” Yet when the law went up for referendum that fall, nearly 55 percent of the Fifth District’s voters supported it. Only in four of the district’s 34 precincts, clustered in its far northern reaches near where Peroutka lives in Millersville, did majorities oppose same-sex marriage.

Even if he loses the council race to Democratic contender Patrick Armstrong, Peroutka still won an elected position in the June 24 primary election: he’s now a member of the Republican State Central Committee in his district, making him a leader of the local GOP faithful — whether they like it or not.

And clearly, some of the drivers of mainstream GOP thinking find Peroutka to be a philosophical pariah. In February, when Peroutka’s name was being bandied about as a possible GOP candidate for Maryland attorney general, Mark Newgent penned a blog at Red Maryland pointing out that Peroutka is an avowed Christian Reconstructionist. This God’s-law-reigns-supreme approach was birthed by Rousas Rushdoony, and Newgent summed up its goal: “a civil government whose first duty is to carry out a religious mandate to do what God requires as written in the Old Testament, including executions for adulterers and homosexuals.”

Cato Institute senior fellow Walter Olson has called Peroutka a “wackypants anti-gay crusader,” and on his Free State Notes blog in June he wrote that Peroutka’s IOTC “promotes a deeply erroneous view of the U.S. Constitution as an essentially religious document.” And in pointing out that the man is stridently anti-Republican, Olson quoted a Peroutka screed from last fall imploring “anyone, including those who identify with the ‘Tea Party,’ who loves America and desires real reform” to “disengage themselves from the Republican Party and their brand of worthless, Godless, unprincipled conservatism.”

In 2012, Peroutka, a prodigious donor to deeply conservative causes, gave $10,000 to the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which was working to defeat marriage-equality referendum question that ultimately passed muster with the voters. The donation drew the attention of the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-marriage-equality group, which promptly broadcast Peroutka’s strong ties to the League of the South, a Southern secessionist outfit that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a racist hate group. Today, Peroutka’s ties to the League have become a serious concern for Maryland GOP leaders, including gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, who disavowed Peroutka after the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, played up Peroutka’s extremism.

On July 30, Peroutka held a press conference at a Glen Burnie hotel to try to manage the fallout. He was flanked by two African-American men who support him and his candidacy: Republican state-senate candidate Eric Knowles (who lost in the primary, and has previously run as the Constitution Party’s candidate for governor) and Robert Broadus, who ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in 2012. Peroutka refused to back down from his support for the League, which he called a “Christian, free-market group,” and, in response to a question, said he’d made no mistake when he sang “I Wish I Was In Dixie” and called it “the national anthem” at a League event in 2012, a YouTube video of which has drawn attention since his primary win. Peroutka sought to cast doubt on the SPLC, referring to “the dangers” of its endeavors, in which he said it engages in “smearing together obvious hatred, such as Neo Nazis or the Klan, with groups,” like the League, “where the SPLC simply doesn’t like their politics.”

Peroutka’s effort to separate the League from neo-Nazis is a blurry endeavor itself, though. As the Huffington Post’s coverage of Peroutka’s press conference pointed out, the YouTube video of Peroutka singing “Dixie” in 2012 “was shot by Michael Cushman, a former member of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, who now leads the League’s South Carolina chapter.”

Newgent, meanwhile, saw all this coming when Peroutka was being discussed as a candidate for attorney general. “Imagine the field day the media, not to mention Democrats, would have” with a Peroutka GOP candidacy, he wrote, adding that it would be an “embarrassment and drag on other candidates.”

Some of the most intelligent analysis of Peroutka, though, is coming from the left.

On Huffington Post, Jonathan Hutson has chronicled Peroutka’s ongoing alliance with the League of the South, and quotes its president, Michael Hill, promoting guerrilla warfare and the deployment of “death squads” to obtain the League’s goals. “The primary targets will not be enemy soldiers,” Hill wrote on July 15. “Instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite without whom the engines of tyranny don’t run.”

Political Research Associates‘ Frederick Clarkson, meanwhile, writes that Peroutka’s run, as well as that of the GOP candidate for Anne Arundel County Sheriff, Peroutka and League of the South ally Joseph “Joe” Delimater III, “may signal a small, but significant, national trend in applied theocratic theory.”

Peroutka and his followers and allies “believe that holding local office empowers them to defy state and federal law under the rubric of an ancient concept called The Doctrine of the Lower Civil Magistrate,” Clarkson continues. He explains that this doctrine “has been adopted by conservative Christian leaders who are opposed to religious pluralism and separation of church and state, as well as such matters as abortion, LGBTQ rights, taxes, public education and gun control laws,” saying it empowers them “to overthrow ‘tyrannical government.'”

In an earlier post in June, Clarkson recalls an interview he had with Peroutka donor Titus in 1996, when Titus was running for vice president. Titus “told me at a press conference that lower-level government officials (called ‘lesser magistrates’ in the archaic language of the ideas on which his views are based), may refuse to enforce ungodly laws and policies of the government, and rise up against a government that has become corrupt or tyrannical.”

Given Peroutka’s attraction to militias and overthrowing the government, the highly educated voters of Anne Arundel County’s Fifth District could be forgiven if they worry that his candidacy presents a potential threat to civil society. If they happen to fall into debt that Peroutka’s firm tries to collect, though, they might also worry about his tactics.

Consider the case of Antonietta Serruto, who, after gaining bankruptcy protection in 2012, was still illegally targeted for collection by Peroutka’s firm, which took court action against her in 2013, despite her alerting the firm that the debt they sought to collect had been discharged. She ended up suing the firm (and quickly winning a $20,000 settlement, plus costs, expenses, and attorneys fees), after a processor server showed up at her home, where she lives alone, on Thanksgiving night last fall to pound on her door and demand she “open up,” according to her lawsuit. Serruto “was terrified by the pounding and the demands of the unknown male at her door,” the lawsuit states.

As Peroutka’s county-council campaign continues, gaining the attention it deserves, at least the district’s voters won’t be casting votes for or against an unknown male anymore. He is what he is: an extremist dressed up for mainstream appeal.

A short, link-littered history of City Paper’s Black Guerrilla Family coverage

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper in April, 2013

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The Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), though long known to be active in Maryland’s prisons and Baltimore’s streets, has suddenly become hot news, with the April 23 announcement of a federal indictment against 25 alleged members, including 13 Maryland correctional officers (COs). But the BGF had already burnished its image in the public’s mind in April 2009, when federal prosecutors announced two indictments against alleged BGF members, including correctional officers.

City Paper jumped on the story, covering the press conference announcing the indictments and the BGF’s ties to a Baltimore bar called Club 410. From that point on, the stories kept rolling – starting with the unnerving news that the BGF had offered $10,000 to anyone who killed people involved in helping to build the case. A series of profiles, dubbed “Family Portraits,” was assembled, spotlighting co-defendants Nelson Arthur Robinson, Rainbow Lee Williams, Randolph Edison, Eric Marcell Brown, Deitra Davenport, Calvin Renard Robinson, and The Black Book (pictured), the BGF’s 122-page self-improvement guide that was subtitled “Empowering Black Families and Communities.” A lengthy feature provided a birds-eye view of the case.

By the fall of 2009, the first guilty pleas were entered, including by two COs, and a few defendants were sentenced, including Marlow Bates, the son of a famous Baltimore gangster. Meanwhile, City Paper discovered an inmate’s federal lawsuit that had unearthed a trove of evidence that Maryland’s prison administrators had turned a blind eye to the long-known problem of gang-tied COs, including the lawsuit’s defendant, Antonia Allison, who the inmate accused of facilitating his brutal beating by a group of gang-members. (Allison is now one of the 13 recently-indicted COs.)

Driving home that the issue was an ongoing problem, a state criminal case was brought against another CO, Lynae Chapman, accused of delivering a cellphone to her unborn child’s father, a BGF member who was in a Baltimore jail awaiting trial on murder charges. Chapman’s case was intriguing, in part because she initially was denied the opportunity to enter a guilty plea. Then, in March 2010, another CO was charged for bringing pot and cellphones into the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Almost exactly a year after the 2009 BGF indictments, prosecutors took another whack at the gang, and this time the focus was on its infiltration of an anti-gang non-profit group. One of the more fascinating defendants was Kimberly McIntosh, a health-care worker with no criminal record who was accused of being at the “epicenter” of the gang’s street-level operations.

Shortly after the 2010 indictment was filed, City Paper ran a lengthy feature examining the issue of corrupt COs, and how the Maryland General Assembly had just passed reforms that would make it harder to discipline them. After the article ran, concerns were elevated as another CO, Alicia Simmons, was charged in the federal BGF probe, when the 2009 and 2010 indictments were rolled into one, big racketeering case, and another inmate gained traction with another federal lawsuit alleging a gang-tied CO facilitated his prison beating.

Finally, in 2012, after covering the courthouse fates of some of the BGF defendants here and there, City Paper ran a lengthy feature about the BGF probe’s impact – which, given recent developments, would seem to have been lacking. Maybe this next round, as it unfolds, will have more lasting repercussions.

The Black Guerrilla Family’s Maryland Chapter Is All About ‘Ben’

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Dec. 9. 2014

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Back in 2011, two years before Tavon White and 43 others were indicted in Maryland for running a Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) gang conspiracy in Baltimore’s jails, someone going by the moniker “fire water air” posted a comment on the forum of assatashakur.org, the website of American cop-killer fugitive Assata Shakur. What “fire water air” wrote cut to the core of a central dilemma for the BGF: How can it pursue what it calls “cambone,” a concept that promotes community dignity in a racist society, while actively carrying out what it calls “ben,” the tactics, often criminal, for financially supporting the pursuit of that dignity?

The BGF’s dual roles of cambone and ben were explained in the “Black Book,” a revolutionary self-help guide collectively written by BGF inmates in Baltimore and published by Eric Marcell Brown, the Maryland BGF leader who was convicted in 2011 in a prior racketeering prosecution. In Brown’s case, cambone was a strong factor, as he sought legitimacy while an inmate nearing his release date by appearing to work for good, offering the BGF’s black-separatist ideology as an antidote to the pathology of criminal lifestyles. The fact of the matter, though, as Brown’s case proved, is that ben reigned supreme, and “fire water air” seemed to understand and worry about this in 2011.

“Well the bgf here in baltimore run every aspect of the streets and hold major weight in the prison system,” the post stated, adding that “cambone holds no weight here” and “its run under the b.e.n.” It called the BGF “all love,” but said “the machine is down,” possibly referring to Brown’s take-down, and rued the fact that there are “no more old heads to lead” the “young comrades,” so “it looks like a gang now” and “im very sad about that shit.” The government, meanwhile, “know everything now after they took away our fathers,” it continued, and “i guess everybody want to be a g instead of pushing the revolution,” so “comrades like me are lost now.”

“BROTHERS KILLING AND ROBING BROTHERS EVERYWHERE,” the post concluded, switching to capitalization for emphasis, adding that “THE CODE OF CONDUCT HOLDS NO MORE POWER” and “ITS ALL ABOUT WHO GOT MORE STREET CREDIT AND RANK IN PRISON AND THAT ONE PERSON WILL BE LOOKED AT AS THE BIG GUY FOR THAT REGION OF BALTIMORE.”

It would be interesting to know what “fire water air” thinks about the White case, now being tried before a jury in Baltimore’s federal courthouse, with White himself as the state’s star witness. What White has described from the stand—that, even though he wasn’t a “bushman,” or high-ranking BGF member, he was able to take command of the jail because the BGF hierarchy on the streets believed in his ability to run the jail’s lucrative contraband economy, using correctional officers to smuggle prohibited goods such as pot, painkillers, tobacco, and phones to sell inside at exorbitant, sometimes fraudulent mark-ups in order to make boatloads of money for himself and the BGF, even as he had to deal with rival Joseph “Monster” Young, a bushman who wanted to unseat White—is pure ben.

If White has testified about anything having to do with cambone, it was a reference from the stand to a man named Cleo “Gutter” Blue, who he described as the BGF’s “minister of education” inside the jail. Blue, White explained, would “teach and educate the members” by giving them “quizzes dealing with the literature,” such BGF documents as the “33 constitutions,” the “22 laws,” the “eight morals,” the “11 characteristics,” and the “10 components” of “J,” which is short for “jamaa,” the Swahili word for “family.” According to the Black Book, “jamaa” is “an organization geared towards revitalizing our people and our hoods.” The BGF uses Swahili words, White explained, because “it’s supposed to be the original language of the black man.”

On the ben side of the equation, meanwhile, White testified that a man named “Michael Grey” is the BGF’s “head of street ops.” A BGF member of the same name was described in court documents in Brown’s case, surrounding events in 2010 that are decidedly ben. Grey was suspected of murdering Asia Carter, who was believed to have helped rob the drug operation Grey then ran with David “Oakie” Rich, who, while an inmate awaiting trial on federal armed drug-trafficking charges, also earned a mention in other BGF-related court documents. But Grey, in conversations caught on Drug Enforcement Administration wiretaps, sought to dissuade the notion that he was responsible for the demise of Carter, who was found on 25th Street in Charles Village, slumped over the wheel of his crashed car with several gunshot wounds.

As “fire water air” suggested, the BGF’s cambone-versus-ben dilemma appears to have been solved in Baltimore, and ben won. Thanks to that victory, the BGF continues to find itself among law enforcers’ highest priorities here.

The High Life: Ex-Con Has High-Powered Help in Opening Nightclub

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 3, 1996

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Kenneth Antonio Jackson, Jr., aka “Kenny Bird,” is out to become a leader in minority enterprise in the downtown entertainment market. By opening a big new nightclub, he and his supporters – including state Senator Larry Young and City Council President Lawrence Bell – hope to make “the region’s neighborhood” more inviting to the city’s prominent black middle class.

On December 22, Jackson’s lawyer, former Circuit Court judge and city solicitor George Russell of the law firm Piper and Marbury, received word that the liquor board had approved a liquor license and floor plans for the Sons of Italy building at 410 West Fayette Street, where Jackson has started renovations to open a jazz club/restaurant called the Royal Café. Jackson envisions the club as an upscale venue for national acts such as Lou Rawls and Aretha Franklin, which will attract middle-class and wealthy blacks over 30 years old.

Jackson’s initial plan for the large three-story building was to house a high-end/multistage strip club. Land records show KAJ Enterprises, a company owned by Jackson’s mother, Rosalie Jackson, purchased the building in April 1995 for $250,000 from the Sons of Italy, a fraternal order. (Jackson manages his mother’s strip club, the Eldorado Lounge, at 322 West Baltimore Street.) But when word of his plan circulated among the neighborhood’s main institutions – Lexington Market, the University of Maryland, and the Downtown Partnership – the resulting outcry led him to change his proposal to something more palatable: a reputable jazz and supper club. At a September 28th liquor-board hearing about the proposal, Russell explained that “at first [Jackson] was thinking about adult entertainment; that is gone. … This is going to be legitimate. … Even I would go there.”

The focus of the hearing was concerns that the Royal Café will exacerbate existing security problems in the neighborhood, which on weekend nights already attracts as many as 2,000 rowdy young adults cruising the streets until the wee hours. Shootings, stabbings, and many arrests have occurred in the area over the past year or so. But Russell suggested that the resistance to this new club is really due to the fact that the owners and operators are black. “It is time for people … downtown to be willing to embrace others different from them, others whose culture may be different from them, to demonstrate to the community that we can get along here.”

Young also testified on Jackson’s behalf at the hearing, saying that the venture is a positive example of minority entrepreneurship. “When it comes to downtown business,” Young declared, “blacks to not have a fair share. And I’m here to say that minorities who come up with the right qualifications, follow the laws, and [do] all that they should do should be given the opportunity to participate. And this is an entrepreneur that I strongly support.”

Unaddressed at the hearing, though, were the issues of Jackson’s criminal past and the financing of his new venture.

Jackson’s rap sheet extends back to 1974, when at age 16 he was charged with murder and acquitted by a jury. In 1977 he was again charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a 10-year suspended sentence with five years’ probation. From then until the end of 1984, Jackson faced 47 other criminal charges in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, New York, and Falls Church, Virginia, involving narcotics, handguns, murder, theft, bribery, and harboring a fugitive. These included charges stemming from allegations that Jackson was involved in a drug war for control of the Lafayette Courts public-housing project, but those charges were dismissed in 1982, according to a 1989 Sun article.

Federal-court affidavits in 1985 named Jackson as a lieutenant in the drug ring headed by Melvin D. “Little Melvin” Williams, who was sentenced that year to 34 years in prison. Also in 1985, Jackson pleaded guilty to narcotics and handgun-possession charges and accepted a five-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation. When he violated probation by leaving the state without permission – he and two companions were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike with $91,000 and a large amount of lidocaine, which is used to dilute cocaine, in their car – Circuit Court Judge Elsbethe Bothe gave him two years’ incarceration. Jackson appealed the case in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which overturned the probation-violation conviction in September 1988.

In June 1988, Jackson was again pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike, this time with nearly $700,000 in cash in the trunk of his car. He was charged with attempting to bribe his arresting officer with $200,000 and received probation before judgement. In April 1989, Jackson and two other Baltimore men were arrested by federal agents and charged with the 1984 murder in New York of cocaine wholesaler Felix Gonzalez. At the time of his arrest, federal agents also raided the Eldorado Lounge. He was acquitted of the murder charge by a New York State Supreme Court jury in May 1991.

Since returning the Baltimore after his acquittal in New York, Jackson has avoided new charges while making friends in high places. In last year’s elections, for instance, the Eldorado Lounge or Jackson himself gave $1,000 to the Schmoke re-election campaign and $3,500 to Bell’s successful bid for City Council president. When Jackson was seeking liquor-board approval for his new club, Bell submitted a letter to the board expressing his familiarity with Jackson and his support for Jackson’s venture. Both Young and Bell say they did not know of Jackson’s criminal past until asked about it by a reporter.

George Russell would not comment for this article, but Jackson says of his criminal history, “I’m trying hard to put my past in the past.” As indication of his efforts to do so, Jackson points out several public-service awards he has received in recent years, including a 1994 Mayor’s Citation from Kurt Schmoke and a 1990 Congressional Achievement Award from Kweisi Mfume. He is active in the newly formed political-action committee, A Piece of JUICE, which works to get African American men involved in the political process.

Shortly before the April 1995 purchase of the Sons of Italy building, however, Jackson and the building both figured in an undercover FBI investigation into the drug-money-laundering operations of businessman Gregory Scroggins and attorney Zell Margolis, who were convicted in December 1995. First assistant United States attorney Gary Jordan, who prosecuted the case, says that in March 1995, Scroggins introduced Jackson to Edward Dickson, a man he though was a drug dealer but was actually an undercover FBI agent. The purpose was to convince Jackson to let Dickson in on the purchase as a “silent partner,” Jordan says. FBI transcripts of wiretapped conversations in the case document Scroggins’ opinion of Jackson, a childhood friend, as very wealthy, highly intelligent, and “the nicest guy in the world, but he’s a killer and he has killed.”

As for the nightclub’s financing, land records indicate that KAJ Enterprises obtained a $200,000 mortgage from Maryland Permanent Bank and Trust of Owings Mills to finance the $250,000 purchase of the Sons of Italy building. The mortgage calls for monthly payments of more than $2,300.

Meanwhile, court records indicate that Jackson’s employment at the Eldorado Lounge paid $325 a week in 1988, although he says he now makes substantially more than that. Since Jackson is a convicted felon, he cannot apply for a liquor license; Mary Collins, who refused interview requests, applied instead. She is a guidance counselor for Baltimore City Public Schools.

Regarding the financing for the new club, Jackson explains that all expenses not covered by the $200,000 mortgage so far have been covered by revenue from the Eldorado Lounge. The extensive renovations to the Sons of Italy building ultimately will require a sizable bank loan, he says, adding that the Eldorado Lounge has applied for a $500,000 loan from Nationsbank.

Asked why the liquor board did not inquire during the September 28th hearing about the club’s financing or whether Collins has the money to fund such a major investment, liquor-board executive secretary Aaron Stansbury explained that the board simply chose not to. He also stated that it is “obviously illegal” for a straw person to hold a liquor license on behalf of the actual owner of the club, but his understanding is that Collins is the club owner, while KAJ Enterprises is merely the landlord; Stansbury says that it is legal for a landlord to fund the building renovations on the club’s behalf. “It is presumed by the board that [the money for the club] comes from Mary Collins,” Stansbury said. Of Jackson’s criminal background, Stansbury said the board was not aware of it “to the extent that [Jackson] couldn’t manage the club.”

Wonder Woman: The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 17, 2002

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On Feb. 1, 1951, Henrietta Lacks–mother of five, native of rural southern Virginia, resident of the Turner Station neighborhood in Dundalk–went to Johns Hopkins Hospital with a worrisome symptom: spotting on her underwear. She was quickly diagnosed with cervical cancer. Eight months later, despite surgery and radiation treatment, the Sparrows Point shipyard worker’s wife died at age 31 as she lay in the hospital’s segregated ward for blacks.

Not all of Henrietta Lacks died that October morning, though. She unwittingly left behind a piece of herself that still lives today.

While she was in Hopkins’ care, researchers took a fragment of Lacks’ tumor and sliced it into little cubes, which they bathed in nutrients and placed in an incubator. The cells, dubbed “HeLa” for Henrietta Lacks, multiplied as no other cells outside the human body had before, doubling their numbers daily. Their dogged growth spawned a breakthrough in cell research; never before could investigators reliably experiment on such cell cultures because they would weaken and die before meaningful results could be obtained. On the day of Henrietta’s death, the head of Hopkins’ tissue-culture research lab, Dr. George Gey, went before TV cameras, held up a tube of HeLa cells, and announced that a new age of medical research had begun–one that, someday, could produce a cure for cancer.

When he discovered HeLa could survive even shipping via U.S. mail, Gey sent his prize culture to colleagues around the country. They allowed HeLa to grow a little, and then sent some to their colleagues. Demand quickly rose, so the cells were put into mass production and traveled around the globe–even into space, on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity.

In the half-century since Henrietta Lacks’ death, her tumor cells–whose combined mass is probably much larger than Lacks was when she was alive–have continually been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits. Dr. Jonas Salk used HeLa to help develop his polio vaccine in the early ’50s. The cells are so hardy that they took over other tissue cultures, researchers discovered in the 1970s, leading to reforms in how such cultures are handled. In the biomedical world, HeLa cells are as famous as lab rats and petri dishes.

Yet Henrietta Lacks herself remains shrouded in obscurity. Gey, of course, knew HeLa’s origins, but he believed confidentiality was paramount–so for years, Henrietta’s family didn’t know her cells still lived, much less how important they had become. After Gey died in 1970, the secret came out. But it was not until 1975, when a scientifically savvy fellow dinner-party guest asked family members if they were related to the mother of the HeLa cell, that Lacks’ descendants came to understand her critical role in medical research.

The concept was mind-blowing–in a sense, it seemed to Lacks’ family, she was being kept alive in the service of science. “It just kills me,” says Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks-Pullum, now 52 and still living in Baltimore, “to know my mother’s cells are all over the world.”

In the 27 years since the Lacks family serendipitously learned of Henrietta’s unwitting contribution, little has been done to honor her. “Henrietta Lacks Day” is celebrated in Turner Station each year on Feb. 1. In 1996, prompted by Atlanta’s Morehouse College, that city’s mayor proclaimed Oct. 11 Henrietta Lacks Day. The following year, Congress passed a resolution in her memory sponsored by Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.), whose 2nd District includes Turner Station, and the British Broadcasting Corp. produced a documentary on her remarkable story. Beyond that, however, virtually nothing has been done to celebrate Lacks’ contribution–not even by Hopkins, which gained immeasurable prestige from Gey’s work with her cells.

Lacks-Pullum is bitter about this. “We never knew they took her cells, and people done got filthy rich [from HeLa-based research], but we don’t get a dime,” she says. The family can’t afford a reputable lawyer to press its case for some financial stake in the work. She says she has appealed to Hopkins for help, and “all they do is pat me on my shoulder and put me out the door.”

Hopkins spokesperson Gary Stephenson is quick to point out that Hopkins never sold HeLa, so it didn’t make money from Henrietta’s contribution. Still, he says, “there are people here who would like something done, and I’m hoping that at some point something will be done in a formal way to note her very, very important contribution.”

Lacks-Pullum shares those hopes, but she is pessimistic. “Hopkins,” she says, “they don’t care.”

Lost in the acrimony over ethical and financial issues stemming from Henrietta Lacks’ cells, though, is Henrietta Lacks herself. A descendant of slaves and slaveholders, she grew up farming the same land on which her forebears toiled–and that her relatives still farm today. As part of an aspiring black middle class with rural roots, she left her childhood home to join a migration to Baltimore, where Bethlehem Steel was eager to hire hard workers from the country. She was in the midst of realizing an American dream when her life was cut short. And her cells helped realize society’s larger dreams for health and knowledge. As such, she’s been called a hero, a martyr, even a saint. But during her life, as Ehrlich said to his colleagues in Congress, Henrietta Lacks “was known as pleasant and smiling, and always willing the lend a helping hand.” That she did, in more ways than she ever knew.

 

Trying to find Henrietta Lacks’ grave is a lesson in irony. She is now a world-famous woman, yet her body rests in an unmarked plot in a family burial ground next to her childhood house, now long abandoned and close to falling down. No one, not even her relatives, knows precisely which grave plot is hers.

The search starts in Clover, Va., where Henrietta grew up farming tobacco on her family’s land. It’s a small town of about 200 people in a region southwest of Richmond known as Southside. The first stop–Clover Cemetery, on the outskirts of town–is fruitless; plenty of Lackses but no Henrietta. A quick visit to the post office yields a clue, offered with matter-of-fact bluntness by a man at the copy machine.

“What did you say her name was? Henrietta Lacks? Was she black or white?”

Hearing the answer, he continues: “The cemeteries you can see from the road, they’re mostly for whites. You got to go back off the road to get to the black cemetery. So go back up that road and make a right on Lacks Town Road. A lot of blacks live up there. You can’t see the cemetery from the road, so you’ll have to ask people. But someone up there should be able to help you.”

Lacks Town is not really a town but a tiny community of relatives living along a one-mile dead-end road. Trailers, shacks, old log homes, and a ranch house or two are surrounded by small plots of farmland, barns, and machinery, with woods filling in the gaps. It’s part of Clover, but Lacks Town clearly has a distinct identity. “They stick together down there,” a local woman from the other side of Clover explains later.

In short order, someone helps me out: Otis Ferrell Jr., a young man, probably in his 30s, who immediately recognizes the proffered name.

“Oh, the lady with the cancer cells,” he exclaims. “Yeah, she’s buried up there.” Ferrell points to the top of a hill in a tree-cluttered cow pasture, gesturing toward two downed trees, clearly visible from the road, giant gray hulks lying on their sides next to a large rusty-roofed abandoned building.

“That’s where they whupped the slaves,” he says candidly (though falsely, his elders later explain). “And one day the trees just came down. The cemetery is just past them and that old house. Yeah, she’s up there, but the grave’s unmarked. Uncle Clifton knows which one it is.”

Clifton Garrett is Henrietta Lacks’ cousin, now in his 80s. He lives nearby, about a quarter mile down from Lacks Town Road, and he’s burning the leaves in his yard while heating up the barbecue grill. “What, you going to build a memorial?” he retorts when asked if he knows which grave is Henrietta’s, in a tone that suggests it’s high time someone did. As smoke and embers billow around, he says he’s not exactly sure which grave is hers. “I know where her mother is buried,” he says. “She must be close by.”

Garrett gives a poignant tour of the land where Henrietta Lacks is buried. The property, he says, belonged to Tommy Lacks, who, along with his two brothers, was a patriarch of Clover’s African-American Lackses. Tommy was Henrietta’s grandfather, and he cared for her and her siblings after their mother died.

“Henrietta was raised up in that house, and her mother was born in it,” Garrett says as he strolls past the dilapidated building. “It’s called the Old Home House. It was built in slave times. Hadn’t nobody lived in this house in many years. Ain’t nobody to take care of it, and it just started falling down. But back then, they kept everything clean. When we was children, we played together here. There was a henhouse, an icehouse, a corn silo, a stable. But now there’s nothing left of anything.”

It’s hard to say how many ancestors are laid to rest in the burial ground; many of the graves are unmarked, and the sites have long been trampled by cows. “They knocked the rocks away when they came in and cleaned up with a bulldozer,” Garrett explains. “This was a big family,” he continues. “Everybody in this cemetery is related one way or another. When they die, they bring them here because this is the family cemetery.”

Henrietta’s mother, Eliza Pleasant, was buried here in 1924 after she died in Roanoke, Va., giving birth to her 10th child. “I remember when they brought her here,” Garrett says. “I was only about 2 or 3 years old, but I remember it. She had a coffin and they opened it, and a little light in the coffin came on. My memory’s good.”

Eliza’s husband, John Randall Pleasant, worked for the railroad in Roanoke, where Henrietta was born in 1920. When Eliza passed away, John moved their children back to the Old Home House to be raised by their grandfather, Tommy. Eliza’s grave has a headstone: eliza, wife of j.r. pleasant. jul 12, 1886.-oct. 28, 1924. gone but not forgotten. Indentations in the earth indicate five other unmarked graves in two rows behind the headstone. One of them is John’s. One of them is Henrietta’s. Neither Garrett nor any other family members I was able to find in Clover or in Baltimore knows which is which.

Clifton Garrett did know Henrietta, though, and remembers her fondly. “She was just an average child. A nice friendly girl and everything. That’s all I can tell you. We would play out in the yard, go to school.” Going to Clover School, which was for black children and offered instruction through seventh grade, meant a two-mile walk, taking shortcuts through fields, forests, and backyards–and right past Clover Elementary School, then white-only. Garrett still remembers the names of his teachers and the school’s principal, and that the principal’s son was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Henrietta helped on the farm until she went up to Baltimore,” Garrett says. That happened in 1943, a short while after her husband moved there for work for Beth Steel. Garrett moved north too, for a job at Beth Steel making nails in the wire mill. “After I got grown, then I went up there. A lot of people from around here did. There were company barracks to stay in, so we used to live in Sparrows Point until we moved to Turner Station. Henrietta’s husband, David, worked on the shipyard. He was a hard worker. And Henrietta, she was a nice lady. Nice as she could be. Very friendly. Very friendly, she was.”

The dredged-up memories lead Garrett to muse aloud, about how some part of his cousin still thrives. “Her cells are still living,” he says, gazing at the ground near her grave. He shakes his head. “She’s dead, but her cells are still living,” he says again, and then is silent.

 

Gary Lacks, Henrietta’s nephew, cares for his elderly mother, Gladys Lacks, in Lacks Town. Like many in Clover, he’s a religious man, which gives him a unique perspective on his aunt’s story.

“I go back to the Book of Genesis when God created man,” he says, his voice quickly rising in a crescendo of fervor. “He created him to live forever, really, but man ate up what God told him he couldn’t eat, and a process of death took over his body. But the possibility was in man that he could live–and if he could live, then his parts could live.” In Gary Lacks’ eyes, his aunt’s immortal cells are realizing God’s original intent for the human race.

Roberta Brooks’ view of Henrietta is more down to earth. “I worked in the field with Henrietta and Tommy and most of the Lacks Town folks when I was young,” recalls Brooks, another relative who lives near Clover. “I used to hang around more at the Old Home House than at my own house. We’d walk six miles to play together. We used to play on the creek, be teenagers together. Singing, playing horseshoes and ball games, shucking corn. There was lots to do. Children today come home and watch TV, but we had everything to do.”

As Brooks’ contemporaries got older, many took jobs in Baltimore. “A bunch of them in Lacks Town were working at Sparrows Point,” she says. “They were good jobs, about the best jobs paying, and they hired you quick there. They’d stay at the barracks, work all week, then return back to Clover for the weekend. And a lot of them stayed–and are living there still.”

Then Brooks touches on a sensitive subject–how Clover’s black Lackses and white Lackses are related. “When you get over in Lacks Town, oh, you don’t know who’s who,” she says. “It’s a big screwed-up thing. All the white Lackses and all the black Lackses, they’re all the same people. We all came up like family together, worked together and everything. And nobody married. Had bunches of children here and there and never married. It’s how it is. It’s a mess. And it’s just so deep, you can’t separate it.”

The family history informs Brooks’ perspective on race relations: “That why I say, we’re all just human beings. Not black, not white. Just human beings. So it’s all about respect. That’s it. Respect.”

Gladys Lacks suffered a stroke last year. Her mind and eyes are as clear as day, but she has difficulty communicating. When it comes to the family’s tangled history, though, her two words speak volumes. “Master Ben,” she says, and leaves it at that.

Records at the Halifax County courthouse offer further explanation. Ben Lacks and Albert Lacks, who were white (and related, although the African-American Lackses no longer recall how), owned the land Henrietta’s family worked and her descendants work still. When her grandfather, Tommy, married in 1903, he listed his parents as “Albert and Maria.” Tommy’s brother, James Lacks, married twice; the first time, he lists “Ben and Maria” as his parents, but the second time his parents are listed as “Albert and Maria.” Both white Lacks willed land to their black children. Albert’s 1888 will gave 10 acres each “from what is known as the Home Tract” to Tommy, James, and their brother Peter; Ben’s will of 1907 gave more land to Tommy and James.

“All of them hooked up together. They’re kin,” says William Morton, Peter Lacks’ grandson. Morton lives near Clover, having moved back after several decades in Baltimore, working at Sparrows Point (“Practically all of these fellows around here worked on the Point,” he says) and later for Morgan State University. Although records do not indicate Peter’s parentage, Morton says his grandfather “got land because he was kin to the owners.” Among Clover’s Lackses, he says, echoing his cousin Roberta Brooks, “that’s just the way it is.”

 

In Deborah Lacks-Pullum’s estimation, her parent’s middle-class aspirations in coming to Baltimore were realized. “We weren’t poor,” she says. “We were living comfortably.”

Henrietta held down the home on New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turner Station while her husband, David, earned decent wages at the shipyard. Folks from Clover, in town to start jobs on the Point, would stay over until they could find their own housing. Before he came to Baltimore, David Lacks “was the hardest working man in Clover, working 15 acres by himself,” Lacks-Pullum says. Once here, he and Henrietta enjoyed a sterling reputation in the community as gracious, generous people.

“The door was always open for new arrivals from Clover,” says Barbara Wyche, a Morgan State lecturer who has dedicated much time and effort to studying Henrietta Lacks. The link to the family’s Virginia roots stayed strong, Wyche says–“Henrietta went home every summer and farmed.” It’s still strong: Deborah Lacks-Pullum frequently visits relatives in Clover.

After Henrietta died, David Lacks raised the children–Lawrence, Elsie (who died at the age of 15, a few years after Henrietta passed away), David Jr., Deborah, and Zakariyya–by himself, just as Henrietta’s grandfather had done after his wife died. They remained a happy family, though they missed their mother.

The news that Henrietta’s cells had been taken and used for research without their knowledge, though, cast a cloud over the family. David Lacks, Henrietta’s husband, doesn’t even like to talk about it. “He’s tired of talking–it’s the same thing, over and over,” she says. By default, Lacks-Pullum has become the family spokesperson when it comes to Henrietta–and she herself is getting weary. “I’m just tired of my family getting walked over,” she says. “It hurts.”

Recognition has been slow in coming, but the future holds some promise. Rebecca Skloot, a Pittsburgh-based science writer, has spent the last three years researching and writing a comprehensive book, HeLa: The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, that’s due to be published by Times Books next year. And Charlene Gilbert, a Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker, is hard at work on a documentary titled Colored Bodies: Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells.

Back in Clover, Gary Lacks is roaming the Old Home House, trying to avoid the holes in the floorboards. He’s explaining how the house and the family burial ground have fallen into disrepair. “There’s no one to keep it up,” he says. “People only think about it when they come up here to bury someone, then they forget about it until the next time. They let the cows come in, and the cows keep it clean, keep the bushes down.”

It wouldn’t take much money to save the Old Home House, he says, and even less to keep up the cemetery, find Henrietta’s grave, give it a headstone. But people don’t have much money in Lacks Town. He hopes that with the attention generated by the book and the film–and with all the millions of dollars at Johns Hopkins’ disposal–resources will become available to give his aunt’s final resting place the honor it deserves. He’s hopeful, but he isn’t holding his breath.

Hung Jury: Circuit Court Expunges Controversial 1992 Grand-Jury Report

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 5, 1996

The report of the May Term 1992 Baltimore City Grand Jury, which called for a state investigation of the city police department and the state’s attorney’s office after alleging “gross misconduct” on the part of members of both agencies, was expunged by order of Circuit Court Judge Edward Angeletti January 18. The order was signed without a hearing because no opposition to the expungement petition was filed with the court. The outcome of the proceeding in January drew little public notice, even from people involved in the jury process.

State Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Stuart Simms, who was the Baltimore City state’s attorney when the grand jury issued its report in March 1993, teamed up with current city State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamyn to enter the expungement petition last November. Angeles, who was assigned the case by Circuit Court Administrative Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, concluded that the grand jury, in violation of its common-law authority, “exceeded its powers” by criticizing the local criminal-justice establishment without handing down indictments.

The 23-member grand jury found that the evidence produced during its six-month investigation (including testimony from 50 law-enforcement officials and prosecutors) “clearly demonstrates a hands-off approach when the targets were certain well-connected members of the community … . There is an organized structured effort of some present and former members of each agency to perpetuate the protection of a select few to further obvious illicit gains.” A follow-up probe by the state prosecutor’s office determined that the allegations were “unsubstantiated.”

The report specifically mentioned Simms in connection with some of its corruption allegations, according to Angeletti’s decision. A sealed version of the report, which was submitted to Kaplan in early 1993, named individuals targeted by the grand jury. The publicly released version, though, was purged of names, including Simms’. Angeletti says the expungement order calls for an effort to recover and destroy copies of the report.

The jury, which was asked by Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson to look into why Baltimore’s  “war on drugs” wasn’t working, unleashed a litany of scathing criticisms in its report. It claimed that the police department’s rotation policy, in which officers are reassigned to other police units, was used to thwart criminal investigations; it noted a pattern of investigations halted by the upper echelons of the police department and the state’s attorney’s office; it alleged there was abuse of the police overtime-pay system and that there were racially discriminatory employment practices; and it claimed the police department mismanaged its criminal investigation division’s drug-enforcment section (CID-DES), which was said to operate “on its own terms with little control or direction.”

Furthermore, the grand-jury report criticized the police department brass for failing to recognize or try to stop the advance of New York drug organizations into Baltimore. And it said “contempt” and “resistance” was displayed by the state’s attorney’s office while the grand-jury investigation was conducted.

The jury made several recommendations based on its findings, including that a special prosecutor investigate the police department and the state’s attorney’s office. The jury asked that a prosecutor look into several particular allegations: selective enforcement and prosecution to protect well-connected people and drug activity in particular geographic areas; abuse and misappropriation of police overtime funds, and discriminatory police employment practices. It also called for an independent audit of the police department’s budget, focusing specifically on the fiscal accounts of CID-DES, and the jury concluded that drug drug-enforcement-section supervisors should be reassigned. Finally, the jury suggested that the police department invest in a computer-networking system and a centralized database.

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli conducted the recommended investigation. In his August 1994 final report, he wrote that “the allegations in the report have been found to be unsubstantiated. We hope that whatever damage has been done to the reputation of innocent persons has been repaired to some extent.”

In his decision, Angeletti argued that, because Montanarelli’s investigation found that the grand jury leveled unsubstantiated accusations without indictments, the officials named in the report had “no procedural safeguards to protect against loss of reputation.” To correct this, Angeletti expunged both versions of the grand jury’s report.

Simms vehemently attacked the grand jury’s work after its report was released in March 1993. He called the report “amateurish” and, in a letter published in The Sun, its process “flawed,” and its judge “misinformed.” The jury’s allegations came just as Simms was said to be on the Clinton Administration’s short list of a high-level position with the U.S. Justice Department, according to press accounts. He didn’t get the job, and nearly two years later he was appointed by Governor Parris Glendening to head the newly renamed Department of Juvenile Justice. Repeated calls from City Paper to Simms for comment on the expungement went unanswered.

Judge Johnson had no comment on the report’s expungement. Robert Massey, the foreperson of the grand jury that released the report, says he didn’t know that expungement proceedings had been initiated, but he’s not surprised the courts are quashing the report. He says he doesn’t understand the point of expungement, though.

“I don’t really see how once something has been released to the public, it can be expunged,” Massey says, pointing out that the jury’s findings were debated in the press for months after the report was issued. He says the report was “all over the place” and “a lot of tangential things” were included in it. “If anything was ever going to happen with it, it would have happened before now,” he concludes.

Montanarelli was not available to comment on the expungement order. Another prosecutor from his office, Jim Cabezas, explains that “commenting about the expungement would violate the spirit of the expungement” order.

City Council member Martin O’Malley (D-Third District), who, as a member of the council’s public-safety committee watched the grand jury’s activities closely, says he believes the report may have implicated some people unfairly but that Judge Johnson’s charge was “courageous” and “raised very relevant issues.”

“When you don’t have prosecution of corruption [in Baltimore] that you do have in other cities on the East Coast,” O’Malley says, “… it make you wonder, especially as the [drug-crime] problem continues to worsen. The problem is that there is a hell of a lot of discretion within the police department and the state’s attorney’s office, so we should be extra vigilant in making sure it isn’t abused.”

Out of Reach: The Black Guerrilla Family Gang Aimed to Show a Way Out of the Criminal Lifestyle – Until Its Criminal Activities Brought It Down

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 15, 2012

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“It’s hard to promote black nationalism when you have a black man in the White House,” Thomas Bailey said on Jan. 6, 2009, weeks before Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American President of the United States. Bailey, a Maryland inmate serving life for murder, couldn’t have known at the time how prophetic his words were, or that they would end up memorialized in court documents.

As Obama was moving into the White House, court documents show that federal investigators with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Maryland—a unit dubbed the Special Investigations Group (DEA-SIG)—were kicking into gear a sprawling probe of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), the black-nationalist prison gang for which Bailey ran “the day-to-day operations” at North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI), a maximum-security prison near Cumberland.

When Bailey uttered those prescient words, he was talking over a prison phone at NBCI with Eric Marcell Brown (“Eric Marcell Brown,” Mobtown beat, May 7, 2009), who was on a cell phone at the Maryland Transition Center (MTC), a correctional facility in Baltimore, where Brown was close to finishing a lengthy prison stint for a 1992 drug-dealing conviction. Brown, DEA-SIG investigators wrote in court documents, was “in command of day-to-day operations” in Maryland for the BGF, a national prison gang founded in California in the 1960s by inmate/radical George Jackson, a Black Panther Party member who espoused the black-nationalist view that African-Americans needed to build separate economic and social structures for themselves.

Numerous conversations between Bailey and Brown were intercepted by DEA-SIG, unbeknownst to them at the time, and they show that the two, and their many BGF comrades, seemed to have a genuine desire to promote a better, less violent, more productive path for ex-cons and street hustlers. They weren’t the first. Jackson’s ideas were wrapped up with the Panthers’, and few would question that at least some of their intentions were good. It was their tactics and internal contradictions—along with the machinations of law enforcers—that quashed their ambitions. The same, it now appears, could be said of the BGF in Maryland.

As the DEA-SIG’s probe began in late 2008, Eric Brown had already established himself as a soon-to-be-released inmate prepped to become a force for economic and social good, both in prisons and on the streets.

Brown and his wife, Deitra Davenport (“Deitra Davenport,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009), had started a nonprofit, Harambee Jamaa Inc., “to improve the lives of our people who are living under sub standard conditions here in Baltimore” and “to educate, invigorate and liberate our people from poverty, crime, and prison,” according to its incorporation papers. They had formed DeeDat Publishing Inc., which had printed and distributed The Black Book: Empowering Black Families and Communities, a “living policy book” intended to serve as “a deterrent to continued criminal behavior and prison recidivism.”

The Black Book condemned drug dealing as “genocide” and “chemical warfare,” and promoted a vision for “Jamaa”—the Swahili word for “family,” which The Black Bookuses to refer to the BGF—to build “legitimate and organized ventures” and to “establish Jamaa in a positive light in the prison system and in the streets.”

The rhetoric was persuasive. The Black Book’s back cover featured glowing blurbs from Andrey Bundley, a Baltimore City Public Schools administrator and two-time mayoral candidate; two Anne Arundel Community College professors; former FBI agents Tyrone Powers and Leslie Parker Blyther; Bridget Alston-Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Partners in Progress, which works with at-risk children in Baltimore City’s public schools; and Michael Curtis Jones, an author and youth counselor based in Washington, D.C.

“Kudos, to Eric Brown (E.B.) for not accepting the unhealthy traditions of street organizations aka gangs,” Bundley’s blurb stated. “He has availed his leadership capacity in Jamaa to guide his comrades toward truth, justice, freedom and equality.” Blyther’s blurb called Brown “an extraordinary human” who “deserves our respect,” and said that “what he has to say” is “life changing!”

But DEA-SIG’s success torpedoed the love-fest. Scores of Bailey’s “comrades”—the term BGF members use to address one another—would plead guilty to a host of federal charges brought in 2009 (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5, 2009) and 2010 (“Round Two,” Mobtown Beat, April 28, 2010), including racketeering, heroin trafficking, extortion, assault, money laundering, and smuggling contraband into prison. Those convicted include inmates (though not Bailey, who, like many of the investigation’s targets, ultimately wasn’t charged), prison personnel, and previously law-abiding citizens.

The presence of prison staff in the scheme prompted City Paper to look at the issue of corrupt correctional officers in Maryland, in connection both with the BGF and other gangs (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12, 2010), but there were other defendants with legitimate-looking careers. Todd Duncan was a gang-interventionist for a government-funded nonprofit (“Inside Out,” Mobtown Beat, April 14, 2010). Rainbow Williams was a youth mentor for Baltimore City Public Schools students (“Rainbow Lee Williams,” Mobtown Beat, May 1, 2009). Kimberly McIntosh was a health care worker (“Health Care Worker Accused,” Mobtown Beat, April 16, 2010). Tomeka Harris was a mortgage broker (“Day of Reckoning,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 22, 2010). And Calvin Robinson was a Baltimore City wastewater worker with a clothing boutique (“Calvin Renard Robinson,” Mobtown Beat, June 10, 2009).

In all, as much as City Paper could determine from federal court records, 40 people were charged in connection with the probe, and at least 28 of them—maybe more; the court docket is vague on the fates of some defendants—have pleaded guilty so far. According to a Jan. 12 press release issued by the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, “all the indicted high ranking members of BGF, and their associates, including four employees of state prisons, have pleaded guilty to charges relating to their BGF activities.”

In reality, the problem for Bailey and the BGF was not “a black man in the White House.” It was their hubris and hypocrisy in promoting themselves as a legitimate alternative to the criminal lifestyle, when, in reality, they were committing crimes like any other prison gang. And they got caught.

Though Brown and his BGF comrades claimed to be engaging potential re-offenders in an effort to set them on a more productive path in life, court documents show they were, in fact, engaged with a who’s-who in Baltimore’s underworld as they carried on like common gangsters.

“You are trying to do good,” explains a BGF member who wasn’t charged as a result of DEA-SIG’s investigation, but who knows many of the now convicted BGF leaders and members well, “but you are doing so much fucked-up shit at the same time.” The member, who asked that his real name not be published (in this article, he’ll be called Sam) so that he could speak freely and stay safe from retribution, identifies what may be the BGF’s central contradiction: “You [can’t] tell people about uplifting your people but you’re one of the biggest drug dealers around. There’s no gray area in the struggle. You’re either in it, or you’re not. You can’t say you’re a revolutionary and you’re in the struggle, but you’re a dope-slinging, gangbanging, shooting motherfucker. That ain’t what the struggle is about.”

 

Because there was no trial in the prosecution of the BGF racketeering probe, the full scope of the evidence that yielded the long cascade of guilty pleas is not publicly available. What is available, though, is abundant. DEA-SIG’s affidavits supporting search warrants and wiretap orders provide hundreds of pages of detailed information about what the investigators were finding. A host of them, attached to a motion filed in the case last year by Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner, show that investigators linked BGF leaders—especially its main heroin trafficker, Kevin Glasscho, who has prior convictions for murder, handgun possession, and drug trafficking—to a roster of suspected and convicted drug traffickers, some of whom have been the focus of City Paper articles in recent years.

Glasscho ended up on DEA-SIG’s radar thanks to a confidential informant, identified in court documents as “CS1” and described as a BGF member incarcerated at NBCI. On March 3, 2009, CS1 told the investigators that Glasscho “is a major Baltimore drug trafficker and a drug-trafficking associate of Melvin Williams, a/k/a ‘Little Melvin,’ a notorious convicted drug dealer from Baltimore who is now back on the streets of Baltimore.”

Williams is a legendary figure in Baltimore, and his alleged ties to Glasscho add perspective to the extent of the BGF’s reach in the city’s streets—as well as its affinity to people who suffer their own contradictions.

Williams had an acting role in the HBO series The Wire, playing a church deacon who tries to draw hustlers out of “the game.” In real life, he served a lengthy federal prison sentence, starting in the 1980s, for bringing heroin to the streets of Baltimore in bulk. He says he put his gangster ways behind him in 1996, when God appeared to him in a vision (“Little Melvin’s Holiday,” The Nose, Jan. 22, 2003). After his release from prison, he became a bail bondsman, and in 2000 was convicted of possessing a firearm, but his 22-year sentence for that crime was reduced in 2003 to time served, courtesy of U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis. In 2005, Williams’ house in Randallstown was raided after investigators intercepted phone conversations he’d had with Antoine K. Rich, a major Baltimore drug trafficker with whom Williams claimed to play high-stakes craps (“Redemption Song and Dance,” Mobtown Beat, March 19, 2008). The raid turned up more than $100,000 in cash, including $90,000 stashed in the ceiling of his basement bathroom. Ultimately, though, Garbis in 2006 ordered the money returned to Williams, calling it “unlawfully seized property.”

Two days before CS1 described Glasscho’s alleged relationship with Little Melvin Williams, investigators intercepted a phone conversation between Eric Brown and Glasscho. According to the affidavits, the two discussed the then recent murder of Frederick Jeffrey Archer, a 68-year-old who had been stabbed and bludgeoned with a brick inside a Harlem Park apartment complex for senior citizens. They referred to Archer as “Archie,” and talked about how “Melvin”—a reference to Williams, according to DEA-SIG—was upset about the murder, because Archer had been a “close associate” of his. They agreed that Glasscho, who was already investigating the murder, would handle the punishment. In another call later the same day, Brown told Davenport that “when they find out who did it, I know they going to torture his ass. That whole West Baltimore love old man Archie, boy.”

(Baltimore police say the murder of Archer, who in 2002 was charged in a cocaine and heroin conspiracy and received a three-year federal prison sentence, remains unsolved.)

During their conversation, according to the affidavit, Glasscho also told Brown that “Melvin want some trees. I got to get him some damn trees.”

“Some what?” Brown asked.

“Trees,” Glasscho responded.

“What the hell is that?” Brown asked.

“That weed shit,” Glasscho said.

“Oh, oh, oh, the trees,” Brown said.

The DEA-SIG investigators believed the two were referring to Little Melvin Williams, according to court documents.

When City Paper told Williams over the phone about how he was described in the affidavit, and what Glasscho and Brown had said while DEA-SIG was listening in, he said, “I don’t have a clue who Glasscho is, and you do what you want to do” with the information. Asked if he knew Archer, Williams said, “I don’t know none of these people. Whatever the U.S. attorney wants to do they can go ahead and do. I’m through with this.” After a short pause, he hung up the phone.

 

DEA-SIG’s probe into Glasscho’s criminal activities monitored his phones to develop evidence tying him to 27 people who had figured in DEA investigations in recent years. Investigators came up with this list of people by tracking back which phones his phones had called, and which phones those phones had called, thereby mapping a network of contacts linked to Glasscho.

Perhaps Glasscho was working his network in order to draw them into BGF’s path of greater legitimacy, or perhaps he was leveraging his high-level criminal contacts in order to boost the gang’s standing as a drug-trafficking enterprise. Either way, the picture that emerges from this list is that the BGF was fully embedded with Baltimore’s underworld on the streets.

Some of those named in the affidavit have no record of being charged with crimes, though many have been convicted in federal court. Among the latter are:

• Sherman Kemp, who made an appearance in the famous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD (“Skinny Suge Presents Stop Fucking Snitching Vol. 1,” Film, Jan. 19, 2005). Kemp pleaded guilty in Maryland in 2008 to federal cocaine and firearms charges, receiving 180 months in prison (“Return Flight,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 24, 2008), and in 2010 in Pennsylvania, after a months-long jury trial, he was found guilty for his part in the massive Phillips Cocaine Organization conspiracy, and received a 30-year federal prison sentence.

• David Funderburk, a co-defendant in Frederick Archer’s 2002 coke and heroin case. Funderburk’s bail documents were found in bailbondsman and stevedore Milton Tillman Jr.’s car (“Another Tillman Court Document Comes Available,” The News Hole, Aug. 28, 2008) during the high-profile 2008 federal raids that led to Tillman’s indictment on tax and fraud charges (“Milton Tillman and Son Indicted in Bailbonds Conspiracy,” The News Hole, March 17, 2010), to which he has since pleaded guilty.

• James Henderson, who in 2008 was sentenced to five years in federal prison for his part in a heroin conspiracy centered at Fat Cats Variety (“All the Emperor’s Men,”Mobtown Beat, Aug. 27, 2008) in Southwest Baltimore, a business that was co-owned by one of Tillman Jr.’s bailbonds agents.

• Duane Truesdale, a co-defendant in 1990 with Savino Braxton (“The Wire Meets Baltimore Reality, Redux,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 10, 2009) in the legendary Baltimore heroin conspiracy headed by Linwood Rudolph Williams.

• David Zellars, who last year was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison for his part in a large cocaine conspiracy.

• Richard Cherry, who in 2009 was sentenced to 60 months in federal prison for a cocaine conspiracy.

• Tahlil Yasin, who in 2007 received a 92-month federal prison sentence for a heroin conspiracy.

Among those whom DEA-SIG tied to Glasscho is Noel Liverpool, who, despite having a clean criminal record, is described in the affidavit as “a multi-kilogram cocaine trafficker operating the Baltimore area.” When the Tillman Jr. raids went down in 2008, the feds seized evidence involving Liverpool (“All Around Player,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 8, 2008), whose business ties to Tillman Jr. and his son, Milton Tillman III, (“Creative Licensing,” Mobtown Beat, April 9, 2008) have been reported by City Paper. Another Liverpool associate is Shawn Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 12, 2008), a former federal fugitive now serving time for drug trafficking and money laundering; court documents also link Green to the Phillips Cocaine Organization in Pennsylvania, though he was never charged in that prosecution.

Attempts to reach Liverpool, who was a basketball and football star at Morgan State University in the 1980s, were unsuccessful. His attorney, Jeffrey Chernow, did not return phone calls, as was the case in prior City Paper articles that mentioned Liverpool.

 

Drug dealing, money laundering, violence—this was far from the image Brown was trying to project through The Black Book and Harambee Jamaa. Rather than ushering ex-cons and hustlers to their redemptions, with hopes for productive lives to come, the BGF was organizing and executing crimes, undermining the very communities it was ostensibly trying to build up. What were they thinking?

BGF members are supposed to operate in secrecy, but City Paper was able to get incisive perspective from Sam, a BGF member who wasn’t charged in the investigation. He spoke at length about the gang’s mentality, potential, and shortcomings.

From Sam’s perspective, very few of BGF’s members in Maryland are even faintly aware of the gang’s ideological underpinnings. “Do dudes get involved in it because of the revolutionary aspect and the struggle?” he asks, rhetorically, then answers: “Hell, no. Two-thirds of them never even heard of that shit, nor do they care. Not even a fucking clue. Because if they did, and they had any understanding of it, [the BGF] wouldn’t be where it is now, and never would have went where it went.”

Asked whether the BGF prosecution had any impact, Sam at first says, “None at all. It actually probably made it worse for the simple fact of this: The few people that actually had the ability to steer and think and really, truly put some shit in motion are gone. The only people left keep it on a street level, the motherfuckers who can’t think bigger than this corner or this neighborhood.” Later in the conversation, though, Sam says DEA-SIG’s investigation put a stop to something that could have become truly insidious—a gang masquerading as a do-gooding organization supported by the city’s political class.

“We were getting ready to take it to a whole different level,” he recalls. “We were ready to come on the street and really try and put that Black Book to work and be able to make money and make some changes in the way shit was going.”

The wherewithal to effect change, though, required that some damage be done, Sam says. “You might have one neighborhood selling drugs and the next neighborhood over you have rotating food kitchens,” he says. “The streets would have provided the money. We would have got the city to provide grant money. If it had worked,” Sam speculates, “that shit would have gone in the fucking history books, and Baltimore would have been a city where every fucking mayor and every fucking councilman is corrupt. That’s what that shit would have been. That’s the direction it was going.

“There’s a duality to it, though,” Sam continues. “In [the gang’s] laws, it says you’re not even supposed to use drugs, not just [not] sell them. But here’s the biggest level of hypocrisy—you have so many motherfuckers that are up here [in charge], who violate all that shit, and then you got motherfuckers down here, and I’m trying to discipline you for the same shit these motherfuckers up top are doing? Come on, man. You can’t get more hypocritical than that.”

The BGF’s efforts to become an “organization,” not a gang, were bound to fail, whether or not DEA-SIG dismantled its ambitions, Sam says, because its members never rose above their ingrained street-level mentality.

“Baltimore’s a fucked-up city,” he observes, “and these dudes are a product of the streets, a product of what they know. They always do what they’re comfortable doing. Motherfuckers comfortable with that street shit, so why not join something that’s going to keep you in the street? That’s what it comes down to.” Many ostensible BGF members “ain’t even official,” he says. They might think they’ve been made members because someone initiated them, but often it’s actually a farce. “OK, here’s the oath,” he says, pretending to be a BGF recruiter. “You got it. It’s yours. You’re a comrade. Alright, go shoot him. You’re a comrade, you gotta do what I tell you to.

“The real struggle,” Sam continues, “is about overcoming the condition, the situation, learning from it, and bettering that situation—whether it be yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your whole community and all that shit. And it’s a fucking shame that the blueprint is there—George [Jackson] and them laid that shit out in the ’60s. But [many BGF members in Baltimore] are a product of what George tried to fight against—you become an actual enemy of your own fucking people.

“Do people have to die in a revolution? Sure, absolutely, but they die for a cause, not because he owed me $100 or he called my girl a bitch. There’s got to be a purpose to it. A revolution is a full and complete change. It’s a turnaround. None of these motherfuckers are doing that shit. You come from [prison], being a part of classes and learning [about Jamaa], and now all of the sudden you’re out and you’re running a regime uptown and you guys have the highest crime rate in the fucking city. How the fuck are you in the struggle?

“They don’t know the difference between the animal ‘gorilla’ and the revolutionary freedom-fighter ‘guerrilla,’” Sam says. “They get tattoos of gorillas on them—that’s how fucking stupid they are.”

 

Though Eric Brown and the BGF’s positive spin may have been utterly discredited by the DEA-SIG probe, at least one man—Tyrone Powers, the ex-FBI agent who endorsed The Black Book—doesn’t blame the message. “I still believe that much of The Black Book can provide positives,” he writes in an e-mail. “Endorsing the book does not endorse the criminal behavior of Eric Brown.”

To drive home his point, Powers draws an analogy to this country’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Endorsing the messages of those documents, he says, does not endorse “the criminal and genocidal racist actions of those that owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson and others who were involved in authoring these historic documents that called for justice.” He points out that Jefferson wrote that African-Americans “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” yet “Jefferson has a monument in Washington, D.C., and not one president has denounced him—not even our current black president.

“I do suggest that that damage done to Blacks and the ‘Black Community’ of that time by Jefferson was more detrimental than what Eric Brown pled guilty to,” Powers writes. “This does not exonerate Eric Brown, but it does say that his written work can have merit even if he lived a contradiction.” Powers explains that he continues to engage gang members in unorthodox ways in order to get them to stop the violence, and Brown facilitated his ability to do that work.

Powers was “able to have access to gang members via Eric Brown,” he writes, and that fact “may still change the deeds of at least one of them, in spite of Eric Brown.”

One in a Million at the Million Man March

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 25, 1995

As a white guy, Im pretty much at the top of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s shit list. The Nation of Islam leader may hurl venom at Jews, Arabs, Catholics, gays, and any other group that his twisted, manipulative take on history and reality tells him to excoriate, but a large supply of his vast reservoir of hate is reserved for Caucasian men.

Knowing exactly where I stand in Farrakhan’s separatist vision – that is, sequestered from my African American friends and neighbors – I decided to attend the Million Man March to get a sense of the future of black-white relations. I do, after all, live happily in an integrated neighborhood of a majority-black city where race is constantly an issue. If my welcome is wearing thin, I’d prefer to find out earlier than later.

Being uninvited and considered part of the problem, I expected hostility. To my pleasant surprise, I was welcomed over the course of the day by hundreds of African American men, who politely acknowledged my presence even as they listened to blame-filled speeches that fingered me, a white male, for much of their plight. I was called “brother,” and clasped hands in an overwhelmingly positive spirit with black men in Farrakhan T-shirts. I quickly realized that, in the atmosphere of the march, race relations were much more complex and promising than the hype had led me to believe.

Race, it seems to me, is not a simple black-and-white issue, though many choose to see it that way. Its nuances are dizzying. As I tried to piece it together, I quickly grew to resent the words of Dan Berger, which I had read on the op-ed pages of The Sun that morning: “If you do not accept the leadership of Minister Farrakhan and Reverend [Benjamin] Chavis, you are not marching in Washington today. If you are, you did.” I now realize that Farrakhan’s leadership is a sideshow to the real strides toward multiethnic health that March participants took with great enthusiasm.

As I wandered the Mall, I listened to speeches and prayers, delivered by Nation of Islam ministers and Christian preachers, that reminded me repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that my European American forefathers were slave traders, or slave owners, and that they conspired – often with ruthless energy over a period of centuries – to enrich themselves at the expense of the inhabitants of much of the African continent. Strong cases were made, even without indulging the minister’s bizarre fantasies, that this white racist legacy against African American males continues in more subtle forms today.

Even without the reminders, I am fully conscious of my forefathers’ sins and those of today’s white-male establishment. And I know that they are not far removed, either in time or space, from my own experience. I will never forget Mining the Museum, an exhibit created by Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society that included a Klansman’s hood found in a Towson attic in the late 1950s and a fugitive slave notice from a farm on Falls Road in Brooklandville (owned today by the same family, the Johnsons, who were listed on the notice) which included a description of how the runaway had been marked for identification purposes by mutilation.

I grew up in that same area, just north of the city. Cold, hard, violent racism is an unavoidable part of my heritage. Occasional conversations with some of my childhood friends never fail to remind me of its living, breathing effect; many of them cultivate a racist mentality even as they say they aren’t racists. They often try to tone it down in my presence, but their educated voices still resonate with destructive words and thoughts. I tolerate their company at these times with grim defiance and open discomfort; nonetheless, they are my friends, and I still like them.

A visit to almost any corner bar in the southern or eastern reaches of this city, where many of the city’s whites reside, is likely to reveal an innate animosity towards African Americans that, in a feat of logical gymnastics, is felt to be justified by the ongoing crisis of black-on-black drug violence. Overlooked is the obvious fact that the government’s drug war targets poor, urban black males even as white suburbanites feed the trade and traffic with little fear of arrest or prosecution. When I pass by a drug corner, the excitement among the black dealers is feverish: a white face means a quick sale without the haggle. Somehow the white role in black-on-black drug violence is lost on most whites.

Many whites in Baltimore, despite living under a legal system that matured to embrace civil rights generations ago, are still in infancy when it comes to race relations. As further evidence, one only needs to remember the Democratic primary for city council president. Joe DiBlasi captured many white voters’ imaginations by overtly seeking to exploit the potential split in the city’s black vote among three African-American candidates. As he sought citywide office, he rarely if ever campaigned in black communities.

Even as the city’s white community complained rightly and bitterly about Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s race-based campaign, hardly a white voice was raised against DiBlasi for the same tactic. To me, this mass hypocrisy is every bit as great as that of Schmoke and his campaign manager, Larry Gibson. It seems to me that the city’s black political leadership and much of its white minority population are on the same racist page: they are just reading different books. Both call for retribution. One side tries to undermine black leadership because those on that side feel ignored; the other proudly proclaims that the shoe is now on the other foot. The situation make productive communication all but impossible.

And the situation with Farrakhan doesn’t help matters. He is a racist, plain and simple, and he is emerging as the dominant voice – if not the acknowledged leader – of African American males. At the march, I witnessed hundreds of thousands raise their fists and make a vow: “We accept Louis Farrakhan as our leader across the world.” Needless to say, that spectacle worries me profoundly.

But I know I can live with the hostility that Farrakhan wants to spread. He’s taken the fore as a highly visible and controversial black leader, so I have little choice but to deal with it. The trick – as in any confrontational situation – is not to take it personally, to deflect any blows, and not to hit back. Most of all, love your brother anyway. Eventually, he backs down, the hatchet is buried, and everyone gets along famously. At last that’s how it is supposed to go.

The hostility-deflection method takes patience and practiced level-headedness, but it works in most situations, as any martial-arts instructor worth his or her salt can tell you. I have gotten rather practiced at it, as I face black-to-white hostility on nearly a daily basis on the streets of Baltimore (constant eye-fucking, the occasional “yo, white bitch,” and periodic attempts to run me down on the street). In fact, I had to deploy it almost immediately upon returning to Baltimore from the march.

As I crossed West Franklin Street heading north on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (of all places), I found myself confronted with a baseball-bat-wielding youth, maybe 10 years old, backed up by four other kids. They came running across MLK from the Lexington Terrace projects, itching to kick my ass.

Unable to avoid them, I stopped my bike, stood up, faced the kid as he prepared to bash me with the bat, and said sternly with my arms crossed, “So you’re going to knock me around, huh?” He balked, smiled sheepishly, and then one of his accomplices shouted, “He’s a cop! Look, he’s packin’ a gun!”

That was their out. As they ran east on Franklin, I shouted after them, “You wouldn’t have pulled that shit if you had gone to the march today!” The last kid looked back and smiled knowingly.

I had disarmed them psychically, and each of us left undamaged and with something positive to think about. It occurred to me the march participants had managed the same thing with me earlier that day: I had gone expecting my presence to cause some level of hostility and confrontation, but I found only peace and brotherhood.

My hope is that Minister Louis Farrakhan, as he makes his rounds as a confrontational black leader, will find the same reception that I found at the march. If his hostility is met with hostility, I’m afraid we’re headed for a highly destructive showdown. If it is deflected with respectful defiance laced with genuine benevolence, maybe there’s hope, and blacks, whites, and everyone else can stop talking about blame and retribution and actually start building a common, mutually beneficial future. To rephrase the popular T-shirt, “It’s a people thing – we got to understand.”