Fine line between firebrand and gadfly

Our view: City councilman must learn to be a little more constructive and a little less outrageous if he truly wants to promote social justice in Baltimore

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis this week called “outrageous” City Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s sharp criticism of his officers, and we are inclined to agree. On a recent Facebook posting concerning a City Paper article reporting on current negotiations between the city and the police union, the councilman described city police who live outside Baltimore as a “siphon” of tax dollars and then suggested officers “beat, abuse, and kill the people who actually live here.”

That’s the kind of hyperbole one finds in abundance in such forums, but it’s beneath the dignity of someone in elected office whose job includes supervising city workers, police officers being part of that mix. It’s certainly true that Baltimore would be better served if a higher percentage of police lived within its borders — not merely because they’d be paying taxes but because they’d be getting to know the community and its residents better — and, yes, there have been examples (too many) of police misconduct, a problem that garnered national attention for victim payouts even before the death of Freddie Gray. But such sweeping and overstated generalizations about what has transpired do not serve Mr. Dorsey’s cause; they simply make him the political equivalent of an Internet troll.

Last year when The Sun endorsed Mr. Dorsey to for the 3rd District City Council seat formerly occupied by Robert W. Curran, we predicted that he would not be the most popular person in City Hall. He is very liberal and quite outspoken. A councilman with such passion for social justice, we observed, could prove an asset in a city on the mend. But perhaps we should have also noted that shouting only goes so far. There’s a time and place for picking up a bullhorn, and there is a time and place for the day-to-day supervision of the people who work for you. We seriously doubt Mr. Dorsey spends each morning hurling insults at employees of Soundscape, the family-owned business of which he is a part.

We would be inclined to let it pass but this isn’t the first time Mr. Dorsey has gone overboard. In February, he used the words “Kevin Plank” and “white supremacy” together on a Facebook posting.

He later clarified his position on these pages, writing that he had “framed in too shorthand a fashion” his concerns about the Under Armour CEO’s meeting with President Donald Trump (“White supremacy cozying up to white supremacy? Shocker,” was perhaps his most offensive observation) and had simply wanted to put in context Baltimore’s long history of segregation and economic inequality to challenge whether a billionaire businessman should get such a substantial tax break for a $5.5 billion redevelopment project at Port Covington.

So what does all this sturm und drang actually accomplish? Well, it doesn’t appear to advance Mr. Dorsey’s cause very much. Port Covington moved forward (with a number of people annoyed with Mr. Dorsey), and, most recently, Commissioner Davis’ negative reaction to the councilman’s comments about officers got him a nice “attaboy” from the police union which posted this tweet: “Thank You Sir for standing behind your officers. Maybe Councilman Dorsey should hit the street [with] our officers & see the work we do.” That last suggestion is not a bad idea, by the way.

Much has been written of late about the coarsening and incivility of the nation’s political dialogue. We share those concerns as well. But there’s also a fundamental difference between the angry cries of protesters (useful) and reasoned debate by those elected to public office (also useful). Mr. Dorsey won’t be effective if he chooses to hyperventilate every hour of every day. It may feel good. He may get quoted by reporters quite a bit. It may even draw him political supporters. But he won’t do much to advance his ideas about social justice. Others will simply see him as a gadfly, an annoyance, a provocateur.

And that would be the real tragedy. Not the potential diminishment of Mr. Dorsey’s political career but perhaps the diminishment of his ideas. We do need more officers living in the city. We need council members who care about police conduct. And we need to think twice about tax breaks for the wealthiest in our community — at least to make sure the juice is worth the squeeze. The councilman might perhaps channel a little less troll and a bit more Mahatma Gandhi who once observed you can shake the world — in a “gentle way.”

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