The ongoing redevelopment project in East Baltimore is many things, and is not many things. The things it is lacking include community participation, transparency, objective government oversight, and consistency in its rhetoric and actions.
No one would deny that this abandoned and disinvested community was in desperate need of rebuilding — that crime and drugs had grown out of proportion, making it unsafe for residents and visitors alike. What was shocking and unacceptable was that the decision to redevelop, the decision to use a biotech park as an economic anchor, and the decision to displace an African-American community with no concrete plan or means to return, should be made by a handful of people — almost all of them white men — in private meetings.
The 10 years following this plan have evolved according to the way it began: inconsistent in words and action, lacking in community participation, and achieving benefits for those with power on the backs of those without. The small number of jobs created for the people of East Baltimore is inconsistent with announcements that the project would result in 8,000 jobs. The tax subsidies and government support of this project confirm that the power of eminent domain — the taking of private land for public benefit — will disproportionately benefit those with power to the detriment of those without. And the lack of homeownership opportunities for low-income residents continues to support the apparent intention of this project since its announcement in 2001: gentrification in the 21st century.
A public protest in March by residents and union members for decent jobs for residents of East Baltimore resulted in four arrests, with charges ranging from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest. But who should be defending their actions, and who should be on trial? Having participated in the rally, I was shocked to see how many police cars were present. When we exited the church where we gathered for blessings and dedication, the police cars were there and followed us along the entire rally path, while we stood in front of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and while we stood in front of the EBDI construction site. I remembered feeling that this show of force by the police was intimidating and harassing. While we rallied outside the Hopkins hospital, we complied with their orders to lower our voices and put away the bullhorn. We moved out of the way of pedestrians and employees and students. And when they told us to disperse, we did. We made our way to the EBDI construction site and did the same. At the construction site, the police were there in full force. Several officers taunted us, telling us that we should be rallying at City Hall instead. They pushed the protesters and invited confrontation.
In response to our claims of police brutality, all the department's spokesman had to say was that "police got a call that demonstrators were blocking construction equipment."
It was clear that the police had been advised by EBDI and partners that there would be a protest demanding decent jobs for the unemployed of East Baltimore. They were prepared to send a clear message that protesting was not acceptable. While we were standing at the construction site, we were told by an officer that "we don't do this in East Baltimore."
He was right. What usually happens is that development in East Baltimore goes according to the wishes of the major developer of the area, Johns Hopkins, and the elected officials who approve its plans for expansion, with no input from local residents and businesses. So a protest demanding a right to jobs and demanding that EBDI, Hopkins, and the Casey Foundation involve the community in decision making and assure benefits to residents through a Community Benefits Agreement is not business-as-usual in East Baltimore. And for this change in behavior, for this challenge to the powers that be, protesters were intimidated and some were arrested. Meanwhile, those who continue to speak eloquent words about jobs for the unemployed and affordable housing remain in private meetings, changing plans according to their whims and approving actions inconsistent with their promises.
I ask again: Who should be on trial this month? The protesters, or the ones who conceived and orchestrated a plan made up of false promises to gain public support?
Dr. Marisela B. Gomez is an author, public health professional and community activist with the Community Housing and Relocation Working Group in East Baltimore. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun