Race clouds debate over downtown crime

Marvin Cheatham makes several points during a news conference in reaction to recent comments by Republican Del. Pat McDonough, who complained of what he termed "black youth mobs" in Baltimore.

The ongoing debate over youth crime in downtown Baltimore has sparked a war of words over race — overshadowing a debate over the police response to disturbances and objections from city politicians who say the issue is vastly overblown.

Since a state delegate introduced the term "black youth mobs" in reference to hundreds of teenagers mobbing downtown on St. Patrick's Day, discussions from living rooms to online forums have been dominated by race. That has left little room for discussion of the real issues, all sides agree.

"We kind of lost focus of what this is all about," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, who nonetheless stood by his comments about black mobs. The delegate said he only wanted to "stimulate a debate" and if others "want to make it a racial controversy, that's fine."

McDonough, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, called on Tuesday for the creation of a Maryland Youth Fund that would solicit donations in exchange for tax breaks, with money given to recreation centers and other programs. He also has urged the governor to send in the state police and declare the Inner Harbor a "no travel zone" until order is restored.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake boosted police patrols downtown for the summer on Friday. Still, mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said City Hall officials are frustrated because no one is talking about historic drops in crime, including a 13 percent decline in violent crime in the district that includes downtown.

O'Doherty dismissed the tax incentive idea while highlighting a long list of initiatives the city has funded, including a youth violence prevention program, even as four recreation centers are to be shuttered by a budget squeeze. He accused McDonough of merely trying to "distract attention from his earlier, racially charged comments."

Activists also have focused on McDonough's comments.

A wide variety of interest groups vowed at a news conference Tuesday to use what they called the delegate's racist rhetoric to refocus the debate and get even more programs for youth. They also said McDonough's call for state police intervention brought back memories of National Guard occupations during the civil rights era.

"Mr. McDonough, You have given us a reason to come together to discuss your bigotry," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, former head of the city's NAACP chapter. "But more important is our children. They have to be our priority."

"We have a critical problem with jobs," Cheatham continued. "We're talking about closing recreation centers. These things are important to us because they affect our youth, and what they do and don't do. Crime and violence in the Inner Harbor and throughout the city is also and issue, and we need to address it."

But, he said, more police downtown shouldn't come at the expense of other neighborhoods. "We're not going to let the mayor off the hook," Cheatham said. "We're challenging everybody."

The broader debate was sparked by the March 17 melee, when youths from the city's east and west sides unexpectedly massed downtown, taking police by surprise. More than a dozen fights broke out as the teens and young adults moved from street to street. After several hours when police reinforcements were recruited from around the city, officers eventually pushed them out of downtown.

McDonough and others weighed in after The Baltimore Sun published outtakes from police dispatch tapes that showed the extent of the incident was greater in scope and violence than authorities had initially described.

Hours after the fights, a drunken tourist was attacked outside the downtown courthouse, robbed, beaten and stripped naked. Instead of rushing to help or calling police, bystanders used cellphones to record the attack, bringing national attention to Baltimore's debate over crime.

Baltimore police have denied suppressing information and have responded by praising officers for successfully "controlling" the crowds. Rawlings-Blake toured downtown on Friday night and introduced a new summer deployment plan that includes an additional 50 officers on foot.

But McDonough remained critical of Rawlings-Blake. "I'm not going to go away," he said. "I'm frustrated when people with real power do nothing. … If Baltimore City does not overcome crime, crime is going to overcome Baltimore City. It's already happening."

In turn, McDonough is facing criticism from his colleagues in Annapolis, who are calling attention to what they characterize as a thin legislative record. Since taking office in 2003, only two bills McDonough has introduced have passed, both dealing with nursing homes.

Over the years McDonough has tried — and failed — to make English the official language of Baltimore County, to require that voters show identification at the polls, to override county bans on Tasers and to prohibit the Maryland Transportation Authority from raising tolls without the General Assembly's consent.

Like most Republicans, he has consistently voted against the state's operating and capital budgets, which contain funding for social programs. He has built his reputation in Annapolis on fiery floor speeches and frequent news conferences. He has spoken forcefully against illegal immigration in the state.

This is McDonough's second stint in the House of Delegates. He was also a delegate from 1979 to 1983, and once represented a city district in the legislature. He was born in Baltimore and works as a radio show host.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore City Democrat, said McDonough's record in Annapolis gives him no right to criticize city problems. She noted he recently opposed tax increases that Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, championed to pay for law enforcement and other programs, which were facing cuts under a so-called "doomsday budget."

"Here is a delegate that just came back from a special session where he supported cutting police aid by $20 million," McIntosh said. "Now he wants to create a fund and have people give money? If you really want to help out inner-city kids in urban areas, you support policies that do that. You don't try to cut them off at the knees and then open up a little nonprofit and act like a hero."

The real debate, McIntosh said, should be over helping disadvantaged youth during tough economic times. "The real issue is that Baltimore City, with less money, has been able to bring crime down," she said. "In times of recession, people who already have a hard time fall further and faster than people who are middle class and above."

Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell of West Baltimore said lawmakers in Annapolis have already passed a similar youth fund, with tax breaks, for the city and that a pilot program will launch soon.

She accused McDonough of "trying to incite terror and fear where there is none" and suggested that his statements, not the St. Patrick's Day disturbances, will keep visitors away from the city. "It was a poor tactic, and it feels desperate for attention. It's dangerous."

She called what happened St. Patrick's Day "an isolated incident" that could have, and has, occurred in may other big cities across the country. "I think what is warranted is to have an examination of the facts," Jones-Rodwell said, "and to address them in a way that is effective and efficient given the city's resources."

While commentators on the Internet — responding to news stories and blogs — expressed anger at the disturbance in racial tones, it was McDonough who first broached the subject openly when he issued a news release titled: "Black Youth Mobs Terrorize Baltimore on Holidays."

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday in Essex, McDonough made no apologies. Responding to criticism that he's bashing a city he doesn't represent in Annapolis, he noted that state money supports city infrastructure.

The delegate said that silence from city leaders, including his own colleagues in the legislature, prompted his outburst. "Why does it take a legislator from Baltimore County to bring this issue up?" he said. "If no one is going to say anything, then I guess I'm the one who has to do it."

But he said, "I'm not indicting the black community. … There are tens of thousands of young black children who have said no to drugs and yes to education. We have to protect them."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.