Many a morning, 58-year-old Millie Jefferson finds herself outside her home in West Baltimore, sweeping her front steps and picking up trash on her block. Monday, she had some unexpected visitors.
Dozens of volunteers gathered near her home on North Fulton Avenue and started bagging garbage and weeding, too. They were inspired by Scott Presler, a Republican activist from northern Virginia who started a social media campaign to help clean up Baltimore’s 7th congressional district in the wake of President Donald Trump’s tweets about it last month.
“We can’t do it alone,” Jefferson said. “It makes me feel good to see that there are still some good people and good communities that want to see better.”
The volunteers donned gloves and wielded rakes and weed wackers as they combed through trash dumped in the neighborhood and hacked away grasses peeking through the sidewalks. Beneath a pop-up tent, they signed a poster with the words “Americans Helping Americans."
“I’m thankful that [Trump] brought attention to Baltimore,” said Presler, a conservative commentator with several hundred thousand followers on Twitter. “It’s important to know that although we are the best, freest, greatest country in the world, we still have our problems, and we can’t look at the world just through rose-colored glasses.”
The Republican president’s tweets drew widespread criticism for their attacks on Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and his congressional district, which the president described as a “rodent infested mess.”
Presler is a “gays for Trump” activist who has been linked to the anti-Muslim group ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group. Presler worked there from February 2017 to 2018, his Facebook page says.
Although there were a few “Make America Great Again” hats in the crowd, Presler said the focus Monday was to “Make Baltimore Clean Again.”
“This is not a Trump rally, this is not anti-Representative Cummings at all, this is just simply Americans helping Americans,” he said. “And that’s it.”
The volunteers planned to clean until about 8 p.m., Presler said, and nearly 300 people signed up to come via social media.
For Fredric Norman, a minister who said he decided Friday to book a flight from Atlanta to Baltimore to join the clean-up, Trump’s tweets were the beginning of a necessary national conversation.
“I do salute President Trump for bringing it to the forefront and I hope we can find a place in the middle where we all sit down,” he said. “How can we talk to each other instead of at each other? Because the problem remains.”
David Clark, a 54-year-old longtime resident of the neighborhood, said Trump’s tweets unfairly pointed the finger solely at Cummings for Baltimore’s problems, but added that the volunteers were welcome.
“It’s needed, because our communities are hurting economically,” he said. “So, when people are hurting economically, it doesn’t spur them to do something about their community because they’re more worried about getting a job or keeping the one they have, which isn’t sufficient. They’re more worried about putting food on the table or paying their bills to come outside.”
Roger Farina stopped by the cleanup with his family on their way home to North Carolina from Long Island, New York. Trump’s tweets resonated with Farina, a longtime supporter who used to live in Towson.
“I’ve driven through these neighborhoods,” said Farina, 52. “And when Trump mentioned it, I knew the areas he was talking about.”
He was among those collecting trash in an alley alongside Westwood Avenue, where he found a discarded dockless scooter, bottles and even a pair of baby shoes.
For him, Monday’s event was an opportunity to go beyond social media to effect change.
“It’s one thing to run your mouth on social media,” he said. “But it’s another thing to come out here and grab a rake and put on gloves and sweat. It’s the same reason I go out and door knock and get people to register to vote, and see what they’re thinking.”