Thursday’s sit-down at The Capital Grille on East Pratt Street between Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and State’s Attorney-to-be Ivan Bates was your standard political power lunch.
Bates with salmon and the mayor with a salad, the two men held the first of many conversations about how to address public safety in Baltimore and the importance of collaboration.
Both want to figure out how to get the roughly 117 squeegee workers who stand at 25 different intersections, cleaning motorists’ windshields for a few bucks, off the streets. But they differ in their approaches. The issue flared up in July after a deadly encounter between squeegee workers and a baseball bat-wielding man.
Bates said he has a plan to get workers into diversion and employment programs — like those championed by Scott — as soon as he can take office in January. It would rely on issuing citations to the workers for violating Maryland’s pedestrian laws.
For that to work, Bates would needs Scott to rescind a police department order prohibiting officers from enforcing quality-of-life offenses. As it stands now, police can engage with people who commit minor offenses, such as solicitation or trespassing, only if they have permission from a supervisor.
Scott would not say whether he would rescind the order once Bates takes office, or whether he would support issuing citations. The mayor’s plan focuses on outreach and meeting squeegee workers where they are, not sending them to court.
“No one wants to see the corners cleared like they had been and the abuse that we’ve seen prior,” Bates said last Monday when asked about his and Scott’s differing approaches to squeegee workers. “However, I think there’s a way to do it that isn’t about necessarily clearing the corners, but it still allows us to make sure these individuals are no longer there.”
Bates was declared the winner July 22 of the Democratic primary and faces no opposition in the general election in November after unaffiliated candidate Roya Hanna left the race Friday. State law bars primary losers — State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Thiru Vignarajah, in this case — from filing as write-in candidates for the fall.
With Bates expected to take office the first Monday in January, Scott said he wanted to meet with Bates early to “prepare” him for his new job.
A mainstay of downtown intersections for four decades, Baltimore’s squeegee workers are typically young, Black men experiencing severe poverty. For many, it is the only way to provide for their basic needs.
The debate over whether squeegeeing should be allowed reached a boiling point last month when Timothy Reynolds, a white, 48-year-old resident of Hampden in North Baltimore, got out of his car with a bat and confronted a group of workers at the Inner Harbor intersection of Light and Conway streets. The altercation ended with one of the workers, a 14-year-old boy, shooting and killing Reynolds. The boy, who turned 15 the next day, is charged with first-degree murder; his attorneys have said he acted in self-defense.
Many drivers and downtown business owners consider the workers a nuisance and a few describe fearful interactions resulting in vehicle damage or being tricked out of thousands of dollars. But such negative interactions are the minority, with thousands of drivers passing each day without incident.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Bates said he wants officers to warn squeegee workers they are breaking the law when they leave the curb and enter traffic to solicit business. Maryland code prohibits soliciting business in a street.
The city’s legal department, however, told City Council members Wednesday that it believes panhandling, which is essentially what squeegee work is, is protected under the First Amendment, making those kinds of citations unenforceable.
Bates disagrees, saying the traffic code is clear and squeegee work is clearly a violation of the law. Under his plan, he said, if the workers continue to enter traffic after being warned, police would issue citations for violations, requiring workers to appear in district court. A separate, community court would be created for squeegee traffic violations, Bates said. Defendants would be given two options: prosecution or being connected with city services — as long as they sign an agreement to quit squeegeeing permanently.
“There has to be some accountability,” Bates said.
As it stands now, police investigate and make arrests when property is damaged or money is stolen. Under Bates’ plan, squeegeeing would effectively be outlawed.
Scott said Thursday that he hopes for “deeper” collaboration with Bates’ office than he’s had with Mosby’s.
“There is collaboration, but it could be better,” Scott said of his relationship with the outgoing prosecutor’s office.
“We have the same goal,” Bates said.
City officials have been hard-pressed to come up with a solution that serves everybody while resolving the “squeegee issue.” The City Council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee held an hourslong hearing Wednesday at which members of the mayor’s office implored council members to focus on solutions that address the root causes of why young people squeegee.
“We have an opportunity to serve as a national model for how to treat Black boys,” said Deputy Mayor Faith Leach, who oversees programs aimed at helping squeegee workers. “They are not a problem to be solved. They are the sons of Baltimore and they deserve our very best.”
Johnny Rice, chair of Coppin State University’s criminal justice department, said there is no one solution to squeegeeing and that the interests of all community members should be taken into account as city officials plot a course forward.
Rice said issuing citations to squeegee workers could create future headaches. For example, if a person doesn’t show up for a court date, they could be charged with failure to appear, enmeshing them further in the criminal justice system.
“We don’t want to criminalize African American young people,” Rice said. “We don’t want to arrest them wholesale. If there are individual young people who are breaking the law, of course there should be a commensurate response. But a wholesale labeling of young people and treating them all as if they’re the same, I don’t necessarily think that’s going to give us the benefits we want.”
Oftentimes, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender ends up representing young people charged with crimes in Baltimore. District Public Defender Marguerite E. Lanaux said youth deserve more than “increased arrests and probation.” She said Bates’ proposal is an opportunity to be more thoughtful about how the criminal justice system deals with concentrated poverty.
“A comprehensive community-based approach is needed that prioritizes and responds to the underlying systemic issues,” Lanaux said.
Bates recognizes that, on the surface, his plan has the appearance of a return to a “clear the corners” style of enforcement that plagued Baltimore for years, culminating in the city having to reach a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice because of its unconstitutional policing of poor, Black neighborhoods.
But Bates said criminalizing poverty is not going to happen, calling the citations strictly a tool to push young people into government diversion programs faster.
“Why do I want to give young Black men criminal records?” he asked. “I recognize if you don’t do something about the problem, it will only fester. I understand I have a big tool that can move these individuals into a diversion program and get them help and the wraparound services they may not know they need.”
Squeegee workers aren’t exactly sure what they want from the city. James, a 21-year-old worker who is the de facto leader of the crew working at Lombard and President streets, said he just wants his people to be left to their work. He and another squeegee worker interviewed asked that their last names not be published because of potential scrutiny.
James’ intersection is largely self-governing, with his word being final. At one point, a Baltimore Sun reporter saw one of his younger workers got into an argument with a driver. She claimed he hit her car and he said he was provoked. The car did not appear to be damaged, but the boy took off. A police officer saw the exchange and told James if the boy came back to talk about what happened, there wouldn’t be a warrant. James walked around the corner and reappeared minutes later with the boy. The officer took some notes and drove away.
“We’re young Black entrepreneurs who are misunderstood,” James said. “[The city] wants to help us get a job; I respect that. But we don’t want a job. We’re entrepreneurs.”
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He said if people think “squeegee hustlers,” his preferred term for his line of work, are such a nuisance, the city should park a cop car in the median with the lights on all day. His crew will keep working anyway.
A 19-year-old who works under James and goes by the nickname Noodles, said he “could use a job,” but doesn’t have the necessary documents to get hired.
“No birth certificate, no [Social Security] card,” Noodles said.
Noodles said he left home at a young age and has squeegeed on the same intersection for the past three years. He said he went to school as far as the 10th grade and, although it wasn’t for him, he figures he needs a high school degree, in addition to his paperwork, to get a decent job.
Noodles said if he had his choice of career, he would either own a barbershop or a garage, preferably both. He needs about $2,000 in the bank to rent a barber’s chair and get supplies, and will continue squeegeeing until he gets it.
“Who would want to be out here?” Noodles asked. “Think about it. Squeegeeing in front of thousands of people every day.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Alex Mann contributed to this article.