The chaotic incident involving teenagers at the Inner Harbor Saturday has stoked anxiety over Baltimore’s young people in what has become a perennial — and polarizing — issue.
The Memorial Day weekend incident — in which six were arrested for destruction of property and disorderly conduct — marks at least the fourth time since last summer that a large group of youths has been implicated in rowdy, public behavior around the region. In each situation, police charged a number of juveniles with crimes.
But the fallout from these incidents has lasted long after the crowds of teenagers dispersed. And the debate over possible causes and prevention tactics has split community members along familiar fault lines: teen versus adults, black versus white, city versus county.
Experts say the issue is complex, touching on everything from public safety and infrastructure to segregation and generational differences. And teens say the number of spaces where they can just hang out together is getting too small.
As the end of the school year looms, adults are grappling with the question: Where can teens spend free time without getting into trouble?
A persistent problem
Concerns over unattended teenagers have rumbled for years, and sparked anew last summer when nine were arrested at White Marsh Mall in Baltimore County in an incident involving more than 60 young people. The unease was kindled again in March when police said fights broke out among a group of about 300 teens, nine of whom were arrested, at an event at Eastpoint Mall. And more than two dozen minors were charged with disorderly conduct on Easter after a carnival at Eastpoint was canceled unexpectedly.
Each incident appeared to follow a pattern: A large groups of teens gather in public, some of the teens act out, police make arrests and communities members respond.
However, the cause of each fracas is more ambiguous. Several community leaders have floated their opinions on social media, attracting both public support and ire.
For example, Baltimore County Councilman Todd Crandell said the Easter teenage clash was caused by city kids coming into the county and causing trouble. Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen likened Crandell’s comments to “dog whistle racism.”
The Baltimore Police Department’s union president, Sgt. Mike Mancuso, cautioned officers Saturday that some youths were “criminals.” City Councilman Ryan Dorsey countered that Baltimore makes its streets “inhospitable” to people, not the other way around. And Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young called Saturday’s incident a “parenting question.”
Despite the variety of opinions, problems with teens in the Baltimore region historically have been met with the same remedy — tightened rules for where teens can spend time.
In the city, a youth curfew has been on the books for about 25 years, with City Council passing a stricter version in 2014. Following the incidents in Baltimore County, new curfews were imposed at several shopping malls and two spring carnivals were canceled.
Those policies make Baltimore teens like 16-year-old Roy’el Byrd feel blocked out by adults, he said.
Roy’el learned the hard way about White Marsh Mall’s curfew when he and a group of friends were unexpectedly asked to leave one weekend.
“If you really want to help society grow, why would you close a mall and not solve the problem that led to the ruckus?” he said.
If you really want to help society grow, why would you close a mall and not solve the problem that led to the ruckus?— Roy'el Byrd, 16
Searching for entertainment
Baltimore teen Skye Nelson does not have a lot of money to spend on activities, so spending time outside and in public spaces like shopping malls is a cheap alternative.
Before Saturday’s incident, Skye said she enjoyed ambling around the Inner Harbor after school. These days, the 15-year-old feels there are few places were she can go without an adult.
"Baltimore is not that big," she said while seated on a waterfront bench near the Baltimore Visitor Center.
In Baltimore, the city’s legacy of racial segregation still permeates teens’ search for entertainment. And experts say that young people who gather in large groups are often seen as inherently troublesome — whether or not they are actually causing trouble — especially when they are black.
Like discrimination in housing policy, entertainment in Baltimore is redlined, according to Lawrence Brown, an associate professor at Morgan State University who studies racial segregation and equity.
The closures of many city recreation centers since the 1970s and the city’s failure to allocate resources in Baltimore’s historically black neighborhoods play a role in the places young people congregate, Brown said.
Some of the incidents in Baltimore County suggest that teens were traveling to the malls by public transportation — which made it harder to leave quickly when they were told to disperse.
Segregation in Baltimore is commonly referred to as the “white L” and “black butterfly” for the shape of the communities’ geographic outlines, Brown said.
“There are very few places for recreation and youth programming in the black butterfly,” he said. “Young people will go wherever there is opportunity to go to a nice place and congregate.”
Figuring out when a crowd becomes a problem versus the perception of a problem starts with “an honest discussion about what does it mean when you have blackness in white spaces,” Brown said.
The next question is what are the young people doing while they’re gathered, he said.
Skye acknowledged that some teens seem to use public spaces as an opportunity to meet and hash out beefs — something she feels is a form of play that has become more common.
"It gets boring, so they try to make fun out of anything,” she said of her peers. “It's entertaining to watch a fight. You get videos out of it or bragging rights.”
After the 2015 unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s death, Johns Hopkins University’s Poverty and Inequality Research Lab produced a study showing evidence that Baltimore’s young people crave positive experiences and are looking for safe public spaces.
Stefanie Deluca, a sociologist who worked on the study, said the critique is that Baltimore does not offer enough opportunity for young people to become who they want to be.
“Do we have a coherent vision for our young people other than trying to find different ways to police them?” Deluca said.
For the report, the Hopkins team interviewed 58 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. None wanted to stay in Baltimore.
Col. Richard Worley, chief of patrol for the Baltimore Police Department, said officers monitor social media activity to stay on top of the reasons young people may congregate in a certain area. As the weather gets warmer and schools are out for the summer, he said the number of gatherings grows.
Hundreds of young people can converge at any one time at the Inner Harbor, bus transportation hubs or elsewhere to meet up, most often to have a good time. But some also use those places as a space to settle scores between rival groups or split into flash mobs to rush stores, he said.
The officers’ first job is to figure out why teens are there, Worley said.
"They're not out to get in trouble, but you have a few instigators that lead, and you have some that follow,” Worley said. “That's when you have the issues."
Worley said the public often does not learn when kids gather peacefully in large crowds because those gatherings don't result in destruction or arrests. For instance, he said about 500 young people gathered at the Patapsco Arena on Easter for a party without problems. And police estimated hundreds of teens had gathered Saturday at the Inner Harbor, but the mayor said not all of them wanted to cause trouble.
Experts and some members of law enforcement agree that in order to address problems surrounding teen gatherings, Baltimore area community leaders need to examine the issue more holistically through prevention and creating activities for teens.
The flare-up over Memorial Day has some looking to revive the now-defunct Inner Harbor Project, a youth-led nonprofit founded in 2012 to build goodwill between teens, police and businesses.
It closed in the summer of 2017 amid the loss of its executive director and a question about funding. Brooke Bomberger, the project’s former director of youth support, posted to Facebook over the weekend to lament the loss of the inroads the project had made.
The project recruited teens with charisma to work as Hood2Harbor Peace Ambassadors, mediating conflicts, answering questions and interacting with the different groups. The ambassadors also held workshops with police to improve interactions with young people.
The project offered the teen ambassadors discount cards to use at harbor restaurants and attractions in exchange for their community service.
Diamond Sampson and Adrian Hughes, Baltimore natives, both 22 and newly established in their careers, were involved in the project as teens. They want to help Bomberger get it restarted after seeing the project’s positive impact firsthand.
Sampson said the project was the most effective tool in the city for engaging teens and easing tensions downtown.
“When you involve them in activities and make them part of the solution, you build relationships and partnerships,” Sampson said.
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Hughes said among the project’s most effective initiatives was the training in cultural competency the young people gave city officers.
“We taught them how to communicate with teens, to put a human foot forward, and not a law enforcement foot forward,” Hughes said. “The biggest effect we had was a calm atmosphere in the harbor.”
Spurred by the events of Memorial Day, Bomberger said she is having conversations with community leaders to figure out how to re-establish the project.
Roy’el agreed the solutions to these problems lies with adults, and even older teens.
“For a lot of kids, they aren't taken to places where they can hang out,” he said. "Every adult, it's your responsibility to … show us where to hang out.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Tim Prudente and Phil Davis contributed to this article.