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Crime

‘A watershed moment’ as the death of a driver on a downtown street brings Baltimore’s long-running squeegee worker debate to a head

For whatever reason, it all came to a head on Thursday afternoon at one of Baltimore’s most inviting intersections: Go one way to the city’s showpiece harbor, the other to its bandbox of a baseball park. Head north to downtown, or south to the redbrick, rowhouse-scaled charm of Federal Hill.

But beneath the surface of these postcard vistas, decades of a slow-burning anger in the city found its ignition on Conway and Light streets. A driver got out of his car with a bat to confront a group of squeegee workers, one of who police said fatally shot him and fled the scene.

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“It was horrible and horrendous,” said Kaye Whitehead, a Loyola University Maryland professor and WEAA-FM talk show host. “It was shocking, but not surprising.”

She had noticed a hardening of rhetoric when it came to the predominantly Black youth and young men who squeegee windshields at high-traffic intersections in town. What once seemed like voluntary tips began to feel like extortion to some, Whitehead said, and there were those for who waving them off no longer felt sufficient.

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“There was a sense something was coming,” said Whitehead. “There was going to be a huge explosion.”

It remains unclear what prompted Timothy Reynolds, 48, an engineer and father who lived in Hampden in North Baltimore, to pull over and approach the squeegee workers. Police are working to identify and find the person who killed him; a reward for information rose Saturday to $16,000.

But the shooting came after decades in which Baltimore has wrestled over a practice that to many is at worst mildly annoying but to others a source of threat and rage.

City and business leaders have long offered promises and programs, at least as far back as 1985. That’s when the windshield cleaners were given identification badges and instructed to dress neatly and smile and say, “Thank you.” The latest effort was underway Thursday and Friday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, less than a mile from where Reynolds was killed, where the city hosted a job fair for squeegee workers and other young people.

And yet, the initiatives have tended to come and go, while squeegee workers remain, darting into street lanes with their squirt bottles, emboldened by the lack of anyone stopping them, some say.

“I’m so sick of the grandstanding by city officials who come out on TV after things like this happen and say, ‘My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their lives,’” said Roland DeLeon, 71, a retired federal worker and veteran who lives in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Otterbein, just blocks from where Reynolds was shot.

“OK, but what are they going to do about it?” he said.

DeLeon said his military training keeps him in “situational awareness” as he walks his dog, and he grew concerned in recent weeks as he saw the number of squeegee workers in the area increasing. A group of two or three workers can quickly grow as others notice they’re making money, DeLeon said, and soon an intersection gets crowded and competitive. They’ll get frustrated if things aren’t going well, and vent by “bullying” drivers, he said.

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James Carnes, 31, was in the Inner Harbor and heard the shots Thursday, then saw police cars “flying in” and several young people he believes were squeegee workers “scattering in all directions.”

Carnes, who said he is homeless, said there are a lot of good squeegee workers, but he’s seen “bad ones” scratch cars, even beat up drivers.

The problem is so complicated, though, that no single action will solve it, he said, including the idea police should “lock them all up.”

The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., the retired pastor of Union Baptist Church in Upton in West Baltimore, said city officials and residents alike need to make clear that squeegeeing cars is unacceptable.

“We have become too lenient with lawlessness,” he said. “They are intimidating, they are harassing. They become belligerent and, in some instances, violent.”

His idea: “We should dry up the market. There should be some kind of citation if you give money to someone squeegeeing.

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“We should send the signal we are not approving of this,” Hathaway said.

He said he waves them off if they approach his car. “For those of us who know Baltimore, we know how to slow down to not get the light,” Hathaway said. “We know the avoidance technique.”

There were signs that Reynolds was familiar, too, with squeegee workers. A Twitter account linked to him included a 2019 tweet about someone who washed his windshield without permission and stared at him in a way he found threatening. “These kids have no right to be out in traffic,” the post says. And a friend said Friday that Reynolds expressed frustration a couple of weeks ago about squeegee workers acting aggressively and pestering him at downtown intersections. He mentioned an incident from about two years ago when a squeegee worker damaged to his car, the friend said.

News of the shooting, at a prominent downtown intersection just hours before an Orioles home game, proved shocking even in a city where homicides continue at a record pace.

“This one is bad,” Hathaway said. “This is a watershed moment in the city.”

Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott has focused on outreach to the workers, seeking to divert them toward jobs and education and getting them “in a better place. That’s what success looks like,” he said at a news conference on Friday.

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“Are you getting them hired? Are they staying hired?” he said. “Are you getting them re-enrolled in school? Are you finding them housing?”

Deputy Mayor Faith Leach, who oversees the Mayor’s Office of African American Male Engagement, said staff seek out squeegee workers daily and offer individualized plans, connecting them with mentors and jobs.

She said an employment program announced in December led to job opportunities for 42 young people. Another 24 squeegee workers were hired to clean downtown during the CIAA basketball tournament in February.

This is a difficult moment for all of us as a community, but it’s going to take all of us to solve this,” she said. “We all have to be disruptive and collaborative to really address the needs of our young people. They are out on these corners because they are out there meeting many of their basic, unmet needs.”

Still, the fact that Reynolds was killed even as such efforts were underway at the Lewis Museum raised questions over whether the city’s outreach is enough.

“What that speaks to is a much, much larger conversation about fixing the core, root cause problem of why they are out there in the very first place and how to fix that,” said Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. “If we didn’t fix that and solve their need to support themselves to take care of their basic needs, which is what we’re fixing, that is the real problem.”

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As Scott dealt with the fallout from the fatal shooting, he also announced Friday the appointment of Anthony Barksdale, who directed police department operations from 2007 to 2012 and was acting commissioner in 2012, as his deputy mayor for public safety.

In the past, Barksdale has criticized both a federal consent decree that is mandating reforms in the police department, and Harrison, who was brought in to implement it.

To Whitehead, his appointment signaled “a return to old-school policing,” in contrast to Scott’s more holistic approach, which has focused on violence intervention programs such as Safe Streets and root causes that contribute to crime.

I feel as a civilian at this point, all the other solutions are not working,” Whitehead said. “You can feel it. Things like what’s happening with the squeegee workers, what’s happening with Safe Streets.”

She has grown unnerved, both by mass shootings such as in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, as well as horrific crimes in Baltimore: The midday shooting in which a gunman sprayed more than 60 rounds in the middle of an East Baltimore Street. The pregnant woman and her fiance who were fatally shot in a car in Barclay. The 11th grade boy killed after his junior prom.

“Speaking from the heart, as someone who is a homeowner in the city, I am concerned we have crossed the line where things are just out of control,” Whitehead said. “What is driving this level of violence?

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“This is where America is right now,” she said.

Whitehead sees the focus on squeegee workers as getting to the heart of any number of flashpoints today, including race and guns. But the issue is difficult to talk about, she said, and people don’t even agree on what to call those wielding squeegees on city intersections — “kids,” “workers,” or a term the Scott administration has used: “disconnected youth that squeegee.” On the street, there are other terms: One squeegee worker said Friday that a white man had recently called him a racial slur.

While residents and others filled social media with heated comments on the shooting, officials and civic leaders tended to retreat to previous positions or issue statements reiterating their concerns and desires to work toward solutions.

Reynolds’ death was “tragic and unacceptable, and another wake-up call,” said Calvin G. Butler Jr., the chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee board of directors. Butler, Exelon’s senior executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the GBC was committed to working with city and community leaders to help those who work on the street find sustaining jobs and to make public spaces “safer from gun violence.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, a frequent critic of Scott, said Friday “it’s quite obvious” the mayor’s crime plan was not working. He praised Scott’s decision to bring Barksdale back, saying “he’s a guy that understands violent crime and how to deal with it.

“The squeegee workers have been a terrible problem for many years and it’s been unaddressed by the city,” Hogan said. “It’s certainly had a major impact on people being afraid to come to the city, because they’ve been harassed for years and years, and this was just the pinnacle of the problem right in downtown across Inner Harbor with somebody getting shot.”

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Nonetheless, more than 1,000 clergy and lay members of the Episcopal Church came to Baltimore for a general convention of the U.S. denomination, meeting just blocks from the shooting scene. A delegation of more than 100 bishops took to the streets Friday to respond to what had happened.

Bearing a banner that read “Bishops United Against Gun Violence,” they marched from the Convention Center, down Pratt Street and past the Libertad, an Argentine tall ship temporarily docked at the Inner Harbor, singing the traditional spirituals “Down By the Riverside” and “We Shall Overcome.”

They stopped at the Visit Baltimore center, across Light Street from where Reynolds was shot, “to remember all the many victims of gun violence,” said the Rev. Bonnie Perry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.

With police cars in the background, lights flashing, the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, bishop of the Maryland diocese, decried what he has called “the unholy trinity” of racism, poverty and violence.

Jesus preached that we should “love our neighbor,” he said, and “the man who wielded the bat” and “the young men who washed his windshield” should all be seen as “neighbors.”

“So, we’re going to pray today for all of the victims, all of the victims of the violence that’s in their hearts, the violence that’s in their hands,” Sutton said, “and the violence that comes from angry people having access to guns.”

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Baltimore Sun reporters Ashley Barrientos, Sabrina LeBouef, Lea Skene and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.


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