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Michelle Deal-Zimmerman: Many in Baltimore want squeegee kids out of sight, out of mind | COMMENTARY

I panhandled on a street corner when I was a teenager.

No squeegee. Just a bucket with a hastily scribbled sign asking for cash.

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I wasn’t alone — there was a group of teens, scattered among four medians at a busy intersection. We went from car to car, window to window, seeking money to fund our public school’s debate team trips. Most weekends, we did pretty well.

I don’t remember any threats, any arguments or, frankly, any concern for 16-year-olds dancing and dashing through traffic on a busy Saturday morning.

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Did we have a permit? A license? Nope. Most of the time we didn’t even have adult supervision.

If we banged the bucket on the hood of a car or jammed it into an open window, no one picked up a baseball bat in pursuit. Motorists gave us wrinkled bills, handfuls of coins and the benefit of the doubt.

But the squeegee kids have never been given the benefit of the doubt.

They have been judged and found guilty of being a nuisance at best and criminals at worst.

Many fear any interaction with these teens because they are reminders of everything people who are visiting the city for a day or an evening of dining and entertainment would rather forget about Baltimore.

The poverty. The unemployment. The homelessness. The young Black men who are being murdered every day.

No one wants to see the broken parts, the devastated and wounded underclass that remind us that Baltimore is failing its citizens on a daily basis.

Even some city residents choose blindness to what is happening beneath their very noses. Baltimore is often described as a city of neighborhoods, and nothing could be more true. If you live in Hampden or Federal Hill or Roland Park or Bolton Hill, you can design your life to avoid eye-opening encounters with the other Baltimore — you know, the one that makes you feel anguished, angry or afraid.

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The squeegee kids don’t live in such prosperous neighborhoods. The majority live in places where people don’t have cars and rely on public transportation, often not by choice. And unlike an entrepreneurial teenager who launches a lawn cutting service in the county, they are not going to find customers just up the street.

So here come the squeegee kids, dominating the well-traveled intersections of downtown — in your face with their scrappiness, their obvious desperation, their frustration at being in the margins and their audacity for not staying there instead of looking you in the eyes and begging for your acknowledgment that they exist.

They disrespect your “property,” but do you respect their lives? That anyone could think more of a vehicle than they do of another human being is a notably repulsive ranking of societal priorities.

The entire tenor of reaction to the killing of a bat-wielding motorist allegedly by a teenage squeegee worker last month has been repulsive. I was expecting at least a few self-defense advocates to summon a modicum of support for the accused, but there has been a resounding silence. If a Black kid had come at a white driver with a bat and been shot to death by the driver, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson would have broadcast an entire hourlong segment on the incident, framing it as Big Bad Baltimore vs. a Good Guy with a Gun. The GoFundMe would have set records. The driver would be a right-wing hero, and there would be calls to initiate ”Stand Your Ground” laws in Maryland.

Instead, the condemnation has been swift and without mercy. It would seem the concealed weapons advocates simply faded away. Never have I seen so much dedication to following tax codes, enforcing regulations and lamenting the harm caused by illegal guns. The last is a daily and deadly consequence in Baltimore that apparently only recently reached the consciousness of some.

The calls to remove squeegee workers from city streets have been thunderous. The demand to disappear young Black men from a majority-Black city has roots in racism, for sure, but also in economics and politics.

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For years — even before the pandemic, frustrated business owners have been urging city officials to end the squeegee practices that many view as a deterrent to customers venturing downtown. Through several administrations there has been a reluctance to act. After all, it’s a problem without an easy or quick solution.

And yet it seems that the Baltimore area’s residents have spoken even if the city’s leadership has yet to catch up. The squeegee kids must go, and hopefully soon. Just this past weekend, an 18-year-old squeegee worker was shot and killed, although authorities say it was not related to any interaction with a motorist. Still, the menacing reaction from some on social media and in neighborhood group chats has made me fear for the young men who continue to work those corners.

But even once they are no longer part of the daily commute, they will still be there. Away from view, perhaps, but present nonetheless. You can’t simply wipe away problems like poverty, hunger and homelessness. If Baltimore is to shine, it needs the squeegee kids to shine, too.

Mayor Brandon Scott knows this, as does the City Council and some local businesses. Even Ivan Bates knows it, although he has a plan that would essentially outlaw squeegee workers, citation by citation.

Mr. Bates, the soon-to-be Baltimore state’s attorney, has said his plan won’t clog courts or result in the criminalization of more city youth.

It’s hard to see how that will work, but Mr. Bates deserves the benefit of the doubt.

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So do the squeegee kids, but it’s too late for them.

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features and an advisory member of The Sun’s editorial board. Her column runs every fourth Wednesday. She can be reached at nzimmerman@baltsun.com.


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