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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Four suggestions for reducing tensions, creating jobs for Baltimore’s squeegee workers | COMMENTARY

One Friday evening last November, a man stepped out of a minivan on President Street and beat a young squeegee worker bloody with a small wooden bat. Brandon Mead, a Baltimore attorney, witnessed the attack.

“Clearly, this guy was ready for it,” Mead told me, referring to the white, middle-aged driver of the van, which had Pennsylvania plates.

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Mead heard the man yell. He saw him get out of the van and raise the bat against a Black teenage boy. The boy raised a squeegee in defense, but his attacker swung the club, broke the squeegee, then struck the boy in the face. The boy went down in front of Mead’s car. Mead yelled at the guy with the bat, but he jumped back in the van, made a right on Lombard Street and took off.

The boy, blood across his face, made it to the sidewalk with the help of another squeegee kid. According to Mead, they were the only two trying to wash windshields at the intersection that night.

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“I [ran] over to the sidewalk, and the kid turns and puts his fists up like he thinks more fighting is about to happen,” said Mead, who is white. “And I say, ‘No, no, no, I just want to make sure you’re all right. Let me call 911, the cops.’ And the other boy, the younger of the two, says, ‘No, we’re used to this, we don’t want to do anything. … We just want to go home.’”

Unlike the deadly incident that occurred at Conway and Light Streets on Thursday, the story ended there. No shots were fired. The man in the van disappeared. The boys walked away. A police detective contacted Mead about the incident, but apparently no charges resulted from the investigation.

When I first reported this assault, a few readers expressed sympathy for the boy. Others thought he got what he deserved. Messages from squeegee haters described the boys and young men who wash windshields as “feral.” I’ve seen “vermin” and “thugs” attached to them as well.

By now, I’ve heard and read so many angry and racist words about squeegee workers — and condemnation of city leaders for allowing them to remain on the street — that it’s become part of the noise of Baltimore, both the internal griping among taxpayers and business owners and the external sniping from people who only seem to care that they get to a restaurant without being bothered by poor kids looking for money.

Every squeegee eruption reveals hostility and frustration but, more generally, a lack of empathy among people who, three or four generations into the city-suburban divide, either don’t understand or outright dismiss the complexity of urban poverty.

None of this is good for the municipal health.

Washing windshields at intersections is not the best job for teenage boys and young men. Saying that it is sells them way short of their potential.

I don’t have poll results on it, but my guess is that most motorists don’t want the squeegee service, and some obviously think it’s a nuisance. The death of Timothy Reynolds at Conway and Light, while tragic, was not shocking. You didn’t have to be extraordinarily prescient to have seen tragedy brewing at a squeegee intersection. If there’s any surprise, it’s that a motorist, and not a squeegee worker, lost his life.

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I have heard people declare they’re not coming back to the city for dinner, a concert or other event until the squeegee workers are gone. In terms of the city’s recovery from the pandemic, you’d think the general pace of violent crime was a more significant factor. But the squeegee workers are far more visible and immediate to the average suburbanite or tourist.

This fraught issue has been around for a long time.

And yet, it’s not like nothing has been done. All across Baltimore, government agencies and nonprofits work to help young people get to better stations in life. But the continued presence of squeegee workers — on President Street, at North and Mount Royal avenues, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — is a frustrating reminder of persistent poverty and the dysfunction it causes. Many Americans just don’t want to hear about that anymore. Many can’t understand why a kid might prefer to hustle up 100 bucks a few blocks from his home than take a bus for an hour to a warehouse job. Getting them to change, to break away from the familiar, is hard.

Late last year, Mayor Brandon Scott rolled out a “90-day squeegee action plan,” the goal to channel squeegee workers to better opportunities, better jobs, some in a Harbor East hotel. As I said, it’s not like nothing has been done.

But obviously a lot more could be done — and in a sustaining way.

Four suggestions:

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Instead of hoping private employers hire the squeegee workers off the street, the city should immediately give them jobs. Just hire them, put them to work on the city payroll at a decent wage as a first step.

Make them city ambassadors, pay them to hand out fliers about city events, restaurants, concerts and attractions.

Get the Living Classrooms organization involved. That street-wise nonprofit has been working successfully with out-of-school teens and ex-offenders, helping them complete their education and find jobs, for decades. Here’s the phone number: 410-685-0295.

Assign Safe Streets workers to each of the four squeegee-est intersections to make motorists — and squeegee workers — feel safer.

Everybody, just be kind.


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