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Pugh and Baltimore's new civil rights movement

Kenneth Gwee, president of the Baltimore city chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, talks about the organization's goals in setting up at "tent city" outside city hall. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

Outside of City Hall, about 30 tents have sprung up. On a rainy afternoon last week, the bright red structures stood in sharp contrast to the gray buildings and the gray day.

One of the organizers, Kenneth Gwee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose bright red hoodie matched the tents, said he is working with other grassroots groups like Baltimore BLOC and 300 Gangstas to push for a racial equity benefits agreement with the city — one that would guarantee legislation to right past racial wrongs. Some of the things they are asking for are more jobs for city residents from poor communities, record expungement for people with low-level offenses, and housing improvements such as lead paint removal and changes to policies at local homeless shelters. They also asked that the city's Confederate monuments be removed. (More on that later). They're not leaving, he said, until their demands are met. Mr. Gwee said he hadn't yet heard anything from city officials.

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"There has been no direct reply from the mayor or any member of City Council even though they have walked out, they have seen our presence," Mr. Gwee said. "They have not talked with us or even acknowledged our presence."

Anthony McCarthy, Mayor Catherine Pugh's spokesman, said in an email that the mayor has no plans to meet with the protesters. "City Hall is the site of many protests and demonstrations. There are no plans for Mayor Pugh to meet with the protest organizers," Mr. McCarthy wrote.

But the tent city, located right on the mayor's doorstep, represents something she can't ignore. The last few years have made clear that an urgent new activism around civil rights has taken hold in Baltimore, with grassroots movements forming on issues ranging from economic inclusion to crime. They are not following the mayor's lead, and they're not going away.

Just as the activists at the tent city were calling for the monuments' removal, others were, too. The statues were on everyone's minds, following the previous weekend's violence in Charlottesville, Va. Mayor Pugh had announced her desire to remove them, but she was vague about when and how. For many in the city, that wasn't good enough.

City Councilman Brandon Scott led a young, progressive faction on the council in a public call for the city's Confederate monuments to destroyed as soon as possible. "These people were terrorists. They were traitors. Why are we honoring them?" Mr. Scott said. Meanwhile, a Facebook post encouraged city activists to "Do it like Durham-Tear Down Racism" — a reference to those in Durham, N.C. who had pulled down the Confederate Soldiers Monument on Monday night.

Before that could happen here, Mayor Pugh ordered the statues removed quickly and quietly Tuesday night. She said she acted that way to prevent disturbances that could put public safety at risk. But what's interesting is that here, unlike in Charlottesville, there were no marches by defenders of the statues, and very few people showing up in person to advocate for them. If anyone was likely to cause a scene, it was the progressives who wanted to tear the statues down by hand.

The scuttled monument protest and the newly-erected tent city are just two examples of Mayor Pugh's struggle to handle this new, next phase of the civil rights movement.

Catherine Pugh the mayoral candidate didn't have this problem. She voiced support for a minimum wage increase of $15 an hour. On the campaign trail, she pointed to her actions during the uprising that happened shortly after Freddie Gray's 2015 death, when she'd taken to the streets alongside protesters, and advocated for the city in front of cable news cameras.

But since she moved into City Hall, Ms. Pugh has often been a step behind or even in opposition to the impatient progressive activism that has taken hold in Baltimore and that is reflected by many of the new, young members of the City Council (and, occasionally, by an emboldened old guard as well). In an interview with The Sun's editorial board last week, Ms. Pugh said that when she served on the council, she saw her role as working to support the mayor's agenda. The current City Council clearly does not.

Community, faith and labor activists gather outside City Hall to rally against legislation to impose a one-year mandatory sentence for possession and use of an illegal handgun during a crime.
Community, faith and labor activists gather outside City Hall to rally against legislation to impose a one-year mandatory sentence for possession and use of an illegal handgun during a crime. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

When the City Council voted in favor of a $15 an hour minimum wage, she vetoed it. When she pushed legislation that would have enacted a mandatory minimum one-year sentence for anyone caught with an illegal gun within most areas of the city, activists balked, calling it a a return to the kind of over-policing that disproportionately targets African Americans. The council's progressive wing neutered the bill before passing it last week.

Back at the City Hall protest, Ockander Cousins stood off from where a group of the tent city's new residents were talking and laughing. She said she's homeless and wants to alert city officials to the fact that people like her don't have access to the things they need.

"We're out here on the streets, we're trying to get housing, jobs, social justice, so we don't have to go through this process we're going through now," she says. "We're trying to tell the mayor 'look, we need some help here.'"

Mr. Gwee says people are happy to be there, but also determined to have their voices heard.

"The cause is worthy enough that people are willing to participate. Because the whole point of this action is to demonstrate that this is important and urgent to us and we are tired of feeling neglected, we're tired of being pushed to the backburners."

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It's great that the monuments came down, but the mayor shouldn't get all of the credit. The people holding her feet to the fire, demanding action, played a role in this, too.

A common refrain heard from Ms. Pugh and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake before her is the need to bring young people to the city and keep them here. There are young people right in front of her, though, pushing her to update her views and change some of her policies. Until she can do that, progress in Baltimore won't happen.

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