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When white privilege collides with squeegee kids | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Mayor Jack Young and City Police Commissioner Harrison address the recent surge in violence in the city.

For anyone living in Baltimore, Sunday’s tweet by a white Texas cardiologist claiming his daughter and her boyfriend had been “attacked by a group of BLM” in the city — meaning Black Lives Matter advocates — and that police “cannot do anything” about it because the alleged assailants “are African American” immediately raised suspicions. But that didn’t prevent the usual social media suspects from blindly believing every word. The tweet garnered 50,000 likes and retweets from around the Twitterverse. And we can almost guarantee you that thousands more read it and didn’t respond, but still tucked it away in the back of their minds for long-term storage, perhaps under the heading: “Baltimore’s a lawless city that deserves every bad thing that’s coming to it” or “Black Lives Matter protesters are nothing but thugs.” Both are favorite fictions, you’ll note, of President Donald Trump.

The tweet’s author, Dr. Andrea Natale, has since retracted his story, claiming it was all a misunderstanding; he deleted the post and locked down his Twitter account. There was even an official statement released by his hospital expressing regret that his words were “misinterpreted.”

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“I was worried about my daughter, and I jumped to a conclusion based on the information I had at the time,” he wrote. The conclusion, apparently, was that Black Lives Matter advocates — only the African American ones, mind you, not advocates of other races — were running amok in Baltimore with the sanction of police. That’s quite a leap, one we’d expect to see from right-wing conspiracy theorist pushing the notion that advocating for the worth of Black people is akin to criminal behavior, rather than a respected cardiologist.

“Is this the America we want?” the good doctor ended his tweet, turning his daughter’s bad day into a political statement. What’s to misinterpret?

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It’s true his daughter and her boyfriend say they had a negative encounter in downtown Baltimore. They were apparently stopped at an intersection on Sunday when they were approached by a “kid” who sought to clean their car’s windshield. It did not go well, they say. And we know this because the Baltimore Police Department has released body camera footage that shows a distraught young woman and her boyfriend describing the incident. Her boyfriend said he had gotten out of the car and was surrounded by three people; he told them he had a knife, and claimed that one of the kids also had a knife. There was no physical altercation, but kids later started throwing coins or rocks at the car, according to the couple, which resulted in a broken side mirror, and made threats about the boyfriend to another driver on the road who intervened. No one mentions race, but given the other details in this sad scenario, it’s clear to us the kids are Black.

One of the most worrisome comments in the 10-minute video, however, isn’t from the couple, but from the investigating officer who says the following: “To be honest, the city doesn’t want us engaging with squeegee boys”; he suggests contacting City Hall about that policy. He also notes that “this happens every single day” and that things would be much better if the same police officers patrolled that intersection daily, which they don’t.

At the heart of community policing is the concept that officers are posted on a beat, have a regular presence on city streets and develop relationships. Are squeegee kids truly off limits? It’s understandable if the officer is saying police can’t just write them up for loitering or some unproven misdemeanor. But surely, he’s correct that the same officers should be regularly working the same streets and getting to know the youngsters who clean windshields for tips. Meanwhile, if anyone did actually pull a knife and threaten someone, there ought to be consequences. Police have a duty to follow up.

They also have a duty to hold the complaining white couple accountable for their actions. Nothing is said after the boyfriend admits it was he who first brought up the idea of a weapon — no suggestion that perhaps that was inappropriate behavior. And when the man later tells the officer he lacks a vehicle registration for his car with out-of-town plates? No problem is identified there either.

So here’s where things stand: A young white couple had a hostile encounter with some Black kids in Baltimore who were trying to earn tips cleaning windshields during a pandemic. End of story. No police-protected, civil rights activists were involved, despite the viral claims of a doctor roughly 1,500 miles away.

It also appears that promises to provide employment alternatives to squeegee kids aren’t panning out, and that police aren’t engaging with them on the most basic levels. It’s yet another mess at the intersection of race, class and law enforcement.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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