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‘Squeegee kids’ are a symptom of Baltimore’s problems, not the cause | COMMENTARY

A street corner window washer or "squeegee kid" wears a face mask to protect himself from the coronavirus while soliciting vehicles an intersection, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez).
A street corner window washer or "squeegee kid" wears a face mask to protect himself from the coronavirus while soliciting vehicles an intersection, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez). (Julio Cortez/AP)

Eighteen more votes and Jim Brochin might be Baltimore County executive right now. In 2018, the former state senator lost the Democratic primary to John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. by a final count of 27,820 to 27,803 (with county council member Vicki Almond not so far behind at 26,842). Mr. Olszewski went on to win the general election over Republican Al Redmer Jr., by more than 50,000 votes.

Today, the region can be grateful that Mr. Brochin no longer holds elected office.

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Speaking as a guest on a Saturday morning WBAL NewsRadio 1090 call-in program with former Baltimore Sun sports columnist Peter Schmuck, the 57-year-old insurance broker announced that he would like to see Baltimore County residents boycott Baltimore City. Aside from commuting to and from jobs, he told listeners, he would very much like to see the Jones Falls Expressway empty. No shopping trips. No visits to restaurants. No Saturdays at the museums or evenings at the theater. At least not until there was meaningful change by leadership, he informed his host.

And what could possibly motivate such an embargo, such an economic blockade, such a near-declaration of war?

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What drew Mr. Brochin’s ire was the aggressive panhandling by the young people collectively known as “squeegee kids” who wait at busy intersections with slow-changing traffic signals, such as President and Pratt streets or Mount Royal and North avenues, to offer to clean vehicle windshields for money. Their behavior has certainly drawn complaints in the past — and in recent letters to the editor in this newspaper. There have even been ugly confrontations between the young men and drivers, not just heated arguments, but physical altercations. And there have even been efforts by current and past police and city officials to curb the practice and offer participants better (and safer) job opportunities.

Can they be an inconvenience? Absolutely. An annoyance? Sometimes (although there are also positive incidents, like the recent example of a squeegee kid helping an accident victim, that don’t get nearly as much attention). But there are also clear examples of overreaction by suburban commuters who see Black males of a certain age and immediately assume the worst. You can bet there are no county politicians calling for a boycott of the Girl Scouts, the local volunteer firefighters or the various other predominantly white groups who have been known to approach stopped vehicles for donations at suburban intersections.

Of the wealth of problems facing Baltimore right now, it’s difficult to see squeegee kids as cracking the top 10, let alone being boycott material. Are WBAL’s listeners not aware of gun violence, including the many weapons that originate from outside the city (now there’s a good item to boycott)? Yet overreactions to Black male youth do represent a top problem — it’s a clear example of how racism continues to plague Baltimore. In fact, callers and writers to Mr. Schmuck’s program on Saturday were only too happy to explain how they’ve already been boycotting Baltimore.

And that’s exactly how a city gets burdened with more concentrated poverty, more crime and fewer economic opportunities. By seeing squeegee kids as the cause of Baltimore’s troubles instead of merely a symptom of the deeper social travails — some of which date back generations — suburban whites can happily wash their hands of the damage they’ve done by doing more. What does Mr. Brochin believe his economic boycott will accomplish? Cause police to focus on windshield wiping instead of the more serious crimes? Reduce youth employment opportunities and turn them to criminal enterprises? Demonstrate to these young people that the rest of the state doesn’t care about their circumstances? It may not be his intent, but it would surely accomplish all of the above.

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Again, none of that is to excuse criminal behavior. If someone panhandling commits a crime, particularly assault, that person ought to be prosecuted. But we would also expect suburban leaders — those who deserve public office — to look at the region as a whole and, together with Mayor Brandon Scott and others, to seek common ground and help solve difficult problems together from job training to transportation to systemic racism.

Meanwhile, we can just count our blessings that those 18 extra votes didn’t show up at the polls three years ago.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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