In Baltimore and elsewhere, repressive policing isn't just about racism — it's also about class.
In 2006, I’d been living in Baltimore’s Western District for two years, working as an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. One night, driving a borrowed vehicle with a broken tail light after an accident totaled my car, I was pulled over by a Baltimore City police officer.
I didn’t have my driver’s license — I’d left it at a friend’s house. I didn’t have a photo ID — I’d left my campus ID in my office. In fact, although I knew one of my (now former) wife’s friends loaned me the car, I couldn’t remember anything about her. Not her name. Nothing.
So when the police officer pulled me over, he ended up encountering not just a black driver with a broken headlight, but a driver without a driver’s license, without any photo ID, and without any idea who’s car he was driving.
I didn’t get a single ticket. Nothing.
I’m driving home with my kids in our minivan sometime after this first incident. I pass by a police officer on an overpass; he pulls the car around and begins to follow me. Then another police officer follows him. Then another. I’m pretty sure I made a legal turn. I’m pretty sure I’m driving just a shade above the speed limit. They are following me, but I don’t know what I did wrong.
The lights flash. Three police cars surround me.
Several officers get out of the car. Two of them come to the driver’s side and shine their flashlight into my vehicle.
“We heard reports that someone in a minivan like yours was waving a gun wildly . . . but we now know that couldn’t have been you.”
I wasn’t taken out of the car. My kids weren’t interrogated. As soon as they stepped up to the car, they somehow knew it wasn’t me — before they even talked to me.
Last week, the Department of Justice released its long-awaited report on the Baltimore City Police Department. It says what many people inside and outside the city have long recognized, but the details of the report have still astonished and outraged many.
Baltimore City residents have in effect been living under a police state. Over a five- to six-year period, the Baltimore City Police Department:
- Recorded over 300,000 pedestrian stops (and likely made several hundred thousand unrecorded stops during the same period), with over 40 percent of the geo-coded stops concentrated in two districts: the Western and the Central.
- Only cited or arrested individuals in 3.7 percent of these stops (based on a random sample of 7,200).
- Only investigated ten of the 2,818 force incidents in the police department. Of these ten only one force incident was found to be excessive.
- Routinely used unreasonable force against people who presented no threat to officers or to others.
- Routinely detained, arrested, and used force against people exercising their First Amendment rights.
- Routinely blamed victims of sexual assault for their assault, particularly those in the sex trade, and failed to properly investigate over half of rape charges brought to them.
- Appears to have either ignored or failed to investigate charges that officers coerced sex from sex workers in exchange for money and/or arrest avoidance.
These practices, which the report notes have been disproportionately used against black men, women, and children, are so deeply ingrained in the police department that some of them occurred during ride-alongs.
During a ride-along with Justice Department officials, a BPD sergeant instructed a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American males on a street corner, question them, and order them to disperse. When the patrol officer protested that he had no valid reason to stop the group, the sergeant then replied “Then make something up.” This incident is far from anomalous.
And police officers feel so comfortable that what they’re doing follows policy, they’re willing to share it on Facebook:
A different BPS sergeant posted on Facebook that when he supervises officers in the Northeast District, he encourages them to “clear corners,” a term many officers understand to mean stopping pedestrians who are standing on city sidewalks to question and then disperse them by threatening arrest for minor offenses like loitering and trespassing. The sergeant wrote, “I used to say at roll call in NE when I ran the shift: “Do not treat criminals like citizens. Citizens want that corner cleared.”
The DOJ report barely begins to articulate the human toll of BPD practices, but here’s a stab.
Freddie Gray was killed in the same neighborhood he grew up in: Sandtown-Winchester, in Baltimore’s Western District. The neighborhood has a 30 percent poverty rate (more than double that of the city as a whole) and a 21 percent unemployment rate (almost double that of the city as a whole). More than 75 percent of adults twenty-five years or older have less than a high school degree, and lead paint violations in the area are almost four times higher than in the rest of the city.
The problems Freddie Gray’s neighborhood faces demand political solutions. Yet every time police officers “clear a corner,” detain a resident for talking back, or use force against someone because they have a hoodie, they crush the political capacity of residents to contest their circumstances, to even begin to imagine alternatives. They make it more difficult to organize for better housing, for better schools, for better public transportation.
Every arrest keeps someone from holding or even finding a job. Prevents a father from taking care of his family. Prevents a woman from realizing her dreams as a nurse. Keeps a kid from running for office.
In the decades since the neoliberal turn, urban policing has come to play at least one of two roles: garnering municipal revenue, or policing populations left out of the “new economy” and uncovered by the safety net.
Ferguson and other smaller cities fit the first scenario. Up until the DOJ’s report on Ferguson city last year, over 20 percent of the city’s revenue came from fines and policing. Unable (and unwilling) to increase taxes on rich people and corporations, Ferguson and many other cities — both in St Louis County and across the country — deployed police to collect fees and write tickets with abandon.
In Baltimore, the second scenario prevails. Even though the city now spends close to $500 million annually on police, it doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of revenue from its policing practices that Ferguson does. As with New York and other larger cities, Baltimore uses its police more as a tool of social control — a blunt instrument to contain “surplus” populations so they don’t threaten elite-driven economic development.
Baltimore’s Port Covington project is a perfect example. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has requested hundreds of millions in tax breaks to blanket the waterfront area with glitzy stores, restaurants, lodging, and, of course, a new headquarters for Under Armour. Like gentrification schemes before it, the whole plan is predicated on keeping out the undesired, on policing the excluded so they remain on the margins.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this essay.
It’s clear from the DOJ report that the Baltimore City Police Department routinely stops, harasses, detains, and uses force against black people. But if we view the report solely through a racism lens, it’s difficult to account for the two stories I detailed above (even with the allowance that it’s hard to make inferences based on individual anecdotes).
Am I a super-negro? Am I on some secret list of Johns Hopkins professors? Better yet, was I simply stopped in both cases by “the good police officers”?
No. No. And probably not. What’s more likely is that the police officers quickly realized that I didn’t fit the profile of the black person they were trained to harass, detain, and use force against. I was black — but not a member of Baltimore’s “underclass.”
There’s a reason why the vast majority of police stops occur in the Western and the Central Districts: the Western is home to Baltimore’s poorest black neighborhoods, the Central is home to Baltimore’s business district. In effect, the city is producing and reproducing a population that has no functional purpose other than to be policed.
Seeing police violence as simply an expression of racism omits this crucial component. It overlooks that in Baltimore and elsewhere, repressive policing is animated not just by a racial dynamic, but by a class dynamic.
The race of the police officer doesn’t matter. The race of the mayor implementing the policy doesn’t matter. What matters is who enjoys a “right to the city” — and who gets thrown up against a wall and patted down.