Riots spur march on D.C. for urban aid

May 15, 1992|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau Staff writer Michael Fletcher contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- What binds the Roman Catholic nun walking the hot road from Baltimore to Washington, the former editor of Newsweek, homeless Tucsonites from Arizona and disabled children riding down from New York City?

They all plan to march in Washington tomorrow to press for more federal spending to revitalize America's crumbling inner cities -- a cause that has taken on greater urgency in the wake of the verdict in the Rodney King beating case and the Los Angeles riots that followed.

A similar march last fall, organized by Baltimore activists, drew only 3,000 people when it was held the same weekend that Anita Hill confronted Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with her charges of sexual harassment.

This time it will be different, promise the organizers of the Save Our Cities-Save Our Children rally.

Tens of thousands are expected to converge on the nation's capital to press for a long-standing call by the U.S. Conference of Mayors for an emergency federal aid program to help cities, said rally initiator Osborn Elliott, a former Newsweek editor and New York deputy mayor.

At least 10,000 Baltimoreans are expected, he said. Hundreds of people are coming by bus from New York, Boston, Newark, N.J., and other cities across the country.

"The interest has snowballed; it's really taken off in the last few weeks," said Leslie Cagan, a consultant for Save Our Cities-Save Our Children, which has been organizing the rally since December on behalf of the mayors' conference.

From Baltimore, more than 50 civic activists led by Sister Katherine Corr, director of Jobs with Peace, are on a three-day walk, aiming to reach the capital later today, in advance of the rally.

Speakers at the rally will include Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, and National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland.

Democratic presidential contenders Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and former California Gov. Jerry Brown are also expected to attend, though the organizers say they have not been invited to speak.

The march has been endorsed by 153 mayors nationally -- 70 of whom signed on after the Los Angeles riots.

The mayors want the federal government to spend more money on cities, reversing a trend of federal disinvestment in cities that began in the 1980s.

During that time federal money as a percentage of city budgets fell by more than 64 percent, from an average of 17.7 percent in 1980 to 6.4 percent in 1990, according to a 50-city survey done by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The picture is more stark in Baltimore.

In 1980, federal funds accounted for 39.1 percent of the city's budget, according to finance officials. By fiscal 1992, the federal portion had fallen to 13.4 percent.

Several high-profile federal programs for the cities have been eliminated.

Among them are federal revenue sharing, which gave direct aid to cities, and Urban Development Action Grants, federal money that was used to leverage private investment for development projects like the Inner Harbor.

While increases in state aid and local tax revenue have made up for some of the lost federal money, Baltimore has been forced to reduce services and trim its work force -- even as its population becomes poorer and more in need of help.

Mr. Elliott, who conceived the march almost two years ago and persuaded the mayors' conference to adopt the project, said the diverse participants were bound together by "outrage at the savage cutbacks in federal support for the cities in the last 10 to 12 years."

Many participants believe, he said, "that the cities are the heart and soul -- the engine of America. If the cities die this society dies."

Members of the mayors' conference were on Capitol Hill vTC Wednesday, where they complained that urban assistance plans being discussed by both the Bush administration and the Congress were "woefully inadequate."

They want a $35 billion federal package, including $15 billion in grants to the nation's most troubled cities. This would be used for better law enforcement, jobs and housing, and to attract investment back to the inner cities, to fight the hopelessness that pervades the urban slums, they said.

But Mayor Schmoke, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said

he was not optimistic that federal priorities will change.

"It is not a question of wallet. It is a question of will," Mr. Schmoke said, pointing out that money was found for the Persian Gulf war and the nationwide bailout of troubled savings and loan institutions. "I question whether our national leadership think cities are important to them politically."

Time and route

Rally-goers are expected to assemble between 10 a.m and noon tomorrow near the Capitol.

The march, scheduled to begin at noon, will proceed west alonConstitution Avenue to the Washington Monument grounds. It is to end at 4:30 p.m.

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