Bell and O'Malley bring lights, cameras, action

July 13, 1995|By WILEY HALL

Let's see if we've got this straight: Tuesday night, City Council members Lawrence A. Bell and Martin O'Malley sashayed down to the Park Heights community -- reporters and television news crews in tow -- in order to "document" the conditions that make a youth curfew law necessary.

Bathed in television lights, the two politicians pointed and gawked like tourists at the more sensational aspects of night life in the inner city.

And then Mr. Bell and Mr. O'Malley were shocked that some of the youths there got fed up and began to throw things at them. According to news reports, about 15 teen-agers showered the politicians and their media pals with soda bottles, old batteries, and rocks. The targets of the attack fled for cover inside a news van. No one was injured.

"I couldn't believe it, I just couldn't believe it," said Mr. Bell when I called him yesterday.

Well, maybe I can help him understand what happened.

First, I do not condone violence. Hurling soda bottles and old batteries could have resulted in serious injuries. Thankfully, no one was hit.

At the same time, it is not polite to go into other people's neighborhoods and ogle and shudder and exclaim out loud about what you find. People are apt to think they are being held up for ridicule, especially if you bring television cameras with you.

In fact, I called Mr. Bell because I had heard a rumor that the attack started shortly after he had referred to people there as "animals." Most of the people who live in Park Heights are black. Mr. Bell, who is running for council president, is also black. Mr. O'Malley is not. Neither man represents the community they chose for their "study."

"No," replied Mr. Bell firmly. "I did not say they were 'animals.' I said they were acting like animals."

Oh.

"You weren't there," Mr. Bell continued. "I tell you, it was depressing. There were children everywhere, screaming and hollering, they were all over the place. All the adults I saw were high, bombed-out, [needle] tracks all up and down their arms. I'm telling you, if you had been there you would have felt the same way I did."

For the record, Park Heights is a struggling community in West Baltimore where people who own their homes and care about their neighborhood live side by side with neglected rental properties, boarded-up row homes and vacant lots. The area has one of the highest rates of unemployment, illness and crime in the city. According to police, certain areas of Park Heights Avenue are notorious drug markets. But there also are a lot of hard-working, law-abiding citizens there who have been crying out for help for a long time.

Baltimore's year-old youth curfew law was a response, of sorts, because youngsters have been enlisted as drug runners or injured in the cross-fire of competing gangs. The law prohibited anyone under 17 from being outside of their homes after 11 p.m. during the week and after midnight on weekends. About 200 cities nationwide have adopted similar ordinances. But police here suspended enforcement of the law last week after the state's highest court ruled against a similar provision adopted by Frederick.

The Baltimore City Council held an emergency session yesterday to rewrite the curfew so that it would survive judicial scrutiny. But only after Mr. Bell and Mr. O'Malley made a circus out of a community's pain.

Anyway, arresting children is a pretty pathetic response to the problems that plague urban communities such as Park Heights. Public schools are under-funded. Job opportunities are scarce. And Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner, says federal and state funding cuts have crippled the city's ability to help drug addicts.

"Virtually all our residential treatment slots are gone," Mr. Beilenson said yesterday. "We have a huge turnover in staff. We've got about 5,700 out-patient slots to treat the estimated 50,000 addicts in the city."

In light of this neglect, the media event staged by Mr. Bell and Mr. O'Malley must have seemed like a cruel joke.

Who wouldn't be angry? Wouldn't you?

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