Some upset by O'Malley's painful truths

February 29, 2000|By Michael Olesker

Three months after taking office, Martin O'Malley has found his voice, and it is angry and exasperated, and thus echoes those who voted him into City Hall. He is saying, at long last: We should not have to live like war combatants in the city of Baltimore.

For this, he is catching all manner of flak. He has declared himself "nauseated" by judges and prosecutors who have been sleepwalking through a descent into criminal justice hell but somehow pronounce themselves satisfied with modest progress. He has said the police are not moving fast enough to break up the drug corners.

And for this, he has drawn criticism not only from law enforcement types, but from state legislators who initially found his remarks refreshingly honest but are now slightly offended because the bickering has gotten personal.

They need to remember: The argument has been building for the past dozen years, through a lingering crack epidemic, and police who waited for signals that never arrived from City Hall, and a former mayor so immobilized over the subtleties of race and the law that he failed to give clear leadership while roughly 3,500 people were being murdered during his administration.

So we have the new mayor, O'Malley, uttering painful truths. In Annapolis two weeks ago, he told legislators that the courts are in such a state of disrepair, the General Assembly should withhold $9 million in financial aid until major reforms are completed -- or risk seeing it disappear without a trace in the usual courthouse chaos.

One week ago, at City Hall, he said the decade's great city killing spree would never have happened -- not with such a complacent reaction from those in political power -- had the vast majority of victims been white instead of black.

That is, of course, half the story. The victims of the terrible run of murders have overwhelmingly been black, and so were the killers. This is not news to anyone. And the old mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke, understood the terrible pathology behind it: generations of second-class citizenship for African-Americans, generations of economic deprivation, and of second-class schooling, all of which led to family breakdown and the kind of despair expressed with drugs and crime.

Being sensitive to all of this, Schmoke's response was to bend over backward, to try to be even-handed, to see the drug traffickers as victims of history and as patients in need of treatment and not just as law-breakers.

And there was truth to what he said, and understandable compassion behind it -- but it overlooked the obvious: a city was being held hostage. The drug traffickers were victims of a whole history, but so were old people who couldn't venture out of their homes, and children out of school, and entire neighborhoods of innocent people (most of whom also happen to be black) paying the price for City Hall ambivalence.

What the new mayor is saying is: No more ambivalence. And no phony pronouncements from courthouse lifers shifting a few statistics around and declaring that progress will certainly be arriving any day now.

That's the kind of language we've heard out of the public schools, as each new generation of children has marched toward adulthood without noticeable survival skills. Or it's the language of the previous housing commissioner, who presided over the decay of thousands of empty buildings, and entire city blocks, while declaring great progress.

In his exasperation and his bluntness, the new mayor might get a few specifics wrong, and he will surely hurt people's feelings. These things will heal. A former mayor named Schaefer perfected the art of the generalized snarl and the particularized threat. He knew public officials responded with new energy when they felt vulnerable.

This mayor seems to operate from the same understanding. It is no longer enough to measure progress in tiny installments. There are neighborhoods with homes that have been boarded up for years, and the junkies move in and trash these places, and rats run around and trash is dumped everywhere, and whole blocks are lost.

How can any public official not understand that this is intolerable -- and not take immediate action?

There are courtrooms backed up, and jails overcrowded, and a criminal class that has learned to laugh at this and understand that even the worst crimes are sloughed off to keep "the process" going.

How can any public official not understand that declarations of "progress" become a punch line after years of such conditions?

So we can listen to complaints from those who feel hurt by Mayor O'Malley's outbursts. They can call him undiplomatic, and fault him on a few specifics. But he's onto something here. He understands the anger, and the fears, and the exasperation of those who elected him, and he's speaking in their voice.

He is saying: If these complaints are not heard, people will be held accountable.


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