Race clouds debate over downtown crime

Activists denounce state delegate for 'black youth mobs' comment

May 22, 2012|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

The ongoing debate over youth crime in downtown Baltimore has sparked a war of words over race — overshadowing a debate over the police response to disturbances and objections from city politicians who say the issue is vastly overblown.

Since a state delegate introduced the term "black youth mobs" in reference to hundreds of teenagers mobbing downtown on St. Patrick's Day, discussions from living rooms to online forums have been dominated by race. That has left little room for discussion of the real issues, all sides agree.

"We kind of lost focus of what this is all about," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, who nonetheless stood by his comments about black mobs. The delegate said he only wanted to "stimulate a debate" and if others "want to make it a racial controversy, that's fine."

McDonough, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, called on Tuesday for the creation of a Maryland Youth Fund that would solicit donations in exchange for tax breaks, with money given to recreation centers and other programs. He also has urged the governor to send in the state police and declare the Inner Harbor a "no travel zone" until order is restored.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake boosted police patrols downtown for the summer on Friday. Still, mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said City Hall officials are frustrated because no one is talking about historic drops in crime, including a 13 percent decline in violent crime in the district that includes downtown.

O'Doherty dismissed the tax incentive idea while highlighting a long list of initiatives the city has funded, including a youth violence prevention program, even as four recreation centers are to be shuttered by a budget squeeze. He accused McDonough of merely trying to "distract attention from his earlier, racially charged comments."

Activists also have focused on McDonough's comments.

A wide variety of interest groups vowed at a news conference Tuesday to use what they called the delegate's racist rhetoric to refocus the debate and get even more programs for youth. They also said McDonough's call for state police intervention brought back memories of National Guard occupations during the civil rights era.

"Mr. McDonough, You have given us a reason to come together to discuss your bigotry," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, former head of the city's NAACP chapter. "But more important is our children. They have to be our priority."

"We have a critical problem with jobs," Cheatham continued. "We're talking about closing recreation centers. These things are important to us because they affect our youth, and what they do and don't do. Crime and violence in the Inner Harbor and throughout the city is also and issue, and we need to address it."

But, he said, more police downtown shouldn't come at the expense of other neighborhoods. "We're not going to let the mayor off the hook," Cheatham said. "We're challenging everybody."

The broader debate was sparked by the March 17 melee, when youths from the city's east and west sides unexpectedly massed downtown, taking police by surprise. More than a dozen fights broke out as the teens and young adults moved from street to street. After several hours when police reinforcements were recruited from around the city, officers eventually pushed them out of downtown.

McDonough and others weighed in after The Baltimore Sun published outtakes from police dispatch tapes that showed the extent of the incident was greater in scope and violence than authorities had initially described.

Hours after the fights, a drunken tourist was attacked outside the downtown courthouse, robbed, beaten and stripped naked. Instead of rushing to help or calling police, bystanders used cellphones to record the attack, bringing national attention to Baltimore's debate over crime.

Baltimore police have denied suppressing information and have responded by praising officers for successfully "controlling" the crowds. Rawlings-Blake toured downtown on Friday night and introduced a new summer deployment plan that includes an additional 50 officers on foot.

But McDonough remained critical of Rawlings-Blake. "I'm not going to go away," he said. "I'm frustrated when people with real power do nothing. … If Baltimore City does not overcome crime, crime is going to overcome Baltimore City. It's already happening."

In turn, McDonough is facing criticism from his colleagues in Annapolis, who are calling attention to what they characterize as a thin legislative record. Since taking office in 2003, only two bills McDonough has introduced have passed, both dealing with nursing homes.

Over the years McDonough has tried — and failed — to make English the official language of Baltimore County, to require that voters show identification at the polls, to override county bans on Tasers and to prohibit the Maryland Transportation Authority from raising tolls without the General Assembly's consent.

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