Baltimore can't overcome its ongoing struggles without change

I need to say a few words about the events that have unfolded in Baltimore these past few weeks. To start, I want to say something about the riots themselves. I started working in the Baltimore City Public Schools right around the time of the 1968 riots. I spent more than 30 years working in the city, and a couple of things stand out to me. The most disturbing fact is that more than 40 years later, little has changed. Poverty, drugs, unemployment and violence continue to be the order of the day. There has been no sustained effort to alleviate the conditions that condemn especially the young black men of the neighborhoods to a bleak future.

The problems that are endemic to the city of Baltimore are deeply engrained societal issues. The will to change Baltimore has simply not existed. Instead, we essentially have made excuses: "We tried to make things better and it just doesn't work." "Look how much money has been spent in the city and it hasn't made things better, so stop wasting our money."

Blame is also placed at the foot of the school system for failing our young people. Again, the charge of wasted taxpayer money is often made. Yet the schools cannot obliterate the conditions we find in the city. Students spend a few hours each day in school, but the influence of dysfunctional homes and the lure of the streets is far more powerful.

In general, public schools across this country are doing quite well. Parents are sending their children to school, they are learning, they are successful, and they are doing well in college and in life. In our urban centers, however, schools are asked to do more than what is possible. Unless genuine and sustained efforts are made to change the conditions that beset our inner cities, improvement is not likely. If programs aren't working, we must seek programs that will work rather than deciding it is not worth the effort. If we fail to make real change, it will not take another 40 years before the next set of riots occur.

It is interesting that no sooner were the six police officers in question charged than the Fraternal Order of Police came to their defense. The prosecutor was attacked, and the union officials insisted that their officers had done nothing wrong. Of course, this is the chant we have heard in each of the incidents that have occurred across the country over the last several months. In most cases, the result has been that police have not been held accountable. This reality does not give confidence to the community that fairness and justice is likely.

I think we have seen that police officers are going to support each other, no matter what. This is somewhat understandable but requires that a significant change take place in the way the police feel about the communities they serve. If they believe they are the good guys going after the bad guys, who do not deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, we will continue to see the kinds of incidents that have been occurring across the country.

I believe the actions of the Baltimore City state's attorney and the peaceful demonstrations offer a glimmer of hope, but it is only a tiny glimmer at this time. There needs to be real interaction between the community and the police. Citizens and police officers need to come to know and respect one another. Intensive training is necessary to change attitudes and feelings about each other.

We need to turn the page, acknowledge the misdeeds of the past, and build a new and cooperative working relationship between the police and the community. Body cameras will help and are a must at this time, but until the young people on the street are seen as real people struggling to find meaning in their lives and a future they can believe in, change will be limited. You can always turn off the camera. 


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