Curfew forum

Protesters outside the youth curfew forum at the University of Baltimore on July 29. (Kate Drabinski. / July 30, 2014)

The University of Baltimore Law Center opened its door last night for the second of two community forums on Baltimore's new curfew ordinance that will replace the city's 20-year-old ordinance, doing away with incarceration as a penalty for parents and guardians and diverting youth to Youth Connections Centers (YCCs) to connect them and their families to social services. Sounds good, right? For city leaders, the new ordinance is a huge improvement that promises to offer real services to children and families in need. For others, though, the ordinance is just another way to criminalize youth of color and their families, stop-and-frisk by another name. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake knows this, and last night she presented a public forum that was supposed to give the community a chance to ask questions and air concerns.

That didn't happen, though, as the forum quickly showed itself to be a chance for city officials to make their case, to call on supporters to strengthen that case, and chide a restless audience for speaking out of turn while waiting for a turn that never came.

The forum started about 15 minutes late with each of the forum panelists—Mayor SRB, Councilman Brandon Scott, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, and Angela Johnese from the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice—saying their piece. SRB thanked us for coming and plugged the curfew as a chance to really care about kids. She anticipated the worry that we suddenly have all this cash for YCCs after shutting down rec centers that might have kept kids occupied in the first place, arguing that we need both. She made a couple of lighthearted references to the Orioles and the Ravens—a man behind me muttered, "yeah, it's all a game, isn't it?"—and then turned it over to BPD Commissioner Anthony Batts.

Batts told us about his upbringing on the rough streets of south-central Los Angeles, where Baltimore's gangs were born. He credited his parents, who were strict about his curfew, with helping him get where he is today. He talked about his own parenting practices, noting that of course his kids wanted to stay out after 9 or 10 p.m., but reminding us all that it's a parent's job to put down some limits. It was a bit strange, this idea that his own experience as a child and a parent should set city policy for everybody, but he seemed unaware that anyone could argue with the moral authority that comes with a childhood on the mean streets of LA.

Councilman Scott went next, talking about his own scrappy childhood in Baltimore, reminding us that he's young enough to remember being a kid out after dark, and if it weren't for parents and neighbors that got him inside, he wouldn't be where he is today. He also admonished the crowd to think about what we were doing to make life better for these kids, even arguing that if you aren't mentoring a kid in Baltimore, you can't really say you are a man.

Johnese went last and spoke longest, going into the nitty-gritty of the ordinance itself, anticipating concerns that it is just another example of police state violence by, again, sharing her own personal stories. She was an activist too, before she ended up working for the state. Trust her, the Office on Criminal Justice isn't about cops locking up kids—this is about connecting people to resources. She'll be the first one to intervene if shit starts going to shit, promise. Johnese shared the most facts with the least rhetoric, and that was a relief.

And then, questions. Sort of. The moderator, Gussener Augustus Jr. from the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods, tossed the first questions to people who were part of early conversations about the ordinance. The first question turned into a long speech by Tessa Hill-Aston of the Baltimore City NAACP about her personal history coming up in Baltimore City's public schools, how she raised her kids and how she's raising her grandkids. About five minutes in, someone yelled, "What’s your question?" and she replied that she didn't have one and didn't need one. She had observations to make, and no one was going to shout her down, especially given how much she and the NAACP have done for the people of Baltimore. She did speak to the concern that the ordinance opens even more doors for police violence against youth of color, noting that perhaps there should be specific police officers assigned to enforce it. Cops shouldn't be pulled off their stopping-murder-and-drug-dealing beats to pick up kids, right? This was clearly her own idea, as Batts clarified that all cops will be trained to enforce the curfew.

The first actual question brought by a member of the audience asked what would happen to young people without a parent or guardian to pick them up. The response from the panel first complimented the man for being "articulate," perhaps a jab at those becoming restless, as over an hour into the forum, this was the first real question being heard. The panelists touted the YCCs as safe places to wait, offering recreational opportunities, maybe computer training, DVDs, tutoring, and generally sounding like . . . rec centers. Everyone emphasized that this is not a law-enforcement tactic but about keeping kids safe, but the heavy police presence at the forum and the part where it's cops who’ll be enforcing the ordinance—well, let's just say that claim felt a little disingenuous

The next questioner asked why there were no police in her neighborhood of Edgewater, and why, when her fiancee was murdered there, no one seemed to care. She was reminded that this was a forum about the curfew ordinance, and that "someone from the mayor's office" would talk to her later. The next several questions were clearly critical of the proposal, especially coming on the heels of the rec center closings. At this point the crowd was growing increasingly frustrated as the questions were dismissed quickly by a panel certain that this ordinance would solve those problems. When the next question went to someone who was actively involved as a community partner in the YCCs, people really started stirring, and Augustus jumped in to remind the audience that we needed to be respectful, that vigorous debate is good, but we needed to be "civil" about it or he'd throw us out.

The restlessness was real, caused, I think, by the steady realization that this was an event even more orchestrated than expected, where only a few people unknown to the panelists would even be allowed to speak; hands waved as we watched the microphone handed to people offering softball observations about how we should stop debating since that doesn't actually help kids or sharing personal stories about the good old days of Officer Friendlies and Good Neighbors. The call to "civil discourse" felt insulting, and Augustus started to feel like a principal faced with a group of surly kids he was about to suspend. It isn't civil when you don't let us speak. It's not a forum when only one point of view is represented and everybody else is told to pipe down or they'll be asked to leave.

None of this is to say that the people responsible for the forum and for the ordinance itself don't have the best intentions and really believe this is a way to help kids and families. It is to say, however, that the forum did not allow the vigorous debate SRB and others claimed to want. The forum largely shut down the voices of those with real philosophical problems with this approach to solving the real problems facing Baltimore youth. Hill-Aston spoke of the importance of knowing our history, sharing hers as a reminder that our schools and neighborhoods have offered more support than they do now. I was reminded of a different history, one where vagrancy laws were instituted in the post-Civil War south, used as a cudgel by the Jim Crow state to force black men and women to work, often for the same people who had enslaved them. That is also a history that resonates in laws like this one. The curfew law is certainly not meant in that spirit, but to refuse to listen to the echoes of that past or the very real present of racial profiling and police brutality is to again ask all of us to just trust that it'll be different this time. The forum gave no real reason to trust because no one listened (Batts even rolled his eyes when SRB referred to the previous forum, held at Morgan State, as a "constructive conversation"). What a lost opportunity.