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A Letter from Baltimore: The Lesson of Marilyn Mosby

 Having won her primary re-election easily, it feels like Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby (D) has already receded into the background as Baltimore has eased back into the business of hot summer multiple shooting weekends for which no one is responsible except faceless root causes. Mosby emerged for a few short weeks to engage the public, the press and her opponents, and having dispatched them all, has returned to her place as the city’s unseen force – never appearing in a City Hall press conference, never appearing anywhere with the mayor, absent each time a new police commissioner is announced, absent from each hearing at the Lombard Street courthouse about the city’s federal Consent Decree (for which she takes credit), absent from all public discussion of how that decree is supposed to reform our police department, and most shockingly to her opponents, totally unblamed for the tide of blood that has run in the city’s streets for three years now. But Marilyn Mosby need not appear anywhere except on her own terms and at her own press conferences, and every elected official in town knows to make sure their name is listed on her fundraiser invites, for a simple reason: she stands for truth long-denied in a city that likes to lie to itself. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby with her two Democratic primary challengers during a candidate forum in June. File photo For half the city, her re-election proves that truth is the most powerful political weapon even in this era of “fake news.” The other half voted for someone else, and they must reckon with the lesson that truth will always vanquish logic, fact, and mere competence. This lesson could have been learned in 2014 when Gregg Bernstein lost to Mosby, or in 2016 when Elizabeth Embry lost her race for mayor. If they don’t learn this lesson soon those disappointed in 2018 will likely be disappointed in 2020 when another one of their best and brightest loses for mayor again. It is time for them to face the fact that, like the O.J. verdict, the illogic of the outcome does not make it any less true. The truth at stake in this election was the iceberg on which the city ran aground at 3 p.m. on April 27, 2015. According to her closing argument, this iceberg, and our many years of denial of just how big it was beneath the water’s surface, was Mosby’s inheritance.   “The uprising” was just the symptom. Soon after there would be a cavalcade of evidence – and not just the system’s inability to hold anyone accountable for Freddie Gray’s in-custody death. There was the Department of Justice report detailing our police department’s long history of abuse, and their demand for a long list of reforms. There was the police-worn body camera footage revealing how the police sometimes “re-enacted” evidence collection in a way that looked a lot like evidence fabrication. And then there was the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force – “the good guys” charged with getting “the bad guys with guns” off the street – revealed to have been using their badges to thieve and lie for years under the nose of their own command. The Doldrums of 2014 After all of this it is difficult to recall the doldrums of 2014 when no one was talking about any of these things – not even Mosby herself. Her campaign that year was about the conviction rate, not racial justice. Back then, the stakes seemed so low. Anthony Brown was running his sleepy campaign for governor. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was taking routine junkets out of town to events with the Democratic National Committee, in fulfillment of her duties as party secretary, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of which she would become president. The city’s new schools CEO had yet to prove himself incompetent. The city’s new police commissioner had yet to disintegrate. The city’s future still seemed strangely assured. By early 2015, after Rawlings-Blake balked at the chance to replace the retiring Barbara Mikulski as U.S. senator, the only drama on the horizon was the next mayoral race, which we expected to be a personality contest between the sphinx-like incumbent and her jilted nemesis, Sheila Dixon. If Marilyn Mosby had any profile at this point it came from the lingering effect of her incredible, star-powered inauguration at the War Memorial and from the consternation of the city’s legal establishment over how she ran her office.  Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake  Then everything changed. I myself remember Ms. Daphne from constituent services coming down the hall to my office on the third floor of Baltimore City Hall at about 11 a.m. the morning of April 27, telling me of the urgent phone calls her office was getting. Something was about to happen, although we hardly knew what. Hours later it started. I walked into the chief of staff’s office, the mayor’s communications chief glued to CNN on the television, the mayor’s entire political life flashing before his eyes. I understood what it would have been like to walk onto the bridge of the Titanic right after everyone realized there was something up ahead in the water no one had seen. Suddenly our entirely self-imposed legacy of racial injustice was on the cover of The New York Times, and the dim life prospects of a young man like Freddie Gray, and the radical disparities between his neighborhood and the Inner Harbor a few blocks and 10 million miles away were transformed from a problem too difficult to solve into an embarrassment and too difficult to ignore. Then four days later, the threat of continued unrest still looming, Marilyn Mosby made a sermon entirely inappropriate for a chief prosecutor and yet entirely appropriate for the moment on the steps of the War Memorial, and thereby merged herself with a fiery truth – Gray’s unexplained, almost dead body in the back of a police van. He went in alive, he came out with a broken neck, and the failure to dignify his ultimate demise with an explanation was a violent insult to the many thousands who, like him, lived with the truth of being black in Baltimore. The Sermon That sermon is the key to Mosby’s success, and those put off (as I was) by its tone and stridence should put themselves, as best they can, in the minds of someone who fled the Jim Crow South for Baltimore, or who grew up hearing the stories of those who did, and then imagine how her words sounded to them. Imagine coming here to escape sharecropping and public lynchings for factory work that started to disappear to the suburbs or to China just as you got here, for desegregated public schools that the city would start to abandon once white people did in order to avoid your children. Imagine having lived this life and seeing a young black woman stand up on May 1, 2015 and do what at every moment before that seemed impossible, and prosecute the police for the death of a black man in their custody. If you can imagine this, then perhaps then you can imagine why so many people are so fond of Marilyn Mosby and why you might be too if you were them. Yes, the prosecution failed. Yes, the indictments announced that day were rushed and handled by inexperienced prosecutors. Yes, the arrest of Gray was in fact a garden-variety street rip that serves as the basis of many of Mosby’s own prosecutions, and yes, indicting officers for making that kind of arrest has sent BPD patrol into a tailspin of uncertainty, afraid to question people on the street and engage the corners. Yes, it was Mosby’s own request that area commanders step up street-level drug interdiction that likely led to Gray’s arrest in the first place. And yes, if indeed Gray’s arrest was unconstitutional, no one, not Mosby, not anyone else, has yet to explain what should replace these tactics in a police department that only knows how to fight a failed war on drugs and arrest three- or five-thousand Freddie Grays per month. But the simple fact of trying for vindication – not just Gray’s vindication but vindication for all those who feel they were lied to so brazenly about his death – made the collapse of the prosecutions, and the failure to explain what should come after them, almost beside the point. No one expects the prosecution of a police cover-up to succeed anyway, even one spun in plain sight as this one was – not on the cell-phone video of Gray’s arrest seen many times before, but on a less-known CCTV video of the second-to-last stop on Gray’s tour of West Baltimore that morning. Go on Youtube and see for yourself. Five police officers gathered at the back of the van, peering through its open doors, eerily paused, surely realizing there’s an almost dead body back there for which someone would have to be responsible. Another detainee is loaded into the back of the van here. Somehow he is cajoled into making a statement, later recanted, back at the station house where he and Gray’s body were taken. According to that statement, Gray was banging his head against the van during the last leg of the van ride, and must have broken his neck all by himself. This theory of miraculous abortion – disproven by the state medical examiner who found the injury could not be self-inflicted – was quite convenient, because it meant the officers on this CCTV were just having a chat with Gray, not staring at his fatally injured body and doing nothing. Of course, neither the cover-up, nor the police’s theory of Gray’s injury, was ever proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and Gray’s death remains a bloody spot that will not out. Half the city holds the stain up as proof of what they have been saying all along, and half wants desperately to cleanse it away but does not know how (which pretty much explains the election Marilyn Mosby just won). What followed the riots, the sermon, and the prosecutions was a great unraveling – and not just of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who in just months, in one of the greatest reversals of political fortune ever, descended from mayor and potential U.S. senator to mere consultant, condemned to work for a living like the rest of us. A city questions its identity What unraveled was the city’s own sense of itself, its identity, its future. Our establishment was paralyzed by the reality of life in Sandtown-Winchester, and as much as our current mayor says she wants to “change the narrative,” the real issue is that Baltimore City today has no narrative at all because the old one was destroyed once its premise – we’re doing all we can for Sandtown – was proven untrue. We then entered our post-riot interregnum. We’re still there, and it’s a place we’ve been before. Post-’68, years would elapse before a governing political consensus could be re-created, after far more devastating riots, and only with the election of William Donald Schaefer, who took office almost four years later, did the city regain some semblance of direction. Today’s Baltimore City still hasn’t made sense of its most recent unrest and there is no Schaefer on the horizon. It should have been clear that our long-reigning status quo was disintegrating, and that we were entering this interregnum, when for the first time in 20 years we had a mayoral primary whose outcome was not entirely preordained by establishment consensus. Before 2016, elections were almost royal successions, not street fights. Rawlings-Blake would have been mayor for as long as she wished, had it not been for “the riots,” just as Sheila Dixon would have been before her, had she not been convicted, just as Martin O’Malley would have been before Dixon, had he not been so anxious to be governor, just as Kurt Schmoke would have been before O’Malley, had he not grown tired of the job after three terms. But 2016 was different. What was supposed to be a race about whether the city would take back Sheila Dixon or not became a race about a thousand different issues with a thousand different candidates. It was a cacophony brought forth by the riots that upended the boundaries of acceptable debate, and drowned out our most powerful institutions, which had no decisive force in the election that Catherine Pugh technically won, Sheila Dixon effectively won, and Liz Embry intellectually won. What had unraveled was a shared understanding, a uniquely Baltimore liberalism, that began when Kurt Schmoke became our first elected black mayor in 1987, and that had delivered the succeeding mayors to office ever since. When Schmoke succeeded William Donald Schaefer, not only did Baltimore acknowledge that it was black as much as it was Polish or Irish or Italian or Jewish or German. Schmoke’s election brought with it a promise to reckon with the existential threat posed by white flight, the city’s shrinking tax base, the dry-up of federal funds for cities in the era of Reagan, the slow disappearance of factory work, and the racial disparities all this created. If not a multiracial coalition, it was a coalition of races willing more or less to work together to make Baltimore a city defined by something other than how it failed its black population, now in the majority. The alphabet soup we in Baltimore call the establishment – the foundation community and city government, the churches and the unions and the downtown business interests – would help Schmoke fulfill this existential imperative, and these institutions would align according to the new racial balance of power. It was fitting that a year after Baltimore became a majority-black city in 1974, the first of the family foundations was established in 1975, and after Goldseker came the Abell Foundation and all the rest of them. When Bob Embry chose to run Abell rather than run for mayor against Schmoke it was made clear just who would sit where at the table of this new consensus. The shared understanding, and the institutional network that tended to it, would help bend our city’s unpleasant truths into a narrative arc in which we were striving to make those truths less unpleasant to the extent we could, and willing to forgive ourselves to the extent we could not.  Dan Sparaco Anyone who has lived in the city under the hypnosis of this narrative, and has made the mistake of taking the usual shortcuts through the neighborhoods with an out-of-town visitor, is reminded of this narrative’s power over us by our passenger’s shock at the state of our city’s dereliction. We drive by it every day and barely notice. Because we Baltimoreans have long been used to seeing not what is, but what could be. But on April 27, 2015 Baltimore was forced to see what is. Not the aspirations, but the truth, stripped of the story woven to mold and manage that truth so that we could live with it. The streets that day, not discriminating between black pastors and politicians on the one hand, and white foundation chiefs and real estate developers on the other, revealed our entire establishment to be an empire with no clothes. They rejected the well-meaning liberalism that rejected Kurt Schmoke’s call for drug legalization many years ago in favor of tax credits and scholarships and public-private-partnerships. And they demanded a reckoning with the fact that life was not getting better for a large part of the city, for whom liberalism’s promise of uplift meant “workfare” instead of aid to families with children, an escalation of the war on drugs that imprisoned many thousands of their neighbors, and the demolition of thousands of units of public housing units replaced by a piece of paper called a “voucher.” Nothing has since replaced what was blown apart – no new consensus, no new understanding that can set aside the now-laughable promises made before in favor of new promises that a true majority coalition is willing to believe in, and new aspirations it is willing to work towards. Right now there is just disarray, and out of that emerged the powerful, unmediated, almost Trumpian connection between Marilyn Mosby and her supporters. She will not be able to achieve much because she lacks the governing coalition necessary to do her job. But even absent support from the police or from City Hall or from the downtown legal establishment that mobilized against her, she has great power, because she alone has been willing to speak the truths that destroyed the old consensus, and in so doing gave half the city what is has wanted all along – not a story, not a narrative, but acknowledgement. Meanwhile the burning embers of our establishment can only produce euphemisms like “equity” – to date, its main contribution to post-riot Baltimore, a word has become so popular because it is a good way to make vague reference to what the riots were about to people with money. With 2020 looming, and a second mayor now having proven herself unable to lead Baltimore into a new, post-Freddie Gray consensus, one wonders how anyone birthed from the city’s decayed establishment, stamped across the forehead with its imprimatur, could do any better. Can a new coalition really be built by someone who has had a direct hand in managing our corrupt police department? Or a direct hand in prosecuting its cases? Or whose success is tied to the days of “zero tolerance”? Or whose career was made in the downtown/development industrial complex? Or whose position was gifted to them by the previous mayor who herself imploded under the weight of the truth? But a 2020 conversation is pointless before 2018 is understood. And surely pointless if Mosby’s opponents cannot accept that there is no dog-whistle, white-vote-only path to city-wide victory, no out-numbering the opposition, and no end-run around the truth. If a majority coalition is possible in this town at all it can only start with the acknowledgement of a shared destiny, followed by the hard work of engagement and persuasion, and through that, a confrontation with the truth face-to-face. Dan Sparaco ([email protected]) is an attorney and former assistant deputy mayor in Baltimore City.


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A Letter from Baltimore: The Lesson of Marilyn Mosby