One reason why The Real News Network calls Baltimore home is because we know that the struggles the people in this majority-minority city face (unequitable access to resources like education, clean air, and transportation, for example) are the struggles people face all over the globe. This is the latest installment of our weekly news roundup from the Baltimore trenches, which we hope will help keep our friends and neighbors abreast of what’s going on in our city, but also resonate with people united in the struggle everywhere.
Mayor Scott’s State of the City Address
On Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s 100th day in office, he delivered his first State of the City address, laying out his administration’s success, the ongoing challenges, and most importantly, he introduced a number of progressive policies that include a guaranteed income pilot program, suspending drug screenings for most prospective city employees, making sure no one loses their home to a tax sale, and much more.
An independent review (released earlier this month) of a guaranteed income pilot program in Stockton, California, found that 125 recipients who received $500 a month for 24 months experienced improved employment prospects and better mental health.
“Politics should be about working together in good faith to solve our city’s problems. This means making real investments in creating jobs, safeguarding our neighborhoods, supporting local businesses, and fostering communities where all families can thrive,” Scott said.
He also acknowledged Baltimore’s recent history of corruption, which includes two previous mayors—Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh—being federally charged for corruption.
“Establishing trust is key. This is especially true when trust has been broken over and over again. Given the public skepticism and disappointment towards City Hall, it was critical that I work to regain your faith and prove that local government can operate in your best interests,” Scott said. “In order to restore your faith in city government, we need to deliver effective, reliable, and equitable services to our residents.”
Also this week, Scott released his Public Safety Plan. Scott’s plan deviates from decades of past public safety plans, which focused almost entirely on the Baltimore Police Department, and instead looks more broadly at public safety through “equity, healing, and trauma-informed practices.” The full text of the plan can be read here and residents can offer comment. Local activist Melissa Schober has already responded to the plan in a Medium post in which she takes a skeptical look at some of what is suggested and notes when it overlaps with policies the city has attempted over the past decade or so.
Students, Councilmembers Join Calls to End Digital Redlining
Student activists and local council members joined growing calls for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to tackle the issue of inequities related to high-speed internet access. Access to high-speed internet has become increasingly critical during the pandemic, highlighting the disparate rates of access existing in many low-income communities and communities of color.
On March 15, about 100 elected officials and grassroots groups around the country signed a letter demanding FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel launch a commission focused on “Digital Redlining” and that she reinstate net neutrality protections stripped away under the Trump administration.
“Large internet services providers have profited handsomely during the pandemic,” lawmakers and activists write in the letter. The group singled out internet service provider Comcast, which delayed a plan to charge users for exceeding their bandwidth limits after it faced public outrage.
“This type of fee is akin to a regressive tax that impacts poor communities and cities like Baltimore—primarily communities of color the most. We believe that Internet Services Providers should be barred from imposing predatory data caps,” they write.
The letter connects the digital divide (a term used to communicate the way low-income communities and communities of color are able to access high-speed internet at far lower rates than wealthier, whiter communities) to decades of racist public policies that have created enormous disparities in terms of wealth, public health, and more.
“The term ‘redlining’ comes from a well-known discriminatory housing practice from the early 20th Century. The impact of the practice still looms large in cities like Baltimore,” said Councilperson Ryan Dorsey in a press release. “When we talk about digital redlining, we’re talking about corporate policy that places profit motive over the public good.”
Baltimore has the third worst connectivity rate among major cities: 40 percent of residents, including 200,000 households with school-aged children, lack access to high-speed internet or a computer, both of which are necessary to access remote learning, a May 2020 Abell Foundation report found.
“With the pandemic it’s been very clear the internet is a public utility, but it is treated like a luxury separated by race and class,” student organizer Kimberly Vasquez said during a press conference local activists held with other signatories of the letter.
When the pandemic hit last year and her fellow students could not access remote learning, Vasquez, a leader with the student group Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS), mobilized public support to secure $3 million in city funds to buy hotspots and laptops to help students access online learning from home.
“I’m proud to stand with my colleagues in Baltimore City and across the nation in calls for an FCC investigation into price gouging, and the creation of a Commission on Digital Redlining,” Councilmember Kris Burnett said. “ISPs must be held accountable for their decision to leave communities behind at a time where they need to be connected the most.”
“When it comes to internet access during the pandemic, majority Black, Brown and Indigenous neighborhoods across the country have been left off the map. Students have struggled to learn. Seniors have been unable to make their telemedicine visits. The status quo is unacceptable. We need the FCC to step in and support our communities,” Councilmember Zeke Cohen said.
In Congress, new “squad” member and former Bronx High School teacher Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) introduced legislation to make broadband access equitable: “I’m proud to introduce the Broadband Justice Act to bring the internet into our public utilities framework and guarantee access to broadband for all,” he tweeted.
A Giant Inflatable Joint in Annapolis
Over the past few years, Maryland has fallen woefully behind on cannabis reform, many activists say. In 2014, Maryland decriminalized cannabis and, at the end of 2017, the medicinal cannabis program went into effect, but the state has lagged on additional reforms such as increasing the decriminalized amount (it remains at 10 grams, whereas most states have it set at one ounce) and legalization, which has been a source of controversy and, some say, cowardice on the part of legislators. Now, in the current legislative session, time is running out to approve legalization—there is both a House bill and a Senate bill proposing legalization. This prompted advocates to show up in Annapolis on Thursday accompanied by a 51-foot inflatable joint, featuring the slogan “Maryland Pass The Joint!,” to try and get something done soon.
“Some legislators won’t like seeing the big fifty one-foot joint, I guess because they like to pretend that people don’t actually use marijuana,” Luke Jones of Maryland NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) said in a press release. “We’re saying—we are past that point now. Cannabis consumers are obviously here, and are obviously going to fuel the tax revenue legislators are so excited about, so we might as well call it what it is. It’s a joint—legalize it for goodness’ sake already!”
Unions, Community Groups Demand Federal Relief Funds For Essential Workers
Essential workers and their allies are calling on the Maryland General Assembly to pass stronger workplace protections for frontline workers using a portion of the $3.9 billion the state is receiving from President Joe Biden’s first stimulus bill, signed into law on March 11.
“Our frontline and essential workers have had to go to work every day this past year, and this has increased their risk of contracting the virus and even death. We have seen this virus take essential workers from us, and we will gather to bear witness to their deaths,” said Ricarra Jones, political director of 1199SEIU healthcare workers union, a leader in the Protect Maryland Workers Coalition.
On March 18, the over 8,000 Marylanders who have died from COVID-19 were remembered during a Zoom call with frontline workers who lost co-workers and loved ones during the pandemic. Frontline workers shared stories of being forced to work in unsafe conditions and not being provided PPE or COVID-19 testing. The attendees called for the passage of the Essential Workers’ Protection Act, which would require employers to provide safe working conditions, PPE, free COVID-19 testing, hazard pay, and other protections during the duration of the pandemic.
“We will also urge our state leaders to pass the Essential Workers’ Protection Act so essential workers stay safe and ensure they have the pay and benefits they deserve,” Jones said.
A letter from the coalition—comprised of unions, community groups, and clergy—to local elected officials in support of the bill said, “despite receiving more than $1.9 billion in loan relief and funding during the pandemic, many Maryland employers have refused to provide adequate protective equipment and hazard pay for their employees.”
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP), which Congress passed without the support of a single Republican Senator, is wildly popular, will reduce child poverty by half, and put money in the pockets of millions of Americans. But many say Democrats on both the state and Federal level can do more to support frontline workers, who suffered in the highest rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, and are disproportionately Black and people of color. Some of the nation’s worst outbreaks came in nursing homes, with deadly impacts on both residents and staff, who are disproportionately people of color.
With additional federal relief currently at an impasse as long as Republicans can filibuster most legislation, advocates say state authorities must act to provide adequate aid for frontline workers.
Speaking at the vigil, Jake Burdett, a local Amazon warehouse worker and activist, said, “Even with PPE, workers are contracting COVID on a weekly basis,” as bosses impose unreasonable productivity goals.
On Saturday, The Real News will be reporting on a rally being held at the Amazon warehouse at BWI to demand the company halt its anti-union campaign as the mostly Black workers in Bessemer, Alabama vote on whether to join a union.
Freddie Redd (1928-2021)
On March 17, pianist Freddie Redd died at the age of 92. Perhaps best known for his score to The Connection, a play and later a film about jazz players and the limbo of waiting for the arrival of a heroin dealer, Redd also appears in the movie, setting off a career that continued delivering up until his death. Just last month, Reminiscing and Baltimore Jazz Loft, both featuring Redd, were released. Both were recorded back in 2013 at Baltimore venue An Die Musik, just two years after Redd moved to Baltimore.
“Playing with Freddie gave me the same feeling as listening to his music,” saxophonist Brad Linde told jazz critic Nate Chinen. “It was joyful, toe-tapping, and supremely lyrical. His melodies (composed or improvised) were thoughtful, his harmonies wholly original and inevitable, and his touch was crisp and clear.”
“Baltimore’s Violence Prevention Plan,” by Melissa Schober on Medium.
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