At last night’s event to promote better police-community relations at Mondawmin Mall, the organizers were up against a lot of bad history and grim statistics.
There was, for example, the well-remembered confrontation, at this very shopping plaza, between students and police on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, followed by rioting, protests and a state-imposed curfew.
And there’s the keen awareness, here and in other poor areas in Baltimore, of the on-going homicide crisis with more than 200 people already slain in 2017.
So what was the approach by city officials at the “National Night Out” event in the Target parking lot?
Raucous hip-hop music, police on horseback chatting with the locals, volunteers from community groups touting helpful services – and plenty of free food.
In her remarks to the crowd, Mayor Catherine Pugh kept it light and breezy.
“I can’t believe it’s almost time to go back to school. But not quite yet, not yet,” she said, touting a school supply giveaway planned at the War Memorial Building on Saturday.
She also hailed the African American Heritage Festival, this year downsized to one day in Druid Hill Park.
“A lot of local entertainment give our own folks a chance to shine from Baltimore,” she said of the August 12 event.
Earlier, as DJ Okay blared the pulse-pounding music, the event emcee was a little more direct about the subtext for the celebration.
“Rest in peace to everybody, man, just make sure you all stay positive,” he said. “Everyday I thank you parents for doing your kids right, keeping them in school, keeping them out of trouble.”
Crisscrossing the City
The event was one of 14 the mayor attended for National Night Out, a tradition observed for more than 30 years in communities across the country on the first Tuesday in August.
Some of the Target shoppers seemed excited to walk over and get free potato chips and a hot dog, while others visited the booth for Step Forward, a group that looks to help those dealing with homelessness, drug abuse and other issues.
Several residents lined up to get selfies with the mayor, who strolled through the crowd with a “Catherine Pugh”-branded umbrella. But most were just excited for the free food giveaways by Shoppers in another booth.
Speaking to reporters, Pugh said she thought the turnout was good and the cause was worthwhile.
“I know I won’t get a chance to see everybody, but this is an important time to come out and celebrate neighbors and community,” she said. “We want to make sure the communities understand their relationship with the police department, and the police department with our communities.”
The mayor is under pressure to produce more than platitudes in the crime fight. She has cited an array of initiatives and on-going programs that she said will help reduce the level of homicides, but she has not yet released a comprehensive crime plan.
“Madam Mayor, you said you had a plan on July 12. Where is it?” Rev. Marshall Prentice said in a statement released by the clergy and community group BUILD. “Since then, 20 residents were killed. Where is it?”
With Baltimore’s spiraling violence dominating the headlines, political figures with campaigns and potential campaigns ahead of them (such as State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and former mayor Sheila Dixon) were making the rounds at other National Night Out events.
Recruiting While Interacting
Pugh said one of the goals of last night’s gathering was to identify potential law enforcement recruits.
“Not only are all these police officers and firefighters out here, they’re also recruiting while they interact with everyone,” she said.
Could beefing up the force help stem the tide of violence that is averaging one murder a day?
That was the solution that 65-year-old Johnny Shatman said police offered him when he spoke with several of them at the Mondawmin event.
“They just told me they don’t have enough police,” Shatman said. “I think they’re doing a good job with what they’ve got to deal with,” he said, while also offering them some free advice:
“Instead of walking around shaking other officials’ hands, they should get to know some of the people from around here.”
Criminals Need to Get the Message
A woman who identified herself as “Miss Mary” had mixed feelings about the event.
The 62-year-old Sandtown resident said the event sent out a good message that some of the city’s worse-off neighborhoods can produce a warm, positive gathering.
But she also wished that those responsible for the current wave of violence had come to the event.
“The people who need to be here aren’t here,” she said. “The drug dealers and the gun toters. Let them see this and realize, ‘Hey, we need to relax.’ ”