Baltimore on the Brink for Decades

Monday was one step forward for U.S., one step back for beleaguered city.

ByMIKE LEVINE
April 28, 2015, 5:50 PM

— -- “There’s no hope,” Baltimore native John Dean, who said he grew up beside the city’s gangs, told ABC News.

That was back in 1983, when a report on ABC’s “World News Tonight” called some city streets “a witch’s brew of trouble” and said Dean “knows that a lot of senseless crime is not so senseless.”

Now, more than three decades later, Baltimore is grappling with more “senseless” crime.

“I condemn the senseless acts of violence by some individuals in Baltimore,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Monday, as a new nursing home for low-income seniors burned, a CVS pharmacy smoldered, looters broke into local stores and about 30 police officers tried to recover from the bricks and other objects fired their way.

Only hours earlier, Lynch had become the nation’s first African-American woman to lead the Justice Department. And Freddie Gray, the young Baltimore man who officials say died with an unexplained spinal injury after being arrested by police – provoking this latest unrest – was buried.

Monday was one step forward for the country, one step back. In some ways, Baltimore has been stepping back for decades.

In 1980, for instance, the city’s population reached more than 786,000. By last year, the population had dropped by nearly 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (It had peaked at 949,708 in 1950, when Baltimore was the sixth largest U.S. city.)

In addition, nearly a quarter of city dwellers now live below the poverty line, double the national rate.

Three decades ago, the city’s poverty gap created a “sense of ‘I don’t care’” among some in the city, Baltimore native Dean told ABC News in 1983.

“You know there are people out there who are living well. You know that your chances of becoming a professional, gainfully employed, with a nice house like the ones you see on television … are very small,” Dean said. “There’s no hope.”

Monday was not the first time Baltimore police and even Maryland National Guardsmen have had to face-off against angry rioters and looters. Baltimore was one of so many U.S. cities besieged and burned by riots in the late 1960s after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

Since then tensions between law enforcement and some of Baltimore's black communities have remained high, even though almost half of the police force there is now African-American, serving under a black commissioner, according to the department. Black residents account for almost two-thirds of the city’s population.

In recent decades, national organizations have repeatedly called for federal investigations into alleged misconduct by Baltimore police officers, and the department has paid out millions of dollars over allegations of excessive force.

What’s more, dozens of officers have reportedly been fired for misconduct in the past three years alone.

As for the “witch’s brew of trouble” on city streets across the nation that Dean described in 1983, ABC News at the time cited “too many guns, too much dope [and] too many kids with nothing to do” thanks to a 46 percent unemployment rate among black teenagers.

Now just under 30 percent of working-age black teenagers – 16 to 19 years old – are unemployed, which is nearly double that of their white peers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On Tuesday, when asked about the violence in Baltimore, President Obama cited many of the same contributing factors as Dean did so many years earlier.

Insisting he wasn’t “making any excuses for criminal activities,” President Obama said children “born into abject poverty” often are “stripped of opportunity,” and he said “the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks in those environments.”

The police can only do so much to help “lift those communities and give those kids opportunity,” the president added, saying all of American society needs to get involved.

‘”[Otherwise] we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets,” he said. “And everybody will feign concern until it goes away, and then we go about our business as usual.”

Nevertheless, in a city address last month, Baltimore’s mayor remained optimistic about her city.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake touted a 10 percent decline in murders last year from the year before, when 233 people were killed, though half of those murders remain unsolved.

“No one can deny that we have turned a corner,” she declared. “New families, new millennials, and new companies are increasingly choosing to make Baltimore their home, and more are choosing to stay.”

At a news conference Monday night, Rawlings-Blake said the “idiotic” violence was a turn in the wrong direction, telling Baltimore residents that “destroying your city” won’t “make life better for anybody."

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