BALTIMORE – The police cruiser is slowing down. The policeman looks hard at the wheel. Curt nods, the vehicle races away.
“Only three African American men stand on the corner. If you hadn't been here, a white lady, I guarantee you would have jumped out to check the n — s – "What are you doing here?" The three of us don't do anything, just talk. But black people keep getting stereotyped. In their eyes we are all up to no good. "
Solo Stylez is 54 years old and self-employed in home improvement. He's lived here all his life. Here is the ruined northwestern section of Sandtown-Winchester, with its block after block of low-income apartments – the projects – and street after street of boarded up, derelict row houses. Sandtown-Winchester is the epitome of everything that ails Baltimore in a city of rampant poverty, corruption, substance abuse, dysfunctional public schools, a plethora of homeless crowding in doorways, and the increasing massacre of violent crime – a largely black metropolis that denies its sobriety as a "Charm City".
Nothing charming about it, not in this part of the urban forest and not much elsewhere, to be honest except for the tourist docks and posh suburban hideaways that are home to residents who would never set foot in Sandtown-Winchester. But all of Baltimore has been plagued by a barrage of crises, from the decline of downtown to a Democratic mayor sentenced to three years in prison for fraud and conspiracy. They really banned them.
No wonder all politicians, from every party strip, are sourly skeptical, even though Maryland is solid blue, Hillary Clinton scored more than 60 percent four years ago, and Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump with 58 to 33 percent in the last few Survey.
Baltimore, where Mary Pickersgill stitched together the original Stars and Stripes (now at the Smithsonian) that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," and where registered Democrats beat Republicans 2-1.
There is no shortage of social illness festering in desolate Sandtown Winchester – which starred in the critically acclaimed television series The Wire – amid feelings of overwhelming impotence, powerlessness, and insane excitement.
This trio of men, idle on the infamous Fulton Street, have plenty of time to speak to a reporter about Baltimore going to hell in a hand basket. Actually already there.
"Fund embezzlement down in town hall," says Eddie Pilot, a 51-year-old retired truck driver, when asked to list the most pressing problems Baltimore is facing. “Always a money scandal. Money that is supposed to flow into churches like this is diverted. Who knows where Probably someone's bag. "
The pilot is not exaggerating about the skulduggery in town hall. Catherine Pugh, the embarrassed former mayor, pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion after a federal investigation found that the mass sale of her self-published children's book – Healthy Holly – was in fact a cover that masked hundreds of thousands of dollars in setbacks from her 2016 mayoral campaign. Another ex-mayor, Sheila Dixon, went under in 2010 for embezzling numerous gift cards for poor families. And Dixon is considered to be the front runner in the mayor's race, which is held at the same time as the presidential election. In all honesty, Baltimore – the most populous city in Maryland, which dissolves from north to south, has displaced Chicago since the 1920s.
But Stylez is bored with the subject. Most directly affecting him is the over-criminalization and scrutiny of the black men in his shabby pocket of the city. Because black lives are important, but not much here, at least from the outside, as the Baltimore P.D. that has earned its reputation as the most corrupt police agency in America. (To be fair, there are tons of others who could make this claim.)
Before Black Lives Matter, before protesters from tens of thousands took to the streets this year calling for racial equality with a cops kneeling down after George Floyd's death, before a country became outraged and asked the police to defuse it, there was Baltimore and there were the "Freddie Riots".
Freddie Gray, who died in April 2015 and never came out of the coma he fell into while being transported in a police van from the Gilmor Homes projects, was arrested for suspiciously making eye contact with an officer who was holding him clocked early morning then tried to run away. He was not properly secured by leg irons in the van, which meant the 25-year-old African American jumped around during an irregular 11-minute ride to the train station, suffering fatal injuries to his neck and spine. His death caused rioting for three days.
"I knew Freddie personally," says Stylez. "I'm not going to say he was a saint, but he didn't deserve to die like this. That started the riot."
Anger was directed at law enforcement, but black-on-black crime increased in the months that followed as police feared entering Sandtown-Winchester. The number of killings across the city skyrocketed, rising to 30 to 40 per month. The violence increased by more than 75 percent. By 2015, more than 900 people had been shot – more than 90 percent of them black, almost two dozen were children, collateral damage tumbled off the calendar.
Six officers were charged, including the delivery truck cop driver who was charged with the almost poetic-sounding second-degree corrupted heart murder – which means extreme or wanton indifference to someone's life. Nobody was ever convicted. But everyone remembers Freddie here – several murals of the young man are painted on tall pigs in the neighborhood.
So Baltimore had accelerated to racially motivated murders by police officers long before the world had heard of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
"As in any other city, there are cops who get right and cops wrong," says Stylez. "But there is a lot more to this community than you are getting right. They are corrupt and target black people. Once they get the badge and the gun, they can hide behind it.
"I don't see any change no matter who is elected mayor and who comes to the White House."
Maryland has one of the most comprehensive legislative acts, the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which protects law enforcement officers from being held accountable for wrongdoing, and which has been dubbed the "Blueprint to Protect Corrupt and Racial Police Officers." For example, under the gun, police officers suspected of misconduct are given a five-day window before they have to speak to investigators.
Meanwhile, Baltimore, with a population of fewer than 600,000, has committed more than 300 murders in each of the past five years, peaking at 348 in 2019.
It should be noted that, as a U.S. Senator and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden was a key architect of a persistent 1994 crime law that blamed many for the mass incarceration, especially of blacks. In their last debate, Trump – who has never shown empathy for blacks and whistled white supremacists with a megaphone – threw this in the face of his opponent. Biden has repeatedly recognized that the legislation was ill-advised and should put more emphasis on crime prevention and the treatment of drug addiction as a disease.
"At least he admitted he made a mistake," says Alfred Hill, who advises teenagers at a treatment facility in Sandtown-Winchester that is actually little more than a flea house. "Anyone man enough to admit they made a mistake and willing to correct it, make it right, is fine with me."
49-year-old Hill also experienced the Freddie Riots.
"It was terrible. It was like the beginning of the end. You get tired of being looked at in a certain way by the police, and you get tired of being judged by the color of your skin. It has to stop. When you do Keep pushing, somebody will push back at some point. That happened here in 2015 and what is happening in America now. "
As in Philadelphia last week, police shot and killed a mentally ill man brandishing a knife as his mother howled in fear. Despite a curfew and the drafting of the National Guard, the city twisted into looting and rioting for three nights. Fifty-two officers were injured and 212 people were arrested.
"I absolutely agree that the police should be defused," Hill continues. The money should be used to retrain and support the communities. So many black men are shot dead by the police. They have stun guns, they have batons, they have bean bags. They even have dogs. You don't have to kill a man and only after you find out if he had a knife or not. This man had a knife. His mother yelled that he had mental health problems. Train the police better in dealing with mental health problems.
"It's sad to see someone else die, a life discarded as nothing, like George Floyd and Breonna. And then you have a president who doesn't even want to say his name."
Hill was a victim of a crime himself last year. “I was hit in the head with a baseball bat at an ATM. I have no vision in my left eye and no hearing in my left ear. “The perpetrator was never arrested.
"So I am aware of the crime and am targeted."
Hill had just come off the polling station on Friday after casting his vote for Biden.
“Look at this place. The streets are a mess, the corner shops are so small that you can hardly go in, even the projects are falling down. Our life has not improved in the past four years. However, I hope Joe Biden will bring about the much-needed changes. I hope he really does see us, you know "
It might be too late to save beleaguered Baltimore from its death spiral.
Since 2014, a year before Freddie Gray's death, the city has lost 30,000 residents. They just fled. More than 2,000 people were killed in murders during the same period.
One of the mayoral candidates expressed it with deplorable truthfulness: "We are a city of eternal mourning."
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno