BALTIMORE, Maryland — On Friday, Donald Trump will take the oath of office in Washington DC, becoming the 45th president of the United States. A 45 minute drive north of the capital, in West Baltimore’s Sandtown/Winchester section, there are no celebrations planned.
This community already has a long list of reasons to be wary about the future. For them, the policies coming from the White House and Republican-dominated Congress present reasons to worry with stakes as high as life and death.
Residents in this impoverished neighbourhood — where 96 percent of residents are African-American and the unemployment rate is 51 percent — do not believe Trump’s promises of bringing jobs back to the US. Locals interviewed by TRT World say they fear he will do as other conservative politicians have, and cut social services. That matters in a place where half the children are on food stamps.
“Donald Trump’s phony as sh*t,” said Tony Drone, 63, as he sat on a stoop along North Avenue.
Residents of the neighbourhood interviewed also fear that Trump’s frequent praise of police means that nascent efforts to reduce police violence and harassment against them will find no sympathy in the White House.
“Police are the most mistreated people in this country,” Trump said during his primary campaign. “At the same time, we have to give power back to the police, because crime is rampant.”
The federal government, during Barack Obama’s presidency, has made efforts to get local police departments to improve relations with the communities they serve. This month, the US Justice Department and the city of Baltimore agreed to a 227 page plan to change practices, including training in de-escalation tactics and restrictions on when and why an officer can stop an individual, the Baltimore Sun reported on January 12.
The order from the Justice Department still requires the approval of a federal judge to become law, and federal oversight to ensure the city is complying with the new rules meant to protect the constitutional rights of citizens. Whether Trump will pick up where Obama left off remains to be seen, but his emphasis on giving “power back to the police” does not give Sandtown residents reason to hope that police will have less power over their lives, some of them shattered irreparably by arrests for drug possession or other non-violent crimes. Improving police community relations requires police to wield less power, rather than more, over citizens, and to de-escalate dangerous situations before using force.
“He’s going to do the opposite of police reform,” Drone added, echoing the widespread perception that police in such neighbourhoods may become more aggressive and less open to dialogue with communities.
Tensions after Freddie Gray's death
And police reform matters in Sandtown, where hardline law enforcement practices meant to remove guns and drugs from the streets haven’t stopped the twin scourges of murder and addiction, but have instead served to create racially-charged tensions between the Baltimore Police Department and citizens.
Those tensions snapped in April 2015, when the neighbourhood fell into the national spotlight after the death in police custody of a 25-year-old Sandtown/Winchester resident, Freddie Gray. Gray died several days after suffering a broken spine on the ride to a detention center. Police had arrested him for carrying what they said was an illegally long knife, and had searched him for running away after making eye contact with an officer. Investigators later determined the knife was not illegal and the arrest was unjustified. Even so, for Gray, it cost him his life.
Protesters took to the streets in outrage over Gray’s death, protests which came alongside several days of civil unrest, including lootings and car torching. There were hundreds of arrests and the enforcement of a citywide midnight curfew, the mobilisation of the national guard and police departments from around Maryland. After more than a year of court proceedings, none of the officers involved were convicted over Gray’s death.
But police reform is only half of the equation, residents say. Cuts to social welfare could make crime worse, inviting more police violence, said one resident. Trump, for his part, has pointed to crime and poverty in majority African American urban cores, traditionally Democratic strongholds, as evidence for his rival party’s failure.
At one point, he asked “What do you have to lose?” in voting for him. Trump won the White House with less support from minority groups than any president over the last four decades, according to a Reuters survey. But he still won.
“He’s going to make it worse, because he’s trying to take away all the hope that poor black people [have] got,” said Betty, 26, standing outside of a carry-out store on North Avenue, near where a makeshift memorial for a murder victim flapped its deflated balloons around a light pole. She preferred to only give her first name to protect her privacy.
“If he takes [away] everything like food stamps, healthcare, that’s going to make people go out here and sell drugs and that’s going to make the police want to be out here more because there will be more robbings, more killings. There’s going to be a lot because Donald Trump is in there. If he’s taking away all that black people have, it’s going to be hard.”
And the very presence of police on local streets is a source of concern for residents like Betty, who describe indiscriminate harassment.
“The police are wrong a lot of the time. People aren’t doing anything but conversing, and police come up to f*ck with you,” she said. “And I know my rights. I say ‘What do you want my ID for?’ then they say ‘Sit here on the curb.’ Even though I’m not doing anything wrong.”
These perilous, tense encounters can have dangerous, even lethal, consequences, as they did for Gray.
“And from there it’s going to go on … you might have an officer whose not going through the right thing that day and he might slam me up against the wall,” she said.
A few moments later, a police officer explained to a citizen why officers stop people in the neighbourhood from congregating.
“We’re trying to keep shootings down,” the officer said, adding that shootings happen when people gather into groups. But for residents of West Baltimore, if feels like an infringement on their right just to stand on the street.
Baltimore has seen a massive surge in murders over the last two years, which police and the city health commissioner have blamed on painkillers looted during the Freddie Gray uprising causing turf wars between newly minted drug dealers. In 2014, there were 211 homicides and in 2015, there were 344, a per-capita record.
Nearby, another officer echoed Betty’s view that cuts to social welfare will increase crime, no matter what happens to police reform efforts.
“The problem is not something the police can solve. What has to happen is there has to be unified effort, with the community working alongside with the police, to get the problem under control,” the officer said, standing at the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues.
“If people lose healthcare, then what happens? Do you think it will make crime worse?” TRT World asked.
“Oh my god. Answer that for yourself. Answer that for yourself, buddy. If people lose healthcare what do you think they’re going to do? What do you think they’re going to do?” the policeman said. “It’s going to be tough.”
AUTHOR: Wilson Dizard