2017 Week Three: Criminal Justice & Government Agencies
City Council Members.
Maryland State Delegates.
I walked into Senator VanHollen’s Central Baltimore Office for its grand opening wearing a suit with a red tie my boss had kindly let me borrow. The exuberant staff welcomed me and gave me a tag with my name printed on it in bold. My boss welcomed me and led me on a tour of the office, pointing to some of the distinguished guests and explaining their roles and positions. I would love to recount some of the extraordinary résumés he described, but I was in such awe that I can’t remember.
I had never been in one room containing so many people with the ability to single handedly shape the futures and hopes of others. As I stood a few feet away from Mayor Pugh and Senator VanHollen, I wondered what I could share about my life. I wondered what I could ask about their work. I had an incredible opportunity to add my voice to powerful conversations; to take take a, albeit transient, seat at the table.
But my mind was blank as I realized that there was no information I had that they did not know in comprehensive detail. My disability; my hospitalization; my identities and intersections could not be unique: how could I contribute something substantive?
So, I began to retreat to the back of the room, resolving not to speak with them and to simply observe.
I was drawn to speak with a woman who looked at me from across the room. As I approached her to introduced myself, and she smiled. Suddenly, I was explaining how I did not feel like I belonged in this space, and her smile quickly turned into a melancholy expression. She gently grabbed my arm and told me: “Of all the people in this room, no one belongs more than you. I am certain that of everyone in here, the Senator would want to speak with you the most because you are the future.”
She shared stories of her life; her hopes and dreams; her past and future. And, I rediscovered my passion and resolve. I stayed in the room until most had left and bided my time until I found Senator VanHollen stretching his arm out to shake my hand.
I spoke with him and exchanged contact information with his top staffers (who have since reached out to speak with me).
I have learned the importance of speaking out: no matter how inconsequential my experiences feel, my story matters. If I don’t share it, no one will: it is unique and it is important.
Everyone always belongs.
“You don’t want to go down that street,” he says — he, being a longtime businessman in East Baltimore Midway.
I’m a bit taken aback by the blatant tone of honesty and slight horror, annoyance, all laced with deep exasperation that I hear in his voice as he describes the neighborhood his property is situated in. Across the street is a huge brick building taking up an entire city block, once used for cotton clothing manufacturing and now vacant and periodically vandalized.
To put it concisely, he was saying this: “I’m afraid my new tenants are going to leave town because people are getting shot in the head a block over.”
We walk back towards our car on the property parking lot and find an old bullet casing on the ground, a 40mm rusted, silver-colored bullet.
Yet there is no silver bullet for this situation. I listened to his perspective and was immediately skeptical of what he had to say — was he going to suggest more police force in the neighborhood? Was he going to say something problematic? (Yes.) Was he going to fight for this city or himself?
This is deep divestment from a neighborhood people have chosen to forget about, seen in a road made bumpy by potholes, the apparent drug deals in poorly lit alleyways, a warehouse building whose skeletal structure still remains protrusive in the sky even after it burned two years ago. The bottom level is littered with stacks of old furniture and trash on the ground level. This is systemic racism, and this is the reality of the city. This is also what many citizens in Baltimore are working against in a beautiful collective healing of their communities.
This week I was assigned to do Bail Review. I thought this would be an important way to contribute to the community and do some kind of direct service with incarcerated citizens. For clarification, Bail Review is done through the Office of the Public Defender. OPD hires volunteers to sit in during Bail Review and record the process to ensure that no injustices occur.
I sat in on a Bail Review that was completed at Hargrove. Hargrove’s Bail Reviews consist entirely of dockets of women. When I walked in, the judge and the public defender were talking about their children, apparently they were friends outside of court. They talked about normal life activities, such as their kids’ summer plans, traveling, and how their significant others were doing.
The atmosphere quickly changed, however, when the Review began. The individuals up for review were shown on a screen and not actually in the room. This seemed dehumanizing to me, but that was not surprising for the criminal justice system.
The judge and public defender, along with the prosecutor, began to discuss an individual’s case. However, they took all of two minutes to decide bail would not be changed.
The public defender seemed to know very little about each of her clients. She read off of a page and when asked questions by the judge, did not know the answers most of the time.
Within twenty minutes, we were done. No one’s bail was altered for the better. The screen with the incarcerated citizens was cut off. The prosecutor left the room and the judge and public defender went back to talking about their lives. I sat there until after they all left. I was in shock: they had just forever changed someone’s life and acted like it was nothing. I have been wrestling with this ever since. How could someone not recognize the impact that they had on someone? There is not an answer and there is not an immediate solution.
The other day on my way home from work, I bought a man experiencing homelessness some cereal from 7-11. He looked at my badge and said, “I notice you’re an intern at City Hall.” His words had no malice, but I still worried that he thought that meant I didn’t care about him. I looked like one of the dozens of yuppie millennials rushing mindlessly to their day jobs in downtown Baltimore.
I guess as a former English major, I still catch myself looking at life through the lens of literary devices. Every day, I walk into the marbled, hallowed halls of City Hall — a building that looks like it time traveled from the days of French, baroque architecture and is now stranded in Baltimore. On my way to and from the Charm City Circulator stop, I pass at least two or three people experiencing homelessness. A building that embodies the pinnacle of grandiosity and power, surrounded by the city’s ailing citizens. Oh, the irony.
I think I’ve become more acutely aware of the two sides of Baltimore as I’ve canvassed different neighborhoods in Baltimore with my fellow interns. We’ve knocked the doors of every place from O’Donnell Heights — a predominantly black, public housing neighborhood — to the inarguably more white neighborhoods of Fell’s Point and Little Italy. Baltimore is a strange patchwork quilt of perceivable segregation.
Beyond that, knocking door-to-door and letting people know about important meetings on redevelopment, new taxes, or a neighborhood pool party is actually pretty fun! I’ve felt important giving my sales pitch to people and also really enjoy seeing the people of Baltimore, face to face. One flustered black woman answers the door, a child at her hip and two running around in the living room. A nurse answers the door, and I peer in to see two old women in rocking chairs.
My canvassing adventures have been sweaty, hot, but crucial to the bonding moments I’ve had with my interns. We’ve walked miles, had Starbucks breaks, run into restaurants in Little Italy during emergency bathroom moments, and sat inside dozens of stores to steal their AC. While sometimes I do feel jealous of other CIIP interns who are a part of a super small team of four or five, I feel thankful to be surrounded by a group of like-minded people who inspire me and push me to look at the world more critically every day. I have my CIIP family, and I have my ‘Team Cohen’ family (as we have affectionately named our WhatsApp group chat).
“Trust is the currency of the workplace,” I said, looking imploringly at the yawning YouthWorkers sitting before me. Here I was, charged with supervising five young people, most of whom were just barely younger than me, one of whom was actually older than me. I was giving a presentation on professionalism which was part of an orientation that I had labored over for two weeks. And I could tell that I was already losing them.
Over the past week, I can’t say that I avoided the yawns completely – in presentations full of important but boring information, periodic yawns were inevitable. But in moments, I found myself trading in trust, the very workplace currency I had defined for my YouthWorkers.
I made a point of being honest about my age and my inexperience, so I made every effort to build a personal connection. My best shot at winning respect was showing how deeply and truly I cared. I smiled often, asked a lot of questions, and made them to talk to me.
A full two years after graduating from high school, I unexpectedly found myself finally sitting with the cool kids. We talked about school dances, boyfriends and flirting, academic attitudes, and basketball teams. We talked about parents, siblings, friends and former bosses. We talked about music tastes and venomous snakes. I knew precious little about most of these topics and my YouthWorkers were eager to turn the tables, happy to teach me something for once. And I was happy to learn.
Moments of trust came so naturally that they were almost imperceptible, woven seamlessly into the cadence of casual conversation. While one of my YouthWorkers patiently described the purpose of a Ring Dance to me, my quietest subordinate interrupted to inform me that his school had been famous for gun incidents. Another talked about witnessing a stabbing, seeing a gun fall out of a student’s hand during a fight, waking up to the sound of gunshots every morning at his old home and being unsettled by the relative silence of neighborhood he moved to. “Now,” he said, “I wake up to the annoying birds making noise in the morning. It’s weird. The violence, that stuff really changes you. If it ever gets too bad, I’m just gonna get out of Baltimore.”
We didn’t dwell on the subject for long, and soon we were laughing about someone’s maybe-boyfriend, arguing over the most appropriate way to meet someone in person after chatting online. My YouthWorkers are so much more than the sum of the worst things they’ve ever witnessed, and they are bright and enterprising in the way that only the young can be. They have wicked senses of humor and they work hard. They are perfectly normal teenagers, by every obvious metric. Still, it’s difficult to look at my YouthWorkers, whom I already adore absolutely, and to know that they have most likely seen and experienced trauma and tragedy in their lives. I have only known them for a week, and I feel fiercely proud and protective of them. I hope they can experience something valuable during the four weeks they have left in the program. I hope that they continue to dispense some of their precious workplace currency, some measure of their trust, on me.
The YouthWorker who wakes to the sound of chirping birds came in early to work. His tooth had been hurting earlier in the week, giving him a terrible headache and causing me a great deal of concern. As I signed him in, he told me that his grandmother had given him oral gel, that he had an appointment to get it pulled, and that he was feeling a bit better today.
I smiled to myself. I didn’t even have to ask. He just knew that I cared.Tags: 2017, CIIP, CIIP 2017, City Hall, Councilman Zeke Cohen, Freestate Justice, Mayor's Office of Employment Development, Office of Sustainability, Out for Justice, Week Three, Youthworks