Whether this is the “Barbie,” the barbecuing, or the beach phase of summer for you, there’s a good chance that what happened at Brooklyn Homes the first weekend of July is not a top concern unless you have a direct connection to the people of that part of South Baltimore.
That’s the way it goes. What is being called the largest mass shooting in the city’s history dominates headlines and city chatter for days and then fades from view as the next thing comes along, whether frivolous or tragic.
Unfortunately, city leaders seem to respond with that same kind of circadian rhythm when it comes to doing their jobs. They give undivided attention to that which they are forced by circumstance to focus on, then move along. They count on us to forget, just as they do, as we move on to Barbies and barbecues and the lazy, hazy, sometimes crazy days of summer.
That must not happen here. Two young people were shot to death shortly after midnight on July 2. Twenty-eight others, mostly teenagers, were also shot but survived. Hundreds more in the immediate community were traumatized when an annual Brooklyn Day homecoming celebration devolved into murderous chaos. And many of the rest of us experienced spikes in anxiety about living in the city, because as with our fellow Baltimoreans in Brooklyn Homes, summer is synonymous with large outdoor gatherings.
The City Council’s recent postmortem hearing was remarkable for this revelation: A whole lot of people in key city roles knew nothing. Or so they say.
We were told ad nauseam by Acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley to expect answers in August after the Baltimore Police Department completes an exhaustive examination of what went wrong. Then the City Council will hold another hearing in September.
The police, however, are not the only people who have some serious explaining to do. Ultimately, those who did the shooting are to blame for the crimes they committed, and they should be punished as the law allows. But dereliction by people with responsibility for maintaining order and assuring some modicum of safety is most galling. Saying that they didn’t know anything before Brooklyn Day kicked off is not good enough.
Brooklyn Homes is a public housing development spread over 35 acres that contains 481 units that are home to more than 1,100 residents. Those who operate public housing are supposed to be rather nosy to a fault, making it their business to know who is authorized to be there and what kind of activities take place.
I recall when my family was among the first to move into one of the racially segregated public housing developments that opened in Conyers, Georgia, around 1960. Pride carried the day. Those early tenants, for the most part, were as fastidious in maintaining high standards for cleanliness and orderliness as if they were paying mortgages rather than subsidized rent based on income and family size. Much later, I learned that, unknown to us children, officious and paternalistic housing employees monitored everything from housekeeping to tidiness of yards to social activity to who was on the premises without permission.
I thought about that when I heard Janet Abrahams, president and chief executive officer of the Housing Authority of Baltimore, say that while they knew Brooklyn Day was an annual block party that has drawn current and former residents for more than 25 years, they were caught off guard when it happened on July 1. “Should we have known?” Abrahams asked rhetorically.
Her explanation that the event is not always held in July and that her team had been waiting for flyers to be posted or “intelligence gathering” so they’d know about this year’s Brooklyn Day is not good enough.
The City Council member for the area, Phylicia Porter, is all over the situation now. But her office, like the housing authority, should have known about Brooklyn Day and made it a point to assist the planners dot the i’s and cross the t’s with public safety concerns and logistics. That’s called being proactive for a major event that has had problems in the past. At a minimum, her constituent services and neighborhood engagement staffers should have known about it and made sure that the police knew, too.
That brings me to the cops. Worley, who lived in Brooklyn for 12 years not far from the public housing complex, testified at the council hearing that he was sad, angry and disappointed — rather tame words for what many of the rest of us felt. He said what Abrahams of the housing authority should have said: “We should have been actively working to find out when Brooklyn Day was. It was going to happen this year. It has happened for 27 years in a row. There was no reason for it not to happen this year.”
There also was no reason to be unprepared.
I find it mind-boggling that the men and women in blue were so incompetent or indifferent on July 1. It’s as though they did not give a damn until they had to. Given the level of surveillance to which people in public housing are routinely subjected, it’s unlikely that Baltimore Police were caught off guard when hundreds of people gathered in a single place over the course of a day. When even a half dozen Black people get together in public — especially teenagers — alarm bells go off, and not just for the kinds of busybodies who’ve come to be known as “Karens.”
Even if community coordination officers assigned to the area didn’t notice anything, plenty of other people did. As the family-oriented daytime activities gave way to a more raucous nighttime jam, there were 911 calls about crowds, fights and weapons.
In general, Worley said the right things as he testified, alternately contrite and accountable. He said: “We had multiple opportunities to intervene, and we did not take them.” And: “We could have and should have done more.” And: “We missed a lot of indicators.” And this: “We’re going to get to the bottom of it. We’re going to find out what happened and we’re going to fix it.”
As City Council President Nick Mosby noted several times, the police must protect and serve all the people of Baltimore, not just those in certain ZIP codes. They — and housing authority leaders and political leaders — failed the people of Brooklyn Homes. In so doing, they failed us all.
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.