Update: A 15-year-old boy has been arrested and charged in the case.

Shortly after starting as general manager of Revival Baltimore, I was in a room full of local business leaders and city officials embroiled in an energetic debate about the best course of action in response to then-President Trump tweeting that the city was “the WORST IN THE NATION.”

At one point someone shouted, “What are you all doing about the squeegee kids?”

That’s Baltimore’s population of young people who, in many cases, are disconnected from school or “conventional” employment and who are almost exclusively Black and male. At many of the city’s busiest intersections, these youngsters can be found cleaning windshields, rain or shine, seven days a week.

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The conversation that ensued did not at all resemble the way a world-class city typically talks about its young people. I soon realized they didn’t look at these kids as their own. They were other-ized and expendable. They were also at that very moment being scapegoated for the politically charged musings of the influencer in chief.

Folks I’ve spoken to have one of two opinions about the squeegee kids. Either they’re young people who society has failed at every possible opportunity and who are too resilient to silently starve to death in the shadows, or they’re a 200-person gang singlehandedly responsible for the economic struggles of “The Greatest City in America” by discouraging people from coming downtown to patronize businesses.

Yesterday we learned of a tragic incident where, according to eyewitness accounts, a motorist parked his car, grabbed a baseball bat, then swung it at a group of squeegee workers. He was then shot by someone in the group and later died. There’s so much that is yet to be determined about this, and I’m sure we’ll learn more in the coming days. It saddens me that this interaction escalated to this point, and my heart breaks for the loved ones of the motorist. One thing that remains clear to me, however, is that this was avoidable. My hope is that we, as a community, take an active role in closing the opportunity gap that has pushed so many young people into these chaotic intersections.

Left to right: Tavon Chavious, Richard Brown, Kevin Watterson, Donte Johnson, Davion Hodges.
Left to right: Tavon Chavious, Richard Brown, Kavin Watterson, Donte Johnson, Davion Hodges. (Courtesy of Donte Johnson)

At Revival, we’re partnering with the city through a program spearheaded by the Mayor’s Office of African American Male Engagement. It’s designed to create employment opportunities for squeegee kids.

Recently, a TV crew filmed one of our guys, Tavon, working in a hotel room and describing his routine as he goes. “I know if I can do it, you can do it! ... I take care of the sheets. I take the sheets off the bed. Then I get the trash, make sure all of the trash is out of the room. I love my job.” The camera cuts to a close-up. “I was doing the same thing as them. Now, I’m trying to better myself future-wise so I can show them a better way.”

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I watched “Les Misérables” the other night, and it reminded me of Baltimore. About halfway through, a character by the name of Gavroche is introduced. Gavroche is a child who lives on the streets of Paris. He and his friends steal bread from restaurants and try to lift a few coins off people as they pass through town. He’s an upbeat character who’s relatable and, at times, even charming — not unlike many of the kids you’ll encounter at those Baltimore intersections. Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa calls Gavroche “one of the most appealing and tender characters in fiction.” (Full disclosure: When I was a kid growing up in D.C. I did everything from pump gas to sell cookies door-to-door in the suburbs to make money before I could legally work.)

Much has been written about how the adultification of Black children contributes to trauma. They don’t get to be seen as childlike. The squeegee kids are a prime example of this. In “Literacies of Power,” Donaldo Macedo notes, “The issue is not that minority children do not know how to learn. Their very survival in negotiating the oppressive conditions under which they live is the proof that they can learn. The real issues are whether they are willing to learn what mainstream educators have determined a priori they must learn.”

In many cases they are, indeed, compelled to grow up quickly. We don’t see this as a noble sacrifice that shouldn’t be required because we don’t see them at all. So much is asked of them by family and friends, and the need to earn today so heavily outweighs the thought of future prospects that they forgo school to try and make ends meet today. Society doesn’t see them as sympathetic characters like the ones Russell Crowe spends the entire movie chasing around. They’re also not viewed as young people making sacrifices to support their families. But that’s factually who most of them are.

The squeegee kids are not a monolith, a gang, a political talking point, fodder for social media debate, an issue, a problem to be solved, a thing to figure out, a safe space to stash your trash opinions about Black youth until it’s safe to trot them out into the light (again). They are not punchlines or punching bags, they are not target practice.

They ARE underserved, they are ambitious, they are bright, they are intelligent, they are responsible, they are humble, they are funny, they are quiet, they are loud, they are introverted extroverts and extroverted introverts. They are hardworking.

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They are us.

Like Gavroche was the human embodiment of revolutionary Paris, they are Baltimore. They are OUR young people who we have failed. All of ours. Let us regard them as such. We’re not the radicals we admire. We’re the ones riding through town square preserving the coins instead of the people. We should want, demand, and work to create the environment they deserve.

I’d advise being very mindful, as we try to clear them out of these intersections, of the nature of the prospects that exist for many of them on the other side of that. At Revival, two of the four apprentices, Davion and Tavon, have been working at the hotel consistently since May 2. On June 12, we doubled down on the program and brought on Taevon, Shy’Kim, Deziry, and Destiny. I’ve thoroughly appreciated getting to know them all over the past couple of months.

Every one of these young people has made a leap of faith. Every minute that they spend at a job where they don’t quite make what they would’ve made squeegeeing is a bet. They’re putting the only chips they have on the table at the entry level of the hospitality industry. It’s an investment. But have we invested in them? Isn’t the level of care provided to our most vulnerable populations our report card as a society?

Folks who own an E-ZPass but “ain’t got it” for a young person cleaning bugs and bird shit off windshields to get by exhaust me.

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Donte Johnson is the general manager of Revival Baltimore.


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