Archive for category: Commentary

A good day to be an American

26 Jun
June 26, 2015

Marriage equality and foam in the corner of Scalia’s mouth. Amazing Grace and presidential duende.  And all amid the afterglow of a decision that affirms a successful government initiative that helps millions as claimed.

So, this is what a first-rate country feels like.







Father’s Day Redux: Pickles & Cream

21 Jun
June 21, 2015

A repost in honor of Father’s Day and the redoubtable Bernard Simon, gone these five years but I feel as if I am talking to him still.  This was published in Lucky Peach #4 and while it is food writing, per se, it comes around to my father soon enough.  Yeah, I back into it.  But Dad, I miss you.



I want to embrace the best of the kitchen.

But if DNA is destiny, and genetics holds any sway at all over the human palate, then I have much—probably too much—to overcome.

The Simons come from peasant stock, and by that I don’t mean the countryside of Alsace or Tuscany or any other place where cuisine makes the days true and beautiful, where gardens and orchards and farms and village butchers conspire for a cuisine both purposeful and ingeniously simple. We are not the progeny of any agrarian ideal worthy of Impressionist paintings.

No, my father’s people were kicked-to-the-ground-by-Cossacks peasants, wandering Pale of Settlement Yids who lived with one or two bags always packed and spent the early moments of the last century running ahead of whatever Jew-hating militia was on whichever side of the Polish-Russian border. Like fodder for an Isaac Babel story, we hauled ass from pogrom to pogrom, dragging our huddled mass west until a sign said NEW JERSEY.
My mother’s people ran, too, first from the Hungarian countryside to Budapest, where my grandfather changed his name from Leibowitz to Ligety, stealing the latter from an Austro-Hungarian family of some repute, hoping to blend. Didn’t work, though—a Jew by any other name. So Armin Ligeti—the extra i was acquired at Ellis Island amid a rush of incoming Italian stock—kept running until he felt a bit more welcome in Williamsburg, and later, in the Bronx.

The story ends—and begins—with one grandfather a salesman for Breakstone Brothers Dairy, slinging butter and cream to mom-and-pop stores all over New York, and the other ensconced behind the counter of just such a store in Jersey City, selling pickles out of a barrel and borscht out of the jar.

Both households kept kosher. They had one foot on a new shore, but still trusted in the world of their fathers. They raised children amid a Great Depression, teaching them the value of a dollar and the notion that when it came to food, there could be nothing new or clever under the sun. This sensibility endured well into my youth.

“Your mother makes better,” was a credo of my childhood. We dined out infrequently and only on special occasions. There was a favorite Chinese dump. There was an Italian joint where we gathered once or twice a year. And then, when someone graduated or relatives came to town, there would be a rare pilgrimage to some grander palace of white tablecloths and wineglasses, with mine always promptly removed. Experimentation was at a minimum, so much so that once, when I was eight years old, I tried and failed to order raw oysters at a downtown restaurant. The Blue Points. A half dozen, please.

“Davy, they’re raw.”

“I know.”

“That means they’re not cooked.”


My father frowned. Who eats oysters? Who eats anything uncooked? Who goes to Duke Zeibert’s downtown, even on a special occasion, and pays these prices for food that no one even bothers to put on a stove? What mishegas.

My mother turned to reinstruct the waiter.

“He’ll have a shrimp cocktail.”

It wasn’t that we kept kosher—that wall had crumbled twenty years earlier, when my older brother, a notoriously reluctant eater, was treated to bacon by neighbors in a Brooklyn apartment house. As a two-year-old, Gary Simon took to craving pig as he craved no other sustenance, and finally he began putting on weight. Every dietary law in Leviticus was henceforth repealed.

But as a household, we were residually kosher. Shellfish was suspect, and aside from morning bacon, pork was never on the menu. More than that, exotic dishes—new cuisines, new ideas about food—were problematic if they took more than a half-step away from the known and fixed. My mother was an excellent cook, but almost all of what she served would have been recognizable and acceptable to her parents, if not her parents’ parents. Brisket, roast chicken, chopped liver, chicken soup: food was good and plentiful; it was not a mutlticultural adventure.

By the time I was born, my parents had moved to Maryland and the shores of that great protein factory, the Chesapeake Bay. Yet I did not taste a raw oyster until I was thirteen, or a raw clam until a year later. And, in my fifteenth year, I finally sat down with a knife and mallet and began breaking apart a dozen steamed blue crabs—and only then because my sister had taken a waitressing job in an area crab-house.

When I was in college, my parents offered to take me out to dinner one weekend. I chose a French bistro and ordered a plate of sweetbreads.

“Davy, do you know what sweetbreads are?”

“Sweet bread,” I deadpanned. “Something like a cinnamon roll, right?”

And my mother, not seeing tongue lumped in cheek, turned again to the waiter to rescue her youngest unschooled child from imminent and avoidable disaster.

* * *

My father was all about salt, which is to say, he ate Jewish.

Matjes herring was better then Bismarck, but both were preferable to herring in any kind of cream sauce. The very idea of cutting the salted, pickled-­without-pity taste with anything vaguely neutral or sweet was the mark of the apostate. To my father’s reckoning, a Jew caught dipping a piece of herring in cream might as well just slather mayo on fish sticks and crawl to the nearest baptismal font.

Pastrami, with the fattiest parts untrimmed, was lean corned beef perfected. The trick to great borscht? Salt that sucker down. The trick to great shav? Well, salt helps, but there is no such thing as great shav. A hot dog was a hot dog with brown mustard and boiled kraut. When my brother married a Wisconsin girl and brought her back to the family preserve, she punched a hole in the known universe by attempting to dress a Hebrew National dog with ketchup.

My father dryly threatened to notify the rabbinate and there was talk of a bet din, a religious court of inquiry. Spinoza, my father explained, had been excommunicated for less, merely because he greeted the Enlightenment by questioning the very idea of the Hebrews as Chosen.

“This is worse,” said Bernard Simon, intimating that absent an immediate repentance, a Biblical stoning might be regrettable but necessary.

In 1977, my father was downtown, working at the B’nai B’rith Headquarters in Washington. Armed members of a local Muslim sect, a breakaway from the Nation of Islam, seized the building along with other DC locations. As the day dragged on, a nearby Hilton hotel prepared sandwiches, which were brought in to feed the hostages. Sitting on the floor with nearly a hundred others, with a half-dozen armed men hovering, my father unwrapped the cellophane from a corned-beef sandwich to find that it was on white bread, and sullied even further by a schmear of glistening white mayonnaise. He turned to a coworker and said—and this is not mot d’escalier on my part, this is an actual quote:

“Sid, they’re trying to kill us.”

To my father’s tastes, cuisine was sodium and chloride and only one possible permutation of those elements. It was belly lox before nova. And if the Parkway deli down the block had lox wings—the fatty part of the salmon near the fin that somehow retained even more salt than the sliced stuff ever could—well, pick up a half dozen of those and we can nosh. No bagel. No cream cheese. No tomato. Why trifle with such blandishments? Just bear down on strips of heavily salted, fat-greased fish on a plate. Maybe some seltzer to wash it down.

This was my birthright, my inheritance.

In the summer months, my mother—having some sense of food groups in which brine did not feature—would often start a meal with fresh berries and cream. Not crème fraîche, mind you—that stuff was for Presbyterians. No, the berries were made to swim upstream in a fat dollop of Breakstone sour cream—my maternal grandfather asserting himself from beyond the grave. But in whatever total war was being waged against the sweeter side of my father’s tastebuds, even this concoction was too close to some sort of salt-neutral Switzerland.

As a countermove, my father invented his own appetizer. He went into the kitchen, pulled out a sharp knife and a jar of Ba-Tampte brand (“tasty” in Yiddish) half-sour kosher pickles. He chopped two pickles into small cubes, and then mixed them with sour cream: Jewish tzatziki. Except more bitter, and more better to his way of thinking.

(Before proceeding further with this tale, I have to pause to remark on the fact of my father entering a kitchen anywhere, grabbing a sharp implement and a food item, then rendering that item into a different form, mixing that element with a second substance, and serving it. It’s impossible for me to convey the singularity of this event, except to reference another childhood memory, one in which my mother went to New York to visit her mother and sisters for a week. I was subsequently taken to the Parkway Deli for seventeen successive meals.)

When I first sat at a dinner table and peered over my summer berries to see my father’s bowl of dissent, I could only respect the depths. I thought I had seen the besalted Hebrew cuisine in all possible forms. What, I asked my mother, is that called?

Pickles and cream.

As a ten-year-old in the suburban Washington of 1970, the phrase “what the fuck” was not entirely unknown to me. But somehow I managed to suppress my initial reaction.

“Dad, you’re gonna eat that?”

“It’s good. Try some.”

I picked up a spoon.

Cornichons et crème. À la Chef Bernard.

* * *

I found the wider world, or perhaps, the world found me.

And now, at fifty-one, I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train, as they say. Been to New York, Paris, London, Capetown, San Francisco, Napa, New Orleans. There have been meals, oh yes, there have been some meals.

The Bristol in Paris. Le Bernardin. The French Laundry. The River Café in Hammersmith. The Ivy in Soho. Momofuku. Gotham Grill. Tasting menus from Dufresne or Mina or Colicchio, omakases from New York sushi lords and Los Angeles sushi nazis and Nobus upon Nobus upon Nobus Next Door, wherever they are to be found.

And, too, I’ve had time enough to hunt down perfection without pretense, on back roads and back streets. A slice of Di Fara’s. A T-bone and tamales at Doe’s in Greenville. A burnt-end sandwich at Arthur Bryant’s. Pork ribs at Smitty’s in Lockhart, Texas. Fresh, soft tacos from La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara. Malva pudding at that joint on the road south of Capetown. Brisket from that no-name shack in Georgiana, Alabama. In New Orleans, I’ve tasted the chicken à la grande at Mosca’s four times in a single life. In Baltimore, I’ve stood at the Faidley’s bar with a crabcake platter at least twice a year for my entire adulthood. And thanks to this Bourdain fella, I’ve wandered a campground in Opelousas, Louisiana, and watched an entire living pig transformed into serving sizes, tasting all and loving all.

I don’t claim to know a damn thing about food—about why a dish works or why it doesn’t, about ingredients or seasonal menus or wine pairings. My credentials are akin to someone who likes to drive a beautiful car at high speeds but sees no point in opening the hood and looking inside. I know when something new explodes in my mouth and messes with my brain; I have no clue how it comes to be, and my incuriosity when it comes to the world of the kitchen is, at this point, just embarrassing.

But I do love a new taste, a new experience. I know what I don’t know and yet am content to put just about anything in my mouth on even a little bit of say-so. My father, as you can imagine, found this appalling.

First of all, some of the stuff I ate didn’t have enough salt. And some of it was from countries whose cuisine was unknown and uncertain in say, 1955, when the invention of food was largely complete and fixed. And, too, some of it was ridiculously expensive.

My father was a generous man, a liberal, charitable man. But he also knew what he knew, and he knew the value of a dollar. Walking my father into Le Bernardin or Nobu would have produced apoplexy. Money was only money to my father; he would not begrudge anyone their pleasures, their luxuries, their extra expenses. He hoarded hardback books, for example. Cheaper paperbacks brought him no pleasure at all. A book was worth whatever anyone asked for it. But food? How good, how unique could anything worth eating really be? For my father, a child of the Great Depression, high-end cuisine was all pomp and presentation, and, he feared, a great scam perpetrated on a public easily impressed and hungry for status.

I remember the first and last time Bernard Simon tasted sushi—a cuisine that should have appealed to a man who had embraced fish and salt as an essential combination for life.

“People pay for this?”

Or the time my LA agent took us out for brunch at Barney’s on Wilshire, where my father ordered lox and eggs, a deli staple. Alas, it came with crème fraîche and Osetra caviar and was priced accordingly.

“Your mother makes better.”

And the idea of journeying to find the perfect fried-oyster po’ boy or the perfect pizza slice? The miles-to-go-before-we-sleep hunt for the barbecue place that has no name, no phone? The whispered rumor of a food truck that’s killing it according to Chowhound?

To my father, the world had lost all sense.

In New Orleans with my parents, I once tried to drive out of the city, west to Houma, Louisiana and a little shack named A-Bear’s, a place said to be serving a fried-catfish sandwich that made even full-blooded Cajuns weep with gratitude.

“Dottie,” he grumbled to my mother, as we rolled down I-10 and the city skyline receded. “Don’t ever tell anyone we went to Houma, Louisiana to eat catfish for lunch.”

When I told him that catfish might actually be dinner, that we might first stop for lunch in Thibodeaux for boiled crawfish, he began to panic. He knew there was no hope of a delicatessen in such a wilderness. Reaching for his wallet, he pulled out a coupon for a run-of-the-mill Italian joint in downtown New Orleans, a place where, if he had to eat Italian, he could at least order his preferred dish: veal parmesan, without the cheese.

“You’ll get a good meal here,” he said, waving the coupon.

“Dad, did you ever eat there?”

“No, but I got a coupon. And Italian is Italian.”

He died two years ago. Toward the end, he was invalided and his world was limited to the meals my mother brought him at bedside. Tellingly, as he began to fail, he lost his taste for salt, for delicatessen, for all the heart-stopping glory of pastrami or lox wings or knockwurst and kraut. The bypass surgery years earlier certainly provoked some of the moderation, but something else was at play. In the end, he was eating less and less, and most of it very simple, very basic, very bland. He developed a sweet tooth, of all things. Ice cream became one of his few remaining favorites. Regardless, and to the very end, if my mother made it, it was better.

* * *

Two weeks ago, I found myself exhausted after a long day on a film set. My family was back home in Baltimore, and the house was empty. I’d been eating late meals all over New Orleans, and of course, as anyone familiar with Crescent-City cuisine is aware, a string of late New Orleans meals will kill a man dead.

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing down here, and the only way to survive the local fare, good as it is, is to retreat now and again to one’s own kitchen. A salad here, a broiled piece of chicken there, and maybe, just maybe, you come off a 120-day film shoot with a body weight that is moderately less than planetary. So I drove to Breaux Mart, the neighborhood grocery, just before it closed.

And there, in the deli section, I glimpsed a jar of kosher half-sours. Not Ba-Tampte, but close enough. In the dairy section, I found Breakstone sour cream. And late that night, alone in the City That Care Forgot, I sat down and ate something that my father, a man who knew what he knew, had invented.

The first spoonful threw me back to childhood, a Proustian moment of remembrance and joy and, yes, sudden grief. I sat there eating and crying, finally admitting to myself that, for all the great chefs and magnificent dishes and wondrous journeys toward a finer and newer meal, this was, for me, utterly perfect.

I had seconds.

* * *



My father holding my son, Ethan.  1995.

Mr. O’Malley’s Bad Math

18 May
May 18, 2015

In 2000, as Martin O’Malley took over as mayor of Baltimore and promised to bring crime under control, there was worry on the part of some in the city that the zero-policing, broken-windows strategies he hoped to import from New York might result in a culture of mass arrest and a dimunition of civil liberties.

A year later, after Police Commissioner Ed Norris had trimmed 43 murders to drop Baltimore under the 300-homicide-a-year mark for the first time in a decade, Mr. O’Malley could note  — and did note to the New York Times — that the achievement had come without any corresponding increase in the rate of arrest.

“It never happened,” the new mayor said, proudly.  “We turned the murder rate by doing a better job of arresting the hard-core criminals.”

And they had.  And though Mr. O’Malley at that time claimed an annual arrest total of 78,000 — it would eventually be recorded as 8,000 more than that — he was justified in contending that his administration had made a meaningful and substantial reduction in the murder rate and had done so without resorting to the mass arrests and overpolicing that his opponents had feared.

The quote was telling in that the new mayor clearly understood that while much was being claimed for the Guiliani-Bratton policing methods in New York, there could be a civic cost to indulging in an excess of street arrests in communities that had already come to look upon the Baltimore department with considerable distrust.  Mr. O’Malley was instead citing quality over quantity, and making that a hallmark of his new administration.

As a Baltimore resident and someone who had covered crime in the city, I was impressed.  Now, Mr. O’Malley said, looking ahead, the task was to reduce the murder rate below 200.  His political campaign had promised a ceiling of 175 city murders by 2002, and Commissioner Norris, a veteran detective and supervisor from the NYPD, had clearly re-established retroactive investigation as a departmental priority.  In Mr. O’Malley’s first year in office, the clearance rate of current-year murders improved from little more than a third of the total in 1999 to over half of the 2000 cases cleared.  Because of aggressive warrant service on old cases from previous years, which allowed the department to credit clearances without counting crimes, the less-meaningful public number was even fatter for outside consumption, even ridiculously so.  But still, the trend seemed promising.

The next year, the murder rate stayed constant, and the following year, the same, each offering only slight declines over the success of 2000.  The assault rate, too, stayed relatively constant for the first three years of Mr. O’Malley’s mayoralty, meaning that all measure of city violence seemed to at least be trending in the same direction.

True, the O’Malley administration had played one crisp game with the stats at the onset — giving a 13 percent bump to the crime stats for the last year of predecessor Kurt Schmoke’s administration and setting themselves to reap the benefit.  Arguing that an internal review of Mr. Schmoke’s last year of crime fighting had revealed a substantial number of felonies that were downgraded improperly, the O’Malley administration went to labored effort to restore those stats to the FBI’s uniformed crime totals, notably dumping thousands more aggravated assaults in the 1999 totals.  Henceforth, any thinning down of  those fatted numbers would be credited to Martin O’Malley.  The new mayor had given himself a double-digit jump on any Baltimore Miracle to come.

But again, the first year of the O’Malley anti-crime campaign was legit, and promising.  Murders had come down, the clearance rate had gone up, and all of this had been achieved without some draconian policy of mass arrest afflicting Baltimore’s poor, as many had feared.  The assault stats, too, seemed plausible for those first three years, and certainly, the drop in the murder rate was honest; no police commander anywhere has figured out how to hide the bodies.

But in 2003, something happened. Something ugly. Confronted by a murder rate that was no longer falling with as much gusto after the initial success of three years earlier, Mr. O’Malley’s staff began to badger Mr. Norris for more dramatic improvement and to do so in ways that made Mr. Norris angry and uncomfortable. Heralded for his initial success in the city, Mr. Norris could not guarantee crime reductions of a kind promised publicly by the mayor, regardless of what hectoring came from Mr. O’Malley and his aides. Nor did those aides seem remotely aware of what could and could not be done to legitimately suppress crime with given resources.

And something else happened in 2003:  Mr. O’Malley tossed the Fourth Amendment out a window and began using the police department to sweep the corners and rowhouse stoops and, in a lament that Mr. Norris offered me years later,  “lock up damn near everyone.”  Total arrests soared to 114,000 in a city of little more than 600,000, an increase of more than 30 percent over the restraint in which the mayor had taken pride after his first year.  Instead, Baltimore was on its way to being successfully sued by rights groups for a mass and willful violation of its citizens’ civil liberties.

Eventually, a disgusted Mr. Norris quit, taking a job as State Police Superintendent.  A new chief, Kevin Clark — also an NYPD veteran and also trained in the techniques that had won acclaim in that city — took the helm.  And even more than with Norris, mayoral aides began to interpose between the chief and his subordinates; Comstat meetings turned aggressive in demanding better numbers, and soon, those better numbers — much better numbers — began to appear in public.

But not for murder.

In 2003, Mr. O’Malley came no closer to his promised goal of dropping Baltimore slayings to 175.  In fact, the city suffered a setback with 17 more homicides recorded than the previous year. But incredibly, because the trend was in no way consistent with a rising murder rate, the city’s assault rate nose-dived dramatically, falling by more than 25 percent.   Yes, in the fourth year of Martin O’Malley’s mayoralty, suddenly and inexplicably, the victim of an assault in Baltimore, Maryland was more than 25 percent more likely to die from that assault.  Moreover, while the murder rate would continue to climb modestly for the remainder of O’Malley’s years at City Hall, the numbers of recorded assault would never again approach those of prior years, eventually reaching a dramatic low during the last year of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure, finishing a full 30 percent below the assault rate recorded even in 2000, when he achieved his most substantial improvement in the murder rate.  In that same period, the murder rate, did not fall by 30 percent.  It rose by 6 percent.

Statistically, if you understand the dynamic, this is no mere Baltimore Miracle.  This is water into wine.

There were three possible explanations:

1) Baltimore assaults had become 25 percent more lethal between 2002 and 2003 and stayed that way, with the city’s criminals becoming more dangerous shots with better weapons, more savage with straight blades, or more furious with lead pipes.  Alas, no medical examiners seemed to notice any overt trend in the severity of the wound patterns.

2) The medical community in the city, largely represented by its trauma units, were now losing 25 percent more bleeders than before.  In 2003, suddenly, John Hopkins and the UM trauma units were going backwards to the dark ages in terms of emergency care.  But no, they were saving as many of the wounded that came through the E.R. doors.


3)  Unable to make the murders disappear as promised, and with the fledgling effort to reduce that benchmark stalled and now, in 2003, actually going the wrong way, the O’Malley administration made many of the assaults disappear.  Robberies, too.  Rapes as well.  They began juking stats.

If it was so, did anyone say anything?

Well, Commissioner Clark for one, seemed to take some real notice.  In fact, looking back at the 2002 stats — a year before the dramatic decline in assaults began, he noticed an equally stark decline in two other felony categories: robberies and rapes.   Robberies in 2002 dove by nearly 20 percent and rapes in Baltimore fell by more than 50 percent in a single year, yet Clark noted that the overall 911 calls were running five percent higher.  It all seemed improbable.

Clark, who would run afoul of City Hall and be fired the following year after being cleared in a domestic violence dispute, later told the redoubtable Jayne Miller of WBAL-TV’s investigative team that he ordered some sample audits of robberies and rapes, paying particular attention to the large number of unfounded reports.  Those audits, which Miller actually obtained for WBAL three years later as Mr. O’Malley was undertaking his gubernatorial run while claiming extraordinary crime reductions in Baltimore, revealed that of 738 “unfounded” robbery reports, 109 — or 15 percent — were reclassified after auditors found they were actually, well, robberies.  The figures for rape were worse — 20 percent of the 331 “unfounded” rapes were actual sexual assaults that had simply been dumped, according to the audit provided to the reporter.

Worse from a systemic standpoint, Commissioner Clark told Miller, was the auditor’s discovery that anyone with access could go into the police department’s records and simply change the coding on documents, discounting them from crimes to unfounded reports, and leave no trace of the act.

The police commissioner called City Hall with the results of the audit.  It did not go well.  He would later tell Ms. Miller: “I was brought into a meeting. I sat therewith Matt Gallagher (director of operations for CitiStat), Deputy Mayor Michael Enright, and they were very annoyed, they were very unhappy with what had happened.”

Miller:  “When you presented this to the administration, to City Hall, you were instructed not to go any further?”

“Yes,” Clark responded.  “Deputy Mayor Enright clearly said they weren’t going to go any further because the mayor had already been out front and had told everyone nationally that Baltimore was leading the nation in the reduction of violent crime, and I think, at that time, it was something like 26 percent, and if suddenly we were to have an audit that showed the numbers were going to take some type of change, it would kind of leave him out to political scrutiny,” Clark said.

Confronted by the news report and Mr. Clark’s account, the O’Malley camp replied to this revelation simply by characterizing Mr. Clark as a disgruntled former employee.  They insisted that no meetings over any audit had occurred, though Mr. Enright, as deputy mayor, would not consent to any interview, according to Ms. Miller.

And yet Mr. Clark is at least partially corroborated by the fact that some of his audit leaked to the Baltimore Sun contemporaneously and was investigated and affirmed by reporter Justin Fenton. The dramatic unfounding of so many city rapes — police were only crediting 171 sexual assaults in 2002, while Mr. Clark’s audit was looking at 331 reports that had been marked as false — made for strong copy.  The Sun broke the story of the suppressed rape stats, but went no further to look at robberies.  Nor did they look into the dramatic declines in assaults the following year.

Commissioner Clark was gone by 2004, replaced by Leonard Hamm, a homegrown candidate for the post who displayed absolutely no wariness about any possible effort by his department to suppress crime stats.  Actually, it’s way worse than that; Commissioner Hamm surprised everyone by advocating for the suppression of crime reporting.  Publicly.

As the unrelenting Ms. Miller began digging up specific incidents of Baltimoreans who attempted to report crime and who, for their trouble, were blistered with hostile questions by police supervisors or otherwise denied the chance to file a report of a crime, Commissioner Hamm displayed astonishing nonchalance that reached its apogee when Ms. Miller produced shootings of people that were never actually written up as crimes. To be clear: These were Baltimoreans who were struck by bullets but were never reported as aggravated assaults or assault by shootings. No report, no crime.

In one Cherry Hill incident, investigating officers refused to investigate or report the shooting, saying they weren’t receiving sufficient cooperation from the two wounded victims.  To which the Baltimore Police Commissioner said — and, honestly, for all the Kafkaesque television drama with which I have been involved, I cannot possibly make this up — that the incident was handled appropriately and was not an isolated error.

Ms. Miller: “So, let me clear about this, if your officers get there and the victims don’t want to cooperate, the officers have the right to simply say this is unfounded?” Miller asked the commissioner.

“In some cases, yes,” Mr. Hamm responded.

This same Commissioner Hamm led the Baltimore department for the remainder of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure in Baltimore.

So then, to sum up, given Mr. Hamm’s predisposition to not taking shooting reports, and given his predecessor’s open acknowledgment that he was ordered to stand-down from any full-scale audit of  suppressed crime stats even after such irregularities were already discovered, as well as the confirmation of the suppressed rape cases by The Sun, and given as well Mr. O’Malley’s insistence on retroactively loading up his predecessor’s stats so as to advantage his own percentages, is there anyone still actually willing to believe that Martin O’Malley somehow made violent assaults go down by 30 percent in the same city where murders increased by six percent?  Or that crime went down 40 percent overall?  I mean normal, sensate people.  Not, say, the guys at the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, or Politico — all the folks for whom politics is a game of personalities and quotes that is in no way connected to anyone ever looking into, or solving, or failing to solve an actual fucking problem.  Those fellows will keep repeating this horseshit about a Baltimore Miracle until Mr. O’Malley goes up to 50 percent.  Then, I suppose, they’ll repeat that.

*        *        *

The standard replies from the O’Malley camp to all of this stacked and odorous improbability is two-fold:

1)  Simon is a sonofabitch and this is personal — just as they say it was personal for former Commissioner Clark when he alleged coming to them with suppressed stats, and presumably personal to Jayne Miller when she kept reporting on this dynamic and got Mr. Clark’s successor to openly acknowledge such suppression, and just as it was presumably personal to Justin Fenton of The Sun when he reported on all of the dumped rape complaints that Mr. Clark’s initial audit generated.  The enemies list here is wide and varied, but I will stipulate to the former accusation and be a sonofabitch on the right occasions.  As to the latter claim, what’s personal to me here is actually more important than Mr. O’Malley or his political future.

But first let’s deal with the second defense that Mr. O’Malley offers:

2) It’s never been proven.  In fact, we were audited.  We had our numbers checked.  Leave us alone with your accumulation of doubt and implausibility because the fact is, you can’t prove that we suppressed the stats, and we say we didn’t: “The charges we encounter every election season are akin to ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ ” Mr. O’Malley told the Washington Post five years ago. “No one’s ever come forward with reams of crime reports that were dropped in a dumpster or anything like that.”

It’s an interesting quote from Mr. O’Malley, a precise verbalization of what one might think is required to definitively prove that the claims of a Baltimore Miracle are rigged.   Where is the dumpster with the discarded reports?  Show and prove, or let the 40-percent reduction stand.

But of course, people have come forward including, notably, two of the three men who led Mr. O’Malley’s police department for most of his mayoralty.  One says he brought Mr. O’Malley’s closest aides actual evidence of cooked stats and was turned away, and the other says publicly he saw no problem whatsoever with suppressing crime reports.

Further, Mr. O’Malley’s repeated claims of any independent audit by anyone burnishing the credibility of his stats in some way are just, well, silly.  The FBI accepts the UCR data provided by state and local police agencies without intervention or scrutiny; no one goes back through the common assaults to see how many aggravated assaults were downgrounded or why, just as no one looks up the unfounded reports to determine by so many shootings or rapes or robberies were dumped as fraudulent report.  Supporters of Mr. O’Malley have cited as many as 11 “internal audits” of his Baltimore Miracle as confirming the accuracy of underlying statistics.  But of course, those internal audits would have to have been conducted under the authority of either Mr. Clark, who is openly saying the opposite, that he was thwarted in his effort to fully audit numbers that he found dubious, or even more absurdly, Mr. Hamm, who openly acknowledged that he was actually advocating for and engaging in the suppression of honest-to-god felonies.

Asked by Ms. Miller about an independent audit in 2006, amid the gubernatorial campaign, Mr. O’Malley was unequivocal:  “No, I’m not asking for an independent audit.”

Bottom line is that right now, we have the numbers that we have, and anyone looking at them can do the math using the data that Mr. O’Malley and his police department have generated.  That’s all that can be assessed.  But if it’s garbage in, then it’s garbage out.  And, yes, I’m saying from the moment you know that the O’Malley administration piled 3,000 more aggravated assaults onto his predecessor’s totals, then had his own assault numbers nosedive 30 percent in the same years that murders rise, it’s garbage in.

As to the first line of defense by the O’Malley camp, let me go back to something I said earlier, in the interview with the Marshall Project:  The hard-on here is not for Martin O’Malley.  Not at all.  My politics are generally to the left of the Democratic Party, so unless the Republicans figure out how to bring back LaFollette or the libertarians figure out a way to embrace a better political platform than selfishness, I’m going to be voting for the Democratic nominee.  If it’s Martin O’Malley, he likely has my vote.  And while I found his peformance in Baltimore as an anti-crime crusader to be wholly lacking, destructive and disingenuous, I think his general fiscal management of the state, his support for gay rights and his abhorrence of the death penalty are all commendable. Win some, lose some, and we all need to admit that even in the best of times, voting in this republic always owes a little something to Mr. Hobbes.

If I have a strategic political fear, it’s this:  Our modern media culture over the last fifteen years may have been too fraile and eviscerated for newspapermen or broadcasters to unspool the time and manpower to do the independent audit that Mr. O’Malley’s astonishing claims of crime reduction deserved.  It was hard enough for The Sun, down so many bodies, to break the rape-report scandal, or for Jayne Miller, working at a local TV affiliate, to get Mr. Clark to offer up his audit results, or Mr. Hamm’s sledgehammer admission.  And sadly, maybe the whole thing just doesn’t justify more resources for an honest discussion about Baltimore policing strategy, or to settle a tit-for-tat debate in a Maryland election cycle. On the other hand, if Mr. O’Malley were to actually become a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, then I have to worry, from my perch on the left, about the Koch Brothers or some other deep-pocketed players paying all the investigators anyone would ever need to run FOIA requests on three years of Baltimore police reports, pulling all the unfoundeds, and simply talking to all the surviving complainants, or further still, pulling all of the larcenies and common assaults and finding all of the unjustified downgrades.  That’s the dumpster dive right there — the one that Mr. O’Malley mentions, and perhaps assumes no one would go back and dig through because, well, no reporter ever really did.  But the stakes are so much higher when it comes to the American presidency, and opposition-research at the national level pays so much better than journalism.   Even so, let me say that the tactical fears of a left-leaning Democratic voter aren’t enough to make me pick this fight.

No, I’m writing this mess because I covered crime and the drug war and wrote up what I learned in newsprint and books and television drama for 25 years.  It’s what I spent my adult life doing, and overall, I watched while zero tolerance and mass incarceration and broken windows became the predominant political slogan — not merely in recapitalized, rebuilt financial capitals like New York, where mass affluence itself did more to change the landscape than mass arrest, but in second-tier industrial cities that could ill-afford to brutalize a much greater share of its poorer populace.  And for the first time since I began reporting on this stuff, the worst of those philosophies is now, finally, on the defensive.

It’s true that Mr. O’Malley didn’t invent the drug war, or the overpolicing that preceded him in different forms — which I specifically spoke to in my original remarks to the Marshall Project — and it’s also fair to note that a lot of people, left and right, and not just Mr. O’Malley, bought the Guliani-Bratton line and exported it nationwide.  But it’s also true that the Martin O’Malley who finished that first promising year as mayor with a meaningful decline in the murder rate, an improvement in the homicide clearance rate and an unwillingness to resort to mass arrests and street sweeps — that fellow disappeared when the going got tough.  Two years later, when Baltimore’s murder rate proved too stubborn, what took over at City Hall was a faithless disregard for police work itself, and a real impatience with the slow but necessary process of improving and reforming a troubled department.  Instead, the wagons rolled and the jail was filled, and a lot of marginal, and even many innocent people in the most vulnerable communities in Baltimore were targeted.

Regrettably, with political worlds still left to conquer, Mr. O’Malley is still out there, nationally, defending a zero-tolerance policy that didn’t help make the city much safer, but taught the Baltimore department things it never should have learned.  And those lessons — like the ones taught by his unconstitutional street sweeps — will be with us here in Baltimore a long time.

In January 2007,  a decorated Baltimore officer named Troy Chesley was shot to death while off-duty in a botched robbery by a suspect who had, four days earlier carjacked a green van in the same neighborhood.  We know this only because the victim of that earlier carjacking called police after the officer’s murder and said he had tried to report the earlier crime but been summarily dismissed by the responding officers.  His claims of having been a victim of a major felony were not reported, and of course, Officer Chesley, went into his fatal encounter having never seen an incident report or a lookout on the stolen van.  Less than two weeks later, Mr. O’Malley was inaugurated as Maryland’s governor.

And he’s still with us, still climbing political hills, and still insisting by dint of juked stats that it was worth it, that zero-tolerance wasn’t the awful bargain that it actually was in Baltimore.  He’s arguing that he had to break some eggs to make an big, glorious, 40-percentage-point omelet, and it’s that argument — and not Mr. O’Malley — that matters here. Zero tolerance and the drug war and this American gulag we’ve built need to end before they coarsen and brutalize the American spirit further.  So, hey, I’m sorry, Marty, but there’s no goddamn omelet.


Not wrong. Not at all.

15 May
May 15, 2015

From an essayist on Bloomberg today comes the claim that because raw numbers of arrests have fallen since Martin O’Malley zero-toleranced his way to the governor’s chair, or because O’Malley, after ballooning the number of minor arrests, brought them down again at the end of his tenure, zero-tolerance and over policing can’t therefore be a fundamental cause of the declining standards of police work in Baltimore, the unprofessionalism of officers, and the lower regard for civil liberties by Baltimore police.

“David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” gave an interview recently laying blame for Baltimore’s recent upheaval at the feet of Martin O’Malley, the city’s former mayor and now a Democratic presidential hopeful. Simon charged O’Malley with initiating a policy of indiscriminate “mass arrests” for nonexistent low-level offenses, where officers learned to “roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the wagon.” This breakdown in good police work and erosion of rights, according to Simon, contributed to Freddie Gray’s death and fueled the anger that boiled over into riots.

Simon worked for years as a Baltimore Sun police beat reporter, so his allegations carry an air of streetwise authority. “If you think I’m exaggerating,” he said, “look it up.” So I did. According to FBI data, Simon is not only taking some dramatic license; he’s leaving out important parts of the story.

Arrests did indeed increase under O’Malley, which isn’t surprising: He ran for mayor in 1999 promising a get-tough approach to crime in one of America’s most dangerous cities. After he was elected, crime fell, and total arrests went up — from 89,000 in 1998 to a peak of 114,000 in 2003. Whether a 28 percent increase warrants Simon’s colorful characterization is debatable, but let’s grant him the point: many more arrests were made.

But Simon didn’t mention something else: By the time O’Malley left office in 2007, arrests had returned to their 1998 levels.”

Um, Simon didn’t mention that because……it isn’t true.

Martin O’Malley wasn’t the mayor of Baltimore in 2007.  He defeated Robert Ehrlich in November 2006 and he was in Annapolis for all of the ensuing year. It was his successor, Sheila Dixon, who began the process of backing the police department away from the overpolicing and zero tolerance ordered up and defended by her predecessor.  Mr. O’Malley’s last year to directly influence Baltimore’s crime problem was 2006, when arrest numbers were still in the mid 90,000s for a city of 600,000.  And of course, his claimed arrest numbers are, for every year of his administration, underinflated apples to every other mayor’s oranges.  Why?  Well, read my original remarks: Only the O’Malley administration saw fit to implement a dynamic in which dozens of illegally detained arrestees were transported to BCDC every night only to be presented with liability forms by morning that would “unfound” their arrest paperwork if they promised not to sue the city.  Failure to sign meant you took a charge and waited a day or two to see a court commissioner.   Those unfortunate people — perhaps as much as 20 percent of the total number of arrests if ACLU-monitored samples are credible — are not in the data on which Bloomberg so devotedly relies.

Mr. Barry further notes that under the present Baltimore administration arrest rates are at an ebb, and he implies, falsely, that I was suggesting otherwise at any point in my prior remarks.  In fact, for four years now, I’ve been crediting the de-emphasis of zero tolerance by the present administration — and a re-emphasis on gun crime by former Police Commissioner Bealefeld — for a decline in the homicide rate that is openly acknowledged here in Baltimore.  That the arrest rate has been de-emphasized since 2010 in Baltimore is common knowledge to the point that Mr. O’Malley himself publicly complained about it to city officials here in late 2013 — to little avail as no one in power in Baltimore wished to return to his zero-tolerance policies.  Ergo, Bloomberg has, in the manner of half-assed commentary the world over, discovered something that no one ever actually lost.

No one is disputing that arrests have been declining in Baltimore, or claiming that the damage done by Mr. O’Malley’s belief in zero tolerance continues to produce mass arrests here well after his mayoralty.  Other results from his disastrous policies, more qualitative than quantitative, are nonetheless still in play.  That was the guts of my interview.  That is untouched by Mr. Barry’s commentary.

Actually, Mr. Barry, here is what I am alleging:

1)  That the decline in arrests toward the end of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure was not the result of some benign and discerning reconsideration of policy within Mr. O’Malley’s administration, or some nuanced reapplication of the Fourth Amendment by officers who had been rewarded for earlier discarding civil liberties.  No, it was the result of an ongoing law suit by the ACLU and NAACP on behalf of the thousands of innocent people dragged to the city jail without probable cause and in many cases without having their arrests actually recorded as criminal charges.  Indeed, ACLU estimates, based on sampling data, indicated that as much as 35 percent of arrestees processed by the O’Malley administration did not have any articulated probable cause in their charging documents.

Had that lawsuit not gone forward, and had not complaints been mounting from city residents  — and indeed civil rights leaders here pleaded with Mr. O’Malley personally to end the street sweeps to little avail before filing suit —  the O’Malley administration was willing to embrace mass arrests until the cows came home.  Furthermore, Mr. Barry, many of those bodies that washed up on Eager Street without probable cause are uncounted in the stats that you cite.  That’s right: Many innocent Baltimoreans, upon being evaluated at the City Jail by police supervisors, were encouraged to sign liability waivers in order to go home within a few hours rather than being falsely charged on petty humbles and waiting in jail overnight or longer to see a court commissioner.  Get it?  These people aren’t even counted in the nearly 30 percent bump in raw arrests that you attempt to portray as somehow insignificant.  But thanks, Mr. Barry, for playing the game with corrupted data.

2)  That by utilizing zero-tolerance and massive street sweeps for a significant portion of his time in office, Mr. O’Malley damaged both the policing culture of the BPD and the relationship between the BPD and the inner-city communities in which probable cause became a marginalized concept.  A generation of sergeants and lieutenants was promoted and rewarded for the quantity, not the quality of arrest.  Investigative prowess in the Baltimore department — which had been declining in Balimore since the 1990s — continued that trend unabated under Mr. O’Malley as actual crime prevention and retroactive investigation took a back seat to mass arrests and street sweeps.  For example, clearance rates for murder in Baltimore that averaged 76 percent in the 1980s, were down in the mid-60s by the following decade, and from 2000-2009, a period comprised largely of Mr. O’Malley’s mayoralty, the arrest rate for murder averaged 59 percent.  It is now below 50 percent, significantly below a national average of 64 percent.

3)  That because mass arrests and street sweeps were favored over more substantive police work, fewer Baltimore officers were given any incentive to learn the hard job of policing, these felony arrest rates in Baltimore — not overall arrests for bullshit, but arrests for major crimes — suffered during Mr. O’Malley’s administration and they remain even lower today because those who never learned the skill set for real retroactive investigation of crime and crime suppression are now teaching the next generation of BPD personnel how not to do the job.  Mr. O’Malley’s policy of emphasizing street sweeps over clinical crime solving broke many links in the chain of institutional knowledge within the department, and a generation of Baltimore cops failed to master the basics of probable cause, or careful retroactive investigation of crime, which was irrelevant to grabbing every body on a corner and tossing them all into wagons.  Yes, a subsequent administration could cease the mass arrest policy and attempt to emphasize other things, but of course they would be doing it with a police agency that under Mr. O’Malley had learned some ugly lessons, and would continue to apply those lessons at the street level. And while the number of arrests of city residents might be lowered as a matter of policy, the illegality, discourtesy and brutality of too many of those encounters — as evidenced by the litany of brutality cases for which Baltimore has paid settlements, documented by the Baltimore Sun last year — would still bear the influence of a seven-year period in which basic police procedure operated outside the rule of law.

4)  Once Martin O’Malley left City Hall for the political horizons of Annapolis, yes, some fundamental restoration of balance between real police work and zero-tolerance was attempted and even achieved.  But credit where it is due:  A new mayor and new police commissioner made real gains by going the exact opposite way of Mr. O’Malley in their policing strategies.  And despite Mr. Barry’s implication to the contrary, nothing I said in my original remarks suggests that I do not personally credit the new priorities, or that I am not aware that zero-tolerance was halted after Mr. O’Malley’s mayoralty.  I’ve been doing so for years now:

It is my understanding that Commissioner Bealefeld – by finally choosing to emphasize the quality, rather than the quantity of arrest – has been able to reduce the homicide rate somewhat in our city. If true, this is not only commendable, it is a long time coming. Too long, in fact.”

That was something I wrote in the Baltimore Sun in January 2011, years after Mr. O’Malley had departed for Annapolis and well into a prolonged effort by the Rawlings-Blake administration — and even earlier, by the abbreviated Dixon administration — to do a complete about-face from Mr. O’Malley’s zero-tolerance policies.  That’s right: After Martin O’Malley and zero-tolerance failed to achieve more than modest reductions in violent crime – those who inherited Baltimore’s crime problem did exactly the opposite and deemphasized mass arrests, targeted gun crime, and in that same year of 2011, pushed the city below 200 murders a year for the first time in decades. (Sorry, but as a point of comparison, the O’Malley campaign claims of a 40 percent reduction in part-one felonies during its own tenure are simply juked; you can recategorize and unfound agg assaults and robberies ad nauseum, and Mr. O’Malley’s people did, but not even the most ambitious politician can hide the bodies of murder victims.  That’s why that stat is always the tell for old police reporters.)

Unequivocally, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld completely abandoned Mr. O’Malley’s policies and principles, lowered the arrest rate meaningfully, and in doing so actually achieved some of the real crime reduction that Mr. O’Malley claimed, falsely, on paper.  Even now, with violence in Baltimore cresting after the disorder here, the murder rate is still below that which Mr. O’Malley left the city on his departure for Annapolis.  And again, the murder rate is ever the true-tell when it comes to crime stats:  A body can’t be made to disappear.  So how does the murder rate stay consistent, or even rise slightly during much of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure while during the same years, attempted murders are magically, dramatically falling by as much as 30 percent?  Are the criminals all suddenly better shots?  Has trauma care at Johns Hopkins returned to the dark ages?  No, the O’Malley stats on overall crime reduction have been cheated to create a narrative amenable to political ambition.  Guns have disappeared from agg assault reports, rapes have been unfounded, robberies have been categorized as Part II larcenies.  But murder is always the tell; it can’t be cheated for political advancement.  (More detail on this to come; it’s worthy of another post entirely to carefully parse the stats, review the history of crime categorization in Baltimore, and Mr. O’Malley’s astonishing claims of success unseen in any other American city.)

Most embarrassing is Mr. O’Malley’s incredibly tone-deaf coda in late 2013, a moment that I am sure he would like to call back now in the wake of Mr. Gray’s death and the revelations over the past year about how unprofessional and reckless the BPD has become with regard to police violence and with routine violations of civil liberties:

With the real credit for reducing arrest rates and abandoning zero-tolerance policing going to the present mayor’s administration and a police commissioner. who turned away from Mr. O’Malley’s arguments completely in 2010-2011, Mr. O’Malley nonetheless journeyed back to Baltimore not even two years ago to chastize Mayor Rawlings-Blake for lowering the number of arrests and deemphasizing street sweeps and allegedly allowing crime to again rise as a result.

That 2013 suggestion by Mr. O’Malley that crime was up because Baltimore had walked away from his wholesale denigration of civil liberties, his willingness to tolerate 100,000 arrests (again, not counting the non-arrests that never saw a court commissioner) in a city of 600,000, and his wholesale emphasis of quantity over quality in police work — this remarkable argument landed here in Baltimore with an hollow, empty thud.  Even then, before The Sun‘s revelations last year of widespread unprofessionalism and brutality by officers and before the death of Mr. Gray, the governor’s plea to renew zero-tolerance methods was soundly criticized and ignored by the political leadership in Baltimore.  They — and not Mr. O’Malley — had actually dropped the murder rate by doing the exact opposite.

That Mr. Barry comes now, championing Mr. O’Malley because he managed, under force of a civil rights suit, to bring arrests down off of his own extreme highs to a level still significantly higher than the already excessive levels of overpolicing he inherited — this is disingenuous and, frankly, a little bit desperate. Again, Mr. Barry’s data not only ignores the thousands of “non-arrests” that went to jail unrecorded as stats, but even worse, it treats all arrests the same.  After all, is it not entirely reasonable to assume that the 89,000 arrests that took place before Mr. O’Malley lost all interest in the Fourth Amendment might have contained some higher percentage of arrests that were actually police work, that bore some remote connection to an actual crime?  Or that Mr. O’Malley’s much higher number of detainees — those both recorded as arrests, and those released before booking after liability waivers were obtained — contains a far lower percentage of actual criminals?

Mr. Barry’s two-dimensional use of the data here is indicative of how stats mean nothing once they leave the street. On a flat chart, oblivious to the real world, quantity is all.  Quality — what the police work is or isn’t, what was taught to police for eight years and what wasn’t, what was rewarded and what wasn’t — doesn’t factor in Mr. Barry’s assessment whatsoever. It certainly had no meaning to Mr. O’Malley.  He was headed elsewhere. But the Baltimore department that remained behind wasn’t going to easily unlearn the new and permeable limits to civil liberties in this city.

If you want to assess what a mayor and police commissioner can achieve when they actually abandon zero-tolerance and over-policing, look four years after O’Malley was gone from Baltimore.  Even operating with a damaged police agency in which the investigative prowess and the deterrent of felony arrest was signficiantly weakened because of Mr. O’Malley’s priorities, Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Mr. Bealefeld achieved actual results.  Not merely reductions on paper.

Zero tolerance doesn’t work.  It just doesn’t.


Zero tolerance is exactly what it sounds like:

08 May
May 8, 2015



And a broken-windows policy of policing is exactly what it means:

The property matters. The people can stay broken until hell freezes over.

And the ejection of these ill-bought philosophies of class and racial control from our political mainstream — this is now the real prize, not only in Baltimore, but nationally. Overpolicing and a malignant drug prohibition have systemically repressed and isolated the poor, created an American gulag, and transformed law enforcement into a militarized and brutalizing force utterly disconnected from communities in which thousands are arrested but crime itself — real crime — is scarcely addressed. To be sure, there are a great many savage inequalities in our society — no doubt we could widen this discussion at a dozen points — but now, right now, overpolicing of the poor by a militarized police-state is actually on the table for the first time in decades.

And don’t for a second think that stabbing a fork through the heart of zero tolerance isn’t job one. Nothing else changes, nothing else grows in the no-man’s lands of a war zone, and our inner cities have been transformed into free-fire battlegrounds by this drug war and all of the brutalities and dishonesties done in its name.

Yes, the charges came for the Baltimore officers and the city is now relatively quiet.  But step back for a moment from the immediacy of each individual outrage — from Ferguson, from Staten Island, from North Charleston, from West Baltimore — and realize that while this systemic overlay of oppression will offer a moral exemption or two when the facts or the digital video demands it, charging an officer here or implementing a new training course for police there, the game itself grinds on.  Even as they acknowledge an atrocity or two, the same voices of seeming reason continue to suggest that we needn’t abandon all the good that zero-tolerance enforcement has done for us.

Why look at New York, can’t you?  Safest big city in America.  Zero-tolerance works, goddammit.  It makes us all safer, and our cities governable.  Fix the broken windows, write up all the small infractions, punish every minor offender and soon, you’ll see, the city becomes liveable again.  If you have money, quite liveable indeed.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore — as in every other city that doesn’t happen to be the recapitalized, respeculated, rebuilt center of world finance — zero tolerance has been a disaster.  And the levels of police violence and incarceration that spring from this policing philosophy are proving more lethal to the American spirit and experiment than even race fear and race hatred, as ugly and enduring as that pathology is.  No, this is now about class. This is those who have more using the levers of governance to terrorize those who have less, and doing so by using damn near nothing to keep the poor at the margins of American life.

Four men in four separate cities are dead over a shoplifted cigar, a single sold cigarette, a legal pocket knife and a domestic order for child support.  Do any of us feel appreciably safer for the cost?  Do any of us still want to talk about breaking a few eggs to make that omelet?  Do any of us still want to defend the absurd and brutalizing notion that by using our police officers to stalk our ghettoes heaving criminal charge upon criminal charge at every standing human being, we are fixing, or helping, or even intelligently challenging  the other America to find a different future for itself?

Why yes, yes we do.  Incredibly, we do.

*    *    *

As much as the best slogans and the purest ideology wishes it otherwise, this astonishing edifice of American repression, built carefully, brick by brick, over decades and sustained by a paper-thin, 24-hour-a-day media culture that traffics only in fear and shock value, is not going to fall with a riot.  Exactly the opposite is going to happen if rightful civil disobedience gives way to civil unrest.

When the very demand is an end to wanton and brutalizing overpolicing, a riot and all the imagery that a riot conjures is in fact the most useless thing in the great arsenal of civil disobedience and rebellion. Yes, if you want to argue anyone’s right to a burn and loot, to declare that America’s dispossessed have been violently targeted, that they are desperate, that they deserve all the violence that these state-sponsored murders elicit, then you can present yourself as a fairly sublime fascimile of Patrick Henry or Malcolm X for our time. Death or glory. Liberty or death. Your rhetoric will no doubt inspire those who are like-minded, and maybe even the folks risking all in the street, as well.

And then you — and they — will lose.

Me, I’m fucking tired of losing.  For decades now, American governance has carefully leached the overt racialist sentiment from its calls for law and order.  Just as carefully, with the rise of a black and Latino middle class, that governance has secured some healthy measure of minority participation in a crackdown that now targets the underclass overall.  No?  Look at the faces of those charged with failing to travel Freddie Gray from street to lockup without severing his spine; ebony and ivory, beating down the poor in perfect harmony.  And finally, to fully insulate and institutionalize the brutality, our government has deployed it against us in post-racial fashion. If you don’t think so — if you believe that this is still merely about race — you need to spend some time in places such as Baltimore’s Pigtown or O’Donnell Heights, watching white people of little means getting their asses kicked and their rights violated with as much gusto as in West Baltimore.  This war is on the poor.

And they are good at this.  They understand the optics.  And they believe that in these moments when the systemic nightmare that is now American policing reveals itself in a choked-to-death arrestee or a hellish wagon ride, that they can wait out the outrage, that the small bone of a singular indictment or even conviction can be thrown, that eventually the indignation of the oppressed will slip in either its intensity or its discipline, that the street theater will dissipate, or even better for their purposes, lurch into open, CNN-engorged violence.  In the end, they expect any uprising to underplay or overplay even the strongest hand.

You don’t think so?  One word:   Occupy.

Yes, the street is essential, and more than that, the hands-up ballet that exposed the militarized police response in Ferguson was brilliant, honest disobedience. Those images — far more than anything burned or anything thrown in Missouri — moved this cause forward.  Just as fundamentally, the Baltimore imagery of young men standing their ground and claiming North and Pennsie for their own, or marching peacefully in anger toward City Hall against a line of helmets and riot shields, has profound power. Stakes are high and now, with one lethal encounter after another lined up to prove the rule and not the exception to Americans who have little clue about police violence, some moral high ground is there for the taking.  But Occupy proved that the street is only the opening act, and the second act of this drama — of any popular movement — has to be political.

And for a second act to even begin to happen, the optics don’t merely matter — they are everything.

The demand here is not merely to punish some police, much as some police need to be held to account. The substantive victory — the one for which there is now actually  a window– is for our governance and law enforcement to take its hand from the throat of the other America, to finally and forever abandon the cruelty of an unrestrained drug war, of zero-tolerance policies, of mass incarceration.  The demand has to be systemic reform:  Governance must allow the dispossessed of this country to stand up and venture unmolested into the same shared future with  the rest of us:  This is wrong.  Let them be.  They are Americans.  They are us.

Shame is some powerful shit, and there is so much for all of us to be ashamed about after buying into this repressive dynamic for so long. And for as long as the optics and the discipline of the uprising allow, shame and the grievous sacrifices of Brown and Garner, Scott and Gray are doing hard and essential labor here.  Those who live only by the slogan, who want to assert categorically that power only yields to force, that no one ever achieved a real measure of freedom without violence — they talk as if the imagery of violent civil unrest has ever done anything in this country other than push middle Americans into the arms of fearful, authoritarian repression, or even more naively, as if the political middle is somehow unnecessary to political victory in a republic that when it governs itself at all, governs by rough consensus.  By any means necessary?  As fine a phrase in the cause of liberty as has ever been uttered, but in actual application, it will have to be employed as if the urban poor are not already at the margins of American life, as if their numbers are such that they can find political consensus in this country once rioting becomes the predominant visual.  By any means necessary sounds great until you realize that there aren’t actually a lot of means available to the underclass, that bricks and fire will have to suffice against a policing and civil defense apparatus that is already militarized and weaponized beyond anything seen in 1968.

To embrace a riot when circumstances offer a real prize for the first time in decades — this would be a triumph of self-defeating anger, however justified or worthy of empathy, on the part of the underclass themselves.  Or worse, in the case of those claiming to support the aspirations of the popular risings in the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore,  it is armchair revolution, a celebration of perfect ideology ready to street-fight tyranny at the cost of someone else’s blood, someone else’s skull. To argue such desperate extremity, you have to scrub clean every lesson of the last half century that argues for organization and discipline, for mass non-violent civil disobedience and the victories won at the hands of that ideal.  Selma, Gdansk, Robben Island — the transformational moments come not when the popular will indulges in violence, but after the state itself indulges in shameless violence and repression against its own people, when the tactics of brutality are overplayed and when the threat or actuality of violence reveals as hollow the moral standing of a bad government.

You think the presumption is mine, that I’m speaking for the poor from a position of affluence, or white entitlement?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps the presumption is yours in declaring that many, or even most of our urban poor are not themselves fully aware of the stakes, that they are too battered and enraged by years of authoritarian violence to achieve anything bigger or more lasting than a riot.  Perhaps when a Baltimorean of any stripe argues against other Baltimoreans giving in to the rage of a riot when still other Baltimoreans are risking so much to actually reform something — maybe this isn’t actually as much a function of race as you think.  And perhaps, too, infantilizing those participating in this uprising by rationalizing the rioting, by implying that the poor and dispossessed can’t instead organize and maintain a disciplined and unrelenting mass protest for real results — perhaps this is an ugly condescension all its own.

Real results?  Not here, you say.   Not now.  Are you sure?

*     *     *

A few weeks ago, I swallowed hard, put on a tie, and drove down to Washington D.C. to eat rubber chicken and directly engage with people who are said to have some hand in pretending to governing this country.  For an old reporter, and one well-versed in certain time-tested newsroom cynicisms, this was a close call.  I told the organizers of the event that I didn’t want to be on some damn panel discussing everything from deindustrialization to educational equality to family values. I didn’t want to waste my time sitting in meeting rooms over five-year plans and new slogans for programs that never come.  I didn’t want to be used to validate more inertia and failure.

“We can’t promise an outcome,” an organizer conceded, “but this time, it’s not just the liberals.  Gingrich is a cosponsor aloing with Donna Brazille, and some of the funding comes from Koch Industries.”

Huh.  Different.

“There’s honestly a chance that some movement on this stuff can happen, actually.”

Maybe I’m a chump, but I signed up.  No panels, no back-and-forth on all of the global issues in which an actual attempt at reform can be lost, but yeah, I agreed to vent ten minutes on an aspect I guessed probably woudn’t be covered by people on either the left or the right:  The drug war had fucked up policing.  It was brutality without purpose, save for the mass incarceration of people who don’t really need to be in prison.  It was, to be exact, the same set-piece rant I’ve been giving for more than a decade, but I reheated it again because I thought for once I was talking to a group that all had some feathered piece of the same agenda:  The libertarians don’t care about any sense of a shared future, but hey, they see the drug war clearly for what it is, and the lefties know the smell of brutality and repression when it’s in the room.  The conversatives?  Hell, they can see that the costs of locking up this many human beings for all manner of infraction is more than the country can bear economically.

After I signed on, the White House called.  Rather than tape his own remarks to the gathering, the President wanted to talk with me (yeah I know, WTF) and send the bipartisan symposium  a 10-12 minute video arguing further the disaster that mass incarceration and an unwinnable drug war had brought the country.  Huh.

So that too.

And a few days later, I’m sitting with my chicken plate between Newt fucking Gingrich and some vice president for Koch Industries listening to the sitting Republic governor of Georgia — that’s right, good old red-state Georgia — explaining how this essential reform is already happening, that in his state, for fiscal and humanistic reasons both, they are closing prisons and dramatically reducing the prison population by walking away from the notion of zero tolerance, and making a very sensible, very human distinction between “those things that we wish people wouldn’t do and those things that we can’t allow you to do.”

Still think that there isn’t a window here?  This is the actual, on-the-ground statewide abandonment of zero-tolerance by a conversative Republican governor of Georgia; not a proposed change, not an argument undertaken at the fringe of a political campaign or by some gadfly critic or academician. Georgia, of all places, has just abandoned mass incarceration, broken windows and zero tolerance.

The governor’s keynote received standing applause, and why not from a bipartisan coalition that had been brought together to pursue a goal of reducing the national prison population by 50 percent?   Georgia is doing it, on her own.  Go figure.

I used my ten minutes as planned, arguing that even if you value public safety above all things, you needed to abandon zero tolerance. Then I sat down again, only to have Mr. Gingrich follow me and declare that while Mr. Simon makes good fictional television dramas, zero-tolerance and broken-windows policing had a real future in our country, that they have in fact claimed a great victory in making New York one of the safest big cities in America.

Yeah, this shit will not die easy.   Once a myth becomes the truth, it stays true.

Mr. Gingrich came back to the table and, God help me, I can never resist a good piss in the wind:  “I’d agree with you,” I assured him, “but then we’d both be wrong.”

He laughed, and I proceeded to argue to his increasing irritation that comparing New York, or London, or Los Angeles or any other world city to half-hollow, second-tier post-industrial cities was incredibly specious, that what had worked in New York had not worked because Guliani filled Rikers, or because the civil rights of every black or brown citizen walking the streets had been made to disappear in the name of public safety.

He smiled, but he wasn’t listening.  Dessert had arrived.

*      *      *

This window is eighteen months.

After that, the Obama administration ends and whatever follows it — Democratic, Republic — will not likely have the standing or fortitude to argue on behalf of the underclass, to risk the Willie-Horton baiting that can come when a prison is emptied, to expend limited political capital on the most demonized, feared and politically disenfranchised element of our society.  The poor, and largely the urban poor at that, will be reconsigned to oblivion when the new administration transitions to power and the affluent who have paid for large chunks of the election victory will have their own notions about how the new president ought to use his political capital.

If a Republican wins the White House, he will have done so by yet again promising the party base that he will be tough on crime, that small-town values are an elemental truth despite the fact that America is forever more a big-city society, that he is a law-and-order kind of guy, that drugs are bad and that whoever the Democratics send at him is weak and vacillating when it comes to keeping our streets safe.

If a Democrats wins, it will at worst be because he maneuvered to the American center and abandoned any primary-season talk about the poor, about urban policies, or emptying prisons or getting soft on crime. At best, even a Democratic president who stays true to a moral course on this issue is likely going to be denied the necessary legislative victories by a Republican congress maneuvering for the next mid-term and presidential election cycles.

At the earliest, with either party, nothing happens to help the poor or mitigate the violence directed at the poor by our government until a second term, as it was with this administration.  The next window after this one will be, at best, another eight years away.

But right now, this president — as a matter of conscience, perhaps, and with no more political worlds to conquer — is speaking words that have not been heard in decades.  And willing, perhaps, to grant a legacy of reform to an administration that is of no further threat electorally, his opposition is actually joining the chorus, or — as in the case of Georgia — acting unilaterally to bipartisan applause.  Now, in the last years of the last term of this presidency, there is a chance to undo decades of warfare on the poor.  Now, right now, the pendulum very much is in swing.

*      *      *

There are a lot of people who misread “The Wire” as being cynical about the possibilities of populism or political change; that’s an easy read, in my opinion. Superficial, too. Yes, the drama is a dystopic vision of an ungovernable American city trapped in a rigged game.  That’s not accidental: It seems important, I think, to first call a rigged game by its true name, and for the other America, as represented in “The Wire” by certain quadrants of Baltimore, the game is truly and prohibitively rigged.

But so was pre-civil rights America a rigged game.  And the economic landscape of the country in the industrial age, prior to the Haymarket and Teddy Roosevelt and the the rise of collective bargaining, was also a mug’s game for many.  The Communist satellites of Eastern Europe were rigged for decades before Solidarity sat down in that shipyard, just as apartheid was its own circular argument until a growing international isolation and economic stagnation forced an illegitimate, authoritarian government to see the man on Robben Island not as their prisoner but as their only possible chance for non-violent transformation.  Every era of bad or illegimate governance is rigged and rigged tight.  Until it isn’t.

The last time Baltimore — and the rest of urban America — burned for the television cameras, it brought nods of understanding and empathy from the left, and it left the urban poor and their communities even more isolated and vulnerable than before.  It is tempting to argue otherwise — to point to community block-grants and UDAGs  and say, look what progress did follow the riots in 1968.  Or to read the Kerner Commission report and think that what happened in Detroit a year earlier brought the country to some new understanding of the fire next time and how to avoid it.

But no.  The greater wisdom of the Kerner report lays there on the pages still, untouched by anything resembling comprehensive political action.  And as for whatever money was tossed into American cities that were leaching population and tax-base after 1968, well, the government has always been okay at regilding ghettoes.  Bricks and mortar is one thing, and hey, wherever you go, a developer is always a developer.  But people?  Where was the grand initiative to reconnect the isolated, urban poor with an economy that was already on the move, that was increasingly rendering them irrelevant to the American future?

The hard truth is the only comprehensive and lasting urban agenda that followed the rioting of the 1960s is law and order.  A healthy chunk of the DNA of our current militarized policing dynamic and unrestrained use of arrest and incarceration is there, latent, in the fear that those long summers of civil unrest produced in middle America.

And Detroit is still Detroit.  And the parts of Baltimore that burned on Monday have never quite made it back from what happened in 1968.  A riot in London or Los Angeles — and such events were actually used for comparison this week, often by dillettantes from London or Los Angeles  — is not going to implode those cities.  Damage to a world metropolis can  be papered over within a year or two by virtue of the incredible economic engines that guarantee the health of such extraordinary places. What does East London or Crown Heights or South Central mean to vast, monied landscapes that are the now the fixed centers of the accumulated financial health of their entire societies?

But Baltimore?  Gauging what can happen to a Baltimore or a Detroit or a St. Louis in the wake of serious, prolonged riot by referencing a world city is as specious an endeavor as say, explaining all the good that zero-tolerance policing did in a city that was soaking luxuriously in the quarter-century run up in the financial markets.  New York has busied itself for three decades completely rebuilding itself and recalibrating the wealth of its population to an extent that the poor were not only priced out of Manhattan, but much of the outer boroughs as well.  The only thing that is going to mug someone in Alphabet City or Astoria nowadays is the bill from a two-star restaurant.

That’s why zero-tolerance worked in New York  — because one of the richest cities that humankind has ever built soon enough had many more rich people and much less poor people overall.  Put Wall Street where North Avenue is and drop West Baltimore where the financial district now sits in Manhattan and see the magic happen.  If the financial markets were in Baltimore or St. Louis, and decades of Wall Street bonus money was scarfing up and restoring those towns block by block, why yes, what shining new Jerusalems would result in Maryland and Missouri.  And if New York were an old manufacturing center without its bedrock of financial and artistic primacy?

That civic and political leaders in second-tier cities — without the mass capital to reconstitute themselves as centers of capitalist affluence — actually followed Guiliani and Bratton into this hellhole is testament to the simplicity and easy sloganeering under which our political culture operates.  To its credit, the police department in nearby Washington D.C. tried zero-policing on the poorer quadrants in Northeast and Southeast and quickly backed away.  They were destroying all semblence of community-police relations and police work itself was becoming brutish and ineffective.

But Baltimore kept going.  Incredibly.  And “The Wire” was a show made in that time of astonishing and stubborn indifference to the facts on the ground.   Our leaders here were willing to fight the theory of zero tolerance to the tune of more than 100,000 annual arrests in a city of 600,000.  And while they did, the arrest and conviction rates for every single category of felony crime fell because what is the use of actual police work and crime deterrence when you can sweep the streets of the poor instead?

Crime also fell, too, during that time, or so the cooked paperwork says.  But more on that later; the complexity of that lie requires a separate essay, perhaps. Again, suffice to say that this shit dies hard, and if the mass protests in Baltimore and other cities achieve only a handful of indictments or convictions, then it probably won’t end at all.

But a riot?  Christ, what could be better for arguing the need for more shields and helmets, more militarized police, more prisons, more omnibus crime bills.  And, of course, more unending drug war. At every level, from the federal to the municipal, American government emerged from the maelstrom of the late-Sixties rioting with a mainstream-voter mandate for law-and-order policing, for establishing layers of social control over the poor, and especially the minority poor, that no longer relied on direct racial discrimination, but on a more coded and nominally color-blind drug prohibition.

The blame is bipartisan.  Democratic and Republican presidents and governors and mayors competed with each other to spike the new construct with ever greater weaponry and militarization, to make the penalties on even the most minor, non-violent offenses ever more marginalizing and draconian, to demonize and isolate the poor beyond what our bifurcated version of America had already done, to make middle-class and working-class Americans viscerally afraid of and even vengeful against those without.  Some of our most populist Democratic leaders traded in this shit for maximum political advantage.  I’m looking at you, Bill Clinton.  You are one masterful politician, and, well, a self-preserving sonofabitch.  As much as anyone, the American gulag, millions of non-violent offenders strong, belongs to you.

But hey, that was then.  Right now, in this rare window, Mr. Clinton, along with others — including many Americans who occupy the political center and are necessary ballast for consensus — are today as wary of the police and the overreach of zero tolerance, of the drug war, of the mass incarceration of fellow citizens, as they are scared of the poor.  It’s been a long time coming, and but for the brutal overreach of the law enforcement community itself  and, perhaps, too, the small wonder of digital camera-phones, we would not be here now.

But again, we have at best a year and a half before this political window closes.  Hell, it may snap shut before then if the leaders of the mass civil dissent in Baltimore and elsewhere can’t sustain the civil disobedience and mass protest, if a mere indictment or conviction sends everyone to a warm coda of self-congratulation.  And the window will certainly close if those leaders don’t stay organized and in control of the agenda, if they lose the optics to burning and looting.  The American center stared at that shit once before and replied with Nixon and Reagan and three decades of omnibus crime bills, mandatory sentencing, and rampant prison construction.   A good, robust riot now brings at least a decade more of the same misery.

*    *    *

The morning after the day when I apparently engaged in the unpardonable effrontery of urging, on this site, fellow Baltimoreans not to diminish and betray the moral authority and power of the ongoing protests by indulging in violence, I took drove to North and Pennsie to spend the morning, along with many other city residents, picking up trash.

It’s too much to claim I was at that point motivated by any hope of communal affirmation — though seeing hundreds of us — most black, but some white — walking the streets and alleys of Penn-North doing the same thing was pretty damn affirming.  Mostly, though, I just woke up sick to my stomach at the thought of CNN and Fox reporters doing their Tuesday stand-ups with burnt trash and broken glass as their backdrop.  I wanted the images of the previous day and night overtaken by something else.

After the trash was gone, even from many of the rear alleys, I joined the renewed occupation of North and Pennsie for a time.  The intersection was closed for the day and the police line in riot gear seemed to have little appetite to push anyone off the real estate.  The young protestors stood their ground, some bantering with the police and others glaring implacably.  It stayed that way for a good while until some asshole threw a bottle at police and then, some other asshole, safely ensconced behind helmet, Kevlar and shield, replied by firing mace into the eyes of the front row of protestors.  The throng in the intersection broke in a spray of shouting humanity.

The worst kind of shit seemed to be starting again, until a cadre of young men came off the corners, arms raised, shouting for peace, telling everyone to calm down.  Stand your ground, but keep calm.  Peace, they chanted repeatedly, and the moment held, with the protesters and police settling in against each other in tempered hostility for the rest of the afternoon.

I am honestly not sure that I have ever been more proud to be a Baltimorean than at that precise moment.  And I am certain that I have never had more belief that right now, for the first time in decades, something real can actually be won.