CIVIC CRITIQUE:

Why 'Baltimore Believe' Cannot Work--and the Real Work We Must Do Instead

by J. Russell Tyldesley
Baltimore didn't create the drug problem, and it cannot solve it alone. The problem is caused by flawed national policies that have created ideal conditions for the spread of this disease.
I don't think I have ever seen a program aimed at alleviating drug addiction and crime that did not deal more with symptoms than with causes. If any reference is made at all to causes, it is either elliptical or focuses on the personal responsibility of the addict. Never does a program give more than passing reference to societal structures that produce and nurture diseases of the body and mind, diseases which can be anaesthetized by drugs and alcohol.

My aim in writing this is not so much to quibble with any of the nine articles of commitment detailed in the two-page "Declaration" of the Baltimore Believe campaign that just ended, but rather to challenge some of the underlying assumptions that produce "solutions" heavily tilted toward law enforcement and treatment on demand.

In my view, the main cause of the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse in our society is the continuing decline of the cities and the moral wasteland that is now our suburban areas. The decline of the older inner city neighborhoods is the result of morally bankrupt policies based on capitalistic greed and racism that continues to this day, albeit prettied up and cleverly disguised as "opportunities" in a globalized economy.

People in the inner cities (and in the suburbs, for that matter) need meaningful jobs. They need work that they can feel good about at the end of the day, that is ennobling to the spirit, and (most important) that pays something above poverty-level wages. If the product they manufacture is used within the community by those with whom they are familiar, even drudge work will eventually become meaningful. Drugs will lose their appeal if dignity and hope can be brought back to marginalized communities. The drugs will no longer be needed to escape the reality of grinding poverty. As it is, young people are finding meaning in violent forms of escapism; this is a growing problem even in the suburbs.

The possibility of an ultimate "high" from "good" drugs is becoming the holy grail of the next generation. Kids are perceptive, and although they may not be able to articulate it, they cannot ignore the disparity between what society tells them about the promise of the future and what they observe with their own eyes. If our lives are still to be defined by our employment, we need to look at the quality as well as the quantity of jobs. I'm skeptical that the evolution of the computer and the internet is going to be able to provide most of the quality jobs of the future--unless, of course, the medium does indeed become the message, and process triumphs over product.

The decline of viable communities is also tied to an absence of interest in the concept of community. Even in the suburbs, the most prevalent form of community is probably chat rooms on the internet. There are very few downtowns and fewer public spaces for social interaction. We live in areas dominated by the automobile, preventing the formation of any real community ties. We watch the same T.V. shows by ourselves in our homes and root for the same teams which, at most, can be shared in the office on Mondays.

The list of notable citizens who signed on to the Baltimore Believe declaration is impressive, but I wonder how many of them have read some of the popular studies written on various aspects of modern society. I don't know how anyone can arrive at any solutions until they understand the problem from a variety of different viewpoints based on experience. With this in mind, here are a few books that I believe constitute essential reading: The Rise and Fall of Great American Cities, The End of Work, America's Undeclared War, Bowling Alone, Fast Food Nation, and The Corner. Maybe we can't all walk the walk, but we might try to listen to those who have.

In order to liberate thinking from established norms (let's face it, the usual solutions haven't really worked), I have reworked some of the bullet points of "Baltimore Believe" as follows:

Now we move on to the "Commitments" part of the "Believe" manifesto.

One of the problems with these proposed solutions is that they are presented as being uniquely Baltimore's. This is much too narrow a focus. The first two bullet points remind me of a former President's "Just Say No" campaign. Perhaps it is still considered a rational approach by some of our leaders, though it has proven ineffective.

The next bullet has to do with the correctional system--often the "employer" of last resort for inner city youth. It is the cruelest joke of all to even suggest that our correction, probation, and parole systems "can make certain that violent offenders are rehabilitated." Evidence from studies suggests that the incarceration system has a hardening effect on inmates. The inmate has a better chance of learning how to be a better criminal than a productive citizen. Most inmates are not fooled by the hypocrisy of the system. If a youth changes his behavior to become more socialized, it will be in spite of the correction system, not because of it.

The last few bullet points are quite innocuous and incomprehensible, but seem to be directed towards citizens' developing a sense of pride in their city. The drug problem and its solution should be about more than making Baltimore #1 in pride. We have the Orioles and Ravens for that. Illegal drugs are not a problem attributable solely to Baltimore; they constitute a national issue. Baltimore didn't create the drug problem, and it cannot solve it alone. The problem is caused by flawed national policies that have created ideal conditions for the spread of this disease. The cities need Federal relief and need to get together to make their case collectively; however, they must first understand all the dimensions of the issue. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke and current governor of New Mexico Johnson have been voices in the wilderness for the decriminalization of the use of recreational drugs such as marijuana.

Criminalizing this nonviolent, private behavior only serves to keep the profit in the black market system; it is fuel for the fire. If any drug use is opposed on moral grounds, it certainly must include alcohol, which is responsible for far more damage to society. Politicians are mostly afraid to address decriminalization--it is a third-tier topic when it comes to the war against drugs. For those in the city who are incarcerated for possession of minor quantities of controlled substances (a nifty euphemism), the war seems to be against them, their lifestyle, their neighborhood, and their poverty--reminiscent of the difficulties experienced by black drivers. For those in the suburbs who are caught, it can be anything from a game of hide and seek to an alternative life-style choice; whatever it is, it is not worthy of the crime label.

We pride ourselves on our low rate of unemployment, relative to other western countries (though it reached a rather high rate of 6% during this current recession). However, if one adds the number of prisoners and others on probation or in the correctional system at some level, we are talking about over 2,000,000 potential workers that, if added to the official unemployment count, cause the percentage to add at least 2% to the 6% already in existence. We have the highest rate of incarceration among the highly developed countries. If we consider the fact that prisons are becoming privatized and corporations such as Microsoft have contracts to employ labor in prisons at rates far below minimum wage, we begin to see an industrial policy that seeks out low wages in American prisons as well as in third world countries. It makes one wonder what the real objective of throwing so many nonviolent people into jail may really be.

If the root cause is an employment problem, the left would envision a "New Deal"-Rooseveltian-type solution. The right would attempt to clean the streets of undesirables and miscreants "deserving" of jail time until they adjusted their behavior to societal norms. The yin and yang of this is bound to be debated. To leave the "regulation" of recreational drugs in the hands of the black market rather than the FDA is another argument against criminalization.

Beyond the issue of decriminalization, our society glamorizes drug and alcohol use in many ways. The wealthiest and sexiest of Hollywood and the sports world seem to get away with drug use and appear, on the surface, to lead productive lives. Drugs even seem to be a reward, the ultimate achievement. Sex, drugs, and rock n' roll--I'm not sure we can ever stop drug use completely in a society addicted to fun, escape, and the "ultimate experience." We are a nation of thrill-seekers. We long ago stopped worrying about how to feed ourselves, fight off the Indians, and survive the long, cold winters. We consequently need new challenges to overcome. These challenges become increasingly artifical until they concievably become problems.

Our children no longer have much of an experience when "coming of age." The old rituals seem too phony. To become an adult now is simply to have your own checking account and credit card. Growing up in a city ghetto is a hardening process, but rather than producing mature adults, it produces a "man-child in the promised land." Many children who are raised in the ghetto lack appropriate role models. They do not have adult mentors to admire and emulate. Too often, it may well be the seasoned, street-wise drug dealer who acts as the mentor and becomes a substitute for the strong parent figure. The dealer may also provide a "community" experience where community is otherwise dysfunctional. To be respected in the community is the key; however, there has to be one of place; a virtual, imagined, or remembered community will not suffice. for too long, gangs have provided negative environments in which to nurture children.

In conclusion, "Baltimore Believe" would have us think that the old solutions will work if we just try harder. The authors of the program may read this and say, "all this is just too dreamy, we need to function in the real world, the one we have, not the one we wish for." This is true; however, we do have a choice. We can go for short-term solutions to cure urgent needs, or we can step back from the trees and behold the forest.


J. Russell Tyldesley lives in Catonsville, MD.

For information about the Baltimore Believe campaign, see http://www.ci.baltimore.md.us/believe/


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This story was published on July 3, 2002.