The Year in News
If we had to pick one word to define 2008, it would have to be "crisis." National headlines this year were all about it: financial crisis, the foreclosure crisis, the crisis in the shrinking media industry. Locally, things weren't any better. Baltimore suffered from all of the major problems that affected the rest of the nation, then had a few crises of its own. In fact, it seemed like even the good news that graced the city this year had some kind of bad news attached. Homicides are down in the city, for example, but police-involved shootings are up. The historic election of Barack Obama as president of the United States spreads touchy feely good vibes across the nation, but on election night city police crack down on happy citizens celebrating in the streets of Charles Village, resulting in complaints of overzealous officers using unnecessary force. What follows are the 10 stories City Paper's news staff think defined 2008 for Baltimore--for better or for worse. The list was put together by Jeffrey Anderson, Edward Ericson Jr., Chris Landers, Van Smith, and Erin Sullivan.
As 2007 lurched to a close, Baltimore, and all of America, fretted about a shocking and unforeseen increase in home foreclosures, hoping for a quick turnaround in the housing market that could not come. Policy makers scrambled to find "solutions," to the "crisis of falling home values," first urging bankrupt lenders to offer better terms to delinquent borrowers, and eventually stepping in with thimbles full of the public's money to bail out "struggling homeowners." Maryland offered MDHope, a 120-day extension to the foreclosure process and a possible $15,000 loan to thousands of cash-strapped victims. Although the state has seen more than 30,000 foreclosures this year, only about 100 received state-backed refinancing or adjustments, while 4,000 got help from other sources. Unexamined is the presumption that everyone is an innocent victim. But fraud is rampant. BasePoint Analytics, a fraud detection software company, reported a "significant misrepresentation" in 25 percent to 45 percent of the more than 100,000 foreclosures it examined last year. Fraudsters could be your neighbors, your hairdresser, maybe even the guy doing your loan workout. With no apparent will or resources to root them out and no functioning system of justice, the crooks will surely rise again. And, once again, the authorities will be surprised.
It started--according to the Experts--with an unprecedented (and wholly unforeseeable) nationwide drop in home values. Then it spread to the subprime lenders, and then to the banks. Now the entire world's financial system is on the brink of meltdown, despite the application of some $8 trillion (so far) in taxpayer funds. That's roughly $26,666 for every man, woman, and child residing in the United States pledged to backstop and redeem the soured derivative bets of investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, insurance executives, and bond traders, every one of whom has absconded with millions of dollars in compensation for his alleged expertise. That this crisis actually was foreseeable--and was foreseen--by numerous people who did not extract millions from the financial casino is ironic, at best. That many of the architects of this great swindle are even now employed as stewards of The People's Bailout might, in some alternative universe where Democracy does not reign benignly over the polity, lead to some reassessment or even reform. Fortunately we are not in that universe, and so our glorious wealth-producing system will be saved, at whatever cost to the rest of us.
Really, this should be a write-up about the historic significance of the election of the 44th president of the United States--an election in which the first African-American was elected to the White House, an election that captured the enthusiasm and imaginations of an apathetic voting populace, an election of a man who many hope will be a leader on par with former President John F. Kennedy. But in Baltimore, a lot of that enthusiasm and energy was overshadowed late on election night when police in Charles Village descended on a crowd of people in the streets who were celebrating Obama's victory. At least 15 of the estimated 300 people were arrested, including students, university professors, and a freelance journalist, though none of them were actually charged with any crime. Many of those arrested contended the police used heavy-handed tactics and unnecessary force, and threatened to charge them with inciting a riot or disorderly conduct. Former Baltimore Police spokesman Sterling Clifford insisted that the police actions were reasonable, but witnesses say the celebration was peaceful and orderly and that it was the police, not the revelers, who were out of hand. Meanwhile, Chicago saw a crowd of 240,000 gather to celebrate Obama's victory, and thousands gathered in the streets of Washington, D.C. to do the same--neither of those cities, with their much larger gatherings and celebrations, had any of the reported problems between police and citizens there were seen in Baltimore.
In 2008, City Paper devoted much time and resources to covering Baltimore's "shadow economy"--the city's thriving drug trade and how it legitimized itself with ties to lawful business endeavors and politicians. We've showed how the sale of used cars can be parlayed into laundering drug money; how storefront operations like clothing stores are owned by drug dealers or people with close ties to drug dealers; how drug dealers secretly control liquor licenses. At the center of that coverage was well-connected local bailbondsman Milton Tillman Jr., owner of 4 Aces Bail Bonds, New Trend Development, and multiple other properties and businesses around town. On Aug. 18, the IRS and the FBI executed search warrants on Tillman. Five properties, one car, and a building at the Dundalk Marine Terminal were searched for evidence of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, tax evasion, and illegally engaging in the business of insurance. While it's still unclear where the feds plan to take this investigation, this is the first time in recent memory that this kind of chink has been made in the armor of a figure with such significant ties to the city's shadow economy.
Over the past two years, police-involved shootings in Baltimore have risen sharply: In 2007, Baltimore police officers were involved with 32 shootings, resulting in 19 non-fatal victims and 13 fatalities. So far 2008 has seen 21 police-involved shootings, resulting in 13 fatalities. That's up from 2006, when there were 15 police-involved shootings resulting in five fatalities. Contrast Baltimore's rate of fatal police-involved shootings with those of Washington, D.C., a city of comparable population: In 2007, Washington had a total of 31 police-involved shootings, resulting in eight fatalities; that city saw just three fatalities out of 26 police-involved shootings so far this year.
As if the statistics weren't confounding enough, the Baltimore Police Department has made it difficult to get information about the shootings that could help explain the situation. The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to a request for information about this year's numbers--most notably in regard to the police-involved shooting that left two young men dead outside the union hall of AFSCME Local 67, a public employees' union, after an unlicensed Fourth of July booze bash.
Baltimore is the City That Reads. And The City That Bleeds. But does it feel pain?
Despite a drop in the city's homicide rate and an increase in the number of guns taken off the street, shocking violence and brutality that took place in Baltimore during 2008 (and the inconsistent responses of the public and politicians to those violent acts) has made it difficult to feel any safer here.
Gang and drug-related murder is one thing, but some of this crime has been directed at innocent victims. In 2007, city resident Zachary Sowers was brutally beaten after leaving a bar in the Canton area, which put him into a coma he never came out of, and he died in early 2008. His death led to a public outcry and an ill-fated reform effort by his widow, Anna Sowers. But Sowers' attempts to make change here were rebuffed by city leaders, and she was practically vilified for her efforts.
Meanwhile, Zechariah Hallback, an 18-year-old African-American City College High student and a member of the student-activist group the Algebra Project, was gunned down in broad daylight in front of his school. News and reaction to the killing was over in a matter of days. There was little public outcry over his death, and no suspects have been arrested for his murder.
The murder of former Councilman Ken Harris, on the other hand, was widely reported, and for a time the whole city grieved his death. Harris was shot to death in the midst of an alleged botched robbery of the New Haven jazz club. At a press conference unveiling a new economic-development plan for the mall at which he was killed, Mayor Sheila Dixon called Harris a symbol of tragedy for the city.
What, 2008 leaves us to wonder, does it take for Baltimore's citizens to react in unison and demand accountability from elected leaders?
The Maryland constitution was amended by an election-day referendum to include provisions for slot-machine gambling at five locations around the state. Proponents promised that the state's budget forecast--especially as pertains to support for schools and horse racing--will be greatly improved by this. First, though, Maryland needs to establish a slots industry. Applications are due in February for potential operators, and those who win will have to share 67 percent of the kitty with the state. Casino companies, like Penn National Gaming, are balking at the high tax rate, and those that do apply for the right to run the new form of gaming are expected to make the minimum capital investment of $25 million for every 500 slot machines to be used. But questions remain as to how long Marylanders will have to wait before slots cure the state's budget ills. In Pennsylvania, where slots passed four years ago during an economic boom, only half of the 14 casinos allowed in that state's referendum are currently up and running. Given today's fast-sliding economy, which is battering the gaming industry, Marylanders may have to wait a long while before slots fulfill the promise they held for voters.
Earlier this fall, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) reassured the public that his personal real-estate dealings were on the up-and-up after his name turned up on records taken during a federal raid of a developer's offices. Those raids, which were staged in September, targeted others in positions of public trust in Prince George's, apparently to probe their cozy relationships with friendly business interests. In Baltimore, cronyism between Mayor Sheila Dixon and her ex-boyfriend, developer Ronald Lipscomb, appears to be subject of a state investigation that prompted a spring raid of the mayor's home. Back in Prince George's, two other public officials--state senators Ulysses Currie and Nathaniel Exum--are being scrutinized by federal law enforcement for their business dealings. In Currie's case, the targeted behavior has to do with his undisclosed employment with the Shoppers Food and Pharmacy chain, whose expansion to Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore received the senator's help. In all four of these cases, the other shoes have yet to fall (in that, as far as the public knows, no indictments have been filed), but they certainly show that public-corruption investigations--if not actual public corruption--are alive and well in the Free State.
Back in the 1960s, Baltimore Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau launched the Intelligence Section of the Inspectional Services Division of the City Police Department, in charge of keeping an eye on subversives and militants, like the Black Panthers and anti-war activists. It also kept track of Pomerleau's political enemies and journalists, even planting an officer posing as a news photographer in Harry, an alternative newspaper active at the time. An investigation into the commissioner's activities led to new state laws limiting the collection of information by government agencies. So . . . never again, right?
Well, almost. Earlier this year it came out that the Maryland State Police, under the banner of Homeland Security, had infiltrated anti-war and anti-death penalty activist groups in the state during 2005 and 2006, labeling some non-violent protestors as "terrorists" in a database shared with other agencies. A report by former U.S. Attorney and state Attorney General Stephen Sachs said the State Police showed an "apparent obliviousness to the consequences of its covert operation on the free exercise of expression and association by law-abiding citizens," but that Superintendent Terrence Sheridan said any future investigations would be based on some actual criminal activity. The ACLU, which championed the issue, is still looking for more documentation (it says the most recent documents indicate the surveillance continued into 2007), but if the State Police drop the ball, does that mean no one is watching dangerous extremists like the Chesapeake Climate Action Network? What about the Takoma Park woman who, according to police intelligence files "is involved in puppet making and allows anarchists to utilize her property for meetings?"
The news media in Baltimore looks a lot different than it did just a year ago. Some familiar folks have changed homes--radio talk-show host Mark Steiner made an unwilling departure from WYPR-FM this year, and columnist Gregory Kane left The Sun for The Examiner, to name just two significant moves--and some of the familiar media outlets got bulldozed. The Sun is a shadow of its former self--one veteran there recently called it "the smoking crater that used to be The Baltimore Sun," and there doesn't seem to be a plan for the paper's future beyond more and more budget cuts. Meanwhile, other publications are trying anything and everything they can to stem the tide of lost advertising dollars. The Daily Record launched a free monthly paper called Exhibit A, which in a matter of months stopped printing to go online only. The Examiner launched an army of bloggers (sorry, make that "Examiners") on its web site, examiner.com. The Sun launched b--a sort of blog in paper form-- following Examiner.com's notion that readers are more interested in opinions than in facts. The national press fared no better--the Christian Science Monitor dropped its print edition, subscribers are dropping the AP, and newspapers that aren't slashing budgets have already folded. It isn't all bad news, as nonprofit investigative journalism sites like Pro Publica show a possible new model for news organizations, but it remains to be seen who or what will fill the traditional role of papers like The Sun. As newspapers reinvent themselves as web sites and journalists reinvent themselves as new media consultants, what will we all put on our blogs when there's no news left to comment on?
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