In the wake of a deadly altercation between a man wielding a baseball bat and a group of squeegee workers, Baltimore business leaders convened with city youth Thursday to discuss solutions to the persistent tension surrounding their street-corner presence.
The summit, held at Coppin State University and closed to the public, was part of what Mayor Brandon Scott promised will be a “difficult” and ongoing conversation. Leaders, who included members of the business and nonprofit communities, as well as elected officials, are expected to meet again with city youth over the next several weeks.
“I will not do what was done to me. We will not kick the can down the road,” the Democratic mayor said at a news conference before the meeting, noting that squeegee workers have been a contentious topic in Baltimore since the 1980s. “It will require us having difficult conversations — extremely difficult conversations — with a diverse set of voices who all care about the city.”
Divisiveness over the young men and women who clean windshields at intersections for money has come to a head since last week, when a man was killed in a deadly confrontation downtown. Timothy Reynolds of Baltimore got out of his car and swung a bat at several squeegee workers at Light and Conway streets, according to police. One of the youths pulled a gun in response, killing Reynolds, police said.
A week later, officers arrested a 15-year-old boy Thursday. The teen, who police did not name because he is a minor, was charged as an adult with first-degree murder.
The clash, which happened along the Inner Harbor, drew calls for the city to do more about a concern that many, particularly those who work downtown, had been raising for years. But it also prompted a vocal defense of the youths, who many argue are working for their survival, supporting themselves and families financially amid limited options.
Scott convened the summit, dubbed the Squeegee Collaborative, to develop a community-based response and expand on opportunities available to youth.
Flanked by a group of young men the mayor said would be sharing their “lived experiences,” Scott said clearing city corners is not an option.
“This mentality of just moving Black people because they are there is what got Baltimore a consent decree,” Scott said of the federal order currently in place to reform the Baltimore Police Department. “We have to grow out of that and understand that we will hold people accountable for their bad actions, but we will not go back to re-criminalizing just being Black in Baltimore.”
Participants in the meeting reported hearing from a diverse group of voices that included business leaders, but also the squeegee workers themselves.
Joshua Harris, vice president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said he was pleased to hear discussion about Baltimore’s history and the root causes driving young people to street corners for squeegee work.
“We can’t focus on treating symptoms,” he said.
Harris said current and former squeegee workers were encouraged to participate and express themselves. He commended the youth for their bravery, speaking to an imposing crowd. City officials agreed to release a list of meeting participants, but had not yet provided one as of Thursday evening.
“I’m optimistic about this bring the beginning of a comprehensive plan” Harris said.
Lawmakers who were in the room said they shared Harris’s optimism. Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who delivered passionate remarks before a Baltimore City Council meeting earlier in the week, calling on the city to change the narrative surrounding squeegee workers, called the meeting “positive.”
“I think they had the right people in the room,” he said, saying the initial meeting focused largely on big-picture issues. “I know a lot of these folks. There’s people who really mean business. I wouldn’t be a part of it if I wasn’t confident something would get done.”
Democratic state Sen. Antonio Hayes, who represents a portion of Baltimore, said about 60 people participated in the event.
“It was productive,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and this is just the beginning of the conversation. People were willing to roll their sleeves up.”
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Marc Broady, vice president of community affairs at Weller Development and leader of the Port Covington Community Impact Team, said the “emergency situation” has pushed the issue of squeegee workers to the forefront.
“As a group invested in the city, it was important to be part of this,” Broady said. “We’re focusing right now on our guiding principles, what we should build on, what already exists.”
Donte Johnson, general manager of the hotel Revival, participated in Thursday’s summit on behalf of a business that has been an active participant in the city’s squeegee diversion efforts. In December, Scott’s administration announced a squeegee action plan that paired city youth with jobs at participating employers. Revival was among them. Currently, eight former squeegee workers are employed at the Mount Vernon hotel as part of the current “cohorts,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he left the meeting optimistic and emotional. Like Harris, he said he was pleased to hear a deeper discussion about the city’s history and the barriers that exist for young Black men. There seemed to be an “alignment” among the stakeholders in the room about taking a “compassionate approach,” he said.
“These are not young people roaming street corners,” he said. “These are folks navigating circumstances that are not of their own choosing and just doing the best they can each day to get through.”
Johnson said hard work remains to be done. The barriers that exist for Baltimore’s young people are greater than people realize, and it’s going to take a “massive re-education” of the broader community to solve the problem, he said.
“I’m hopeful for them, but I recognize employment is not a magic pill,” he said. “There’s so much that happens between waking up every morning and arriving at my doorstep that also needs to be addressed. Making $15 an hour is not a magic wand that solves 14, 15 years of structural shortcomings. We all have so much more work to do to support these young people.”