Austerity in Baltimore: residents protest closure of city recreation centers
Baltimore residents were outraged earlier this year when the city announced it would close or privatize one-third of its recreation centers, as well as six public pools. These recreation centers provide youth in working-class neighborhoods with opportunities for physical activity and vital social support, as well as hosting classes, senior programs, and other programs that make them important community hubs. On August 10th, the last day the closing rec centers were to remain open; three actions in different neighborhoods protested the closures.
Community residents at the rally demanding that Mary E. Rodman Recreation Center in Allendale
In the largest action, organized by the Allendale community association, over 100 residents of that neighborhood rallied to defend their rec center, circulating petitions and staging New Orleans-style funeral march for the closing recreation centers. Pallbearers carried a casket marked with the names of the recreation centers, a marching band played “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and a local minister delivered a blessing, declaring that residents would fight for the “resurrection” of the closing rec centers. In the other actions, the workers center United Workers unveiled a banner detailing the cuts to recreation centers alongside the city’s handouts and tax breaks to developers, and activists from All People’s Congress, a left-led organization, proposed a sit-in at a closing recreation center.
The closure of the recreation centers and pools is just another step in the austerity agenda of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the city council majority. While cutting funding for public services, the city has increased regressive taxes on working-class and poor people and handed out millions of dollars to developers in the form of tax breaks and incentives. Alongside this massive wealth transfer from the working class to the rich, the city has increased funding for police; part of a “tough-on-crime” policy intended to draw professionals back into the city, which has resulted in increased levels of police brutality, including one shooting a month of an unarmed victim by police this year.
Although Friday’s actions were a powerful show of discontent with austerity, they also demonstrated the limitations of organizing in Baltimore, a city with a historically weak and divided left. Despite the best efforts of activists associated with Occupy Baltimore, who attempted to forge a coalition and to connect the day’s events into a unified day of action, the three events were separate, organized by separate organizations and each with their own political message. There had been political divisions in the organizing of the actions: a group of activists had proposed to occupy the Allendale recreation center to prevent it from closing, but community members were uncomfortable with that idea.
A coffin representing the 14 recreation centers "murdered" by Mayor Rawlings-Blake
Another limitation is the lack of a political force powerful enough to put forth a left-wing alternative. People were clearly fed up with Mayor Rawlings-Blake (signs at the Allendale demonstration featured a photo of the mayor with the words “Wanted for Murder of Our Rec Centers”), but in the absence of a political alternative, this energy is likely to dissipate. Left electoral parties are weak—the Maryland Green Party is struggling to maintain ballot access and is dominated by white activists, and the Ujima People's Progress Party, a promising effort to form a black-led independent political party in the state, so far has been unable to achieve ballot access—nor is there any citywide activist coalition or other force capable of putting forth a people’ agenda outside the electoral arena. In the absence of a strong alternative, most people will probably return to the Democratic Party machine, supporting “alternative” candidates like City Council President Jack Young, who has opposed the closing of the recreation centers but does not represent a real alternative to the Democratic Party’s austerity agenda.
It’s hard to say what the solution is to overcome these limitations. On the one hand, we need a political breakthrough, but on the other, it’s clear that it’ll take a while and plenty of hard work to overcome the weaknesses of Baltimore’s left. It’s a challenge to put forth a program that is simultaneously radical and unifying— combining demands for high-quality rec centers, no public service shutdowns, no handouts to developers, and no police brutality —when activists are so divided, and to defend that program militantly while meeting people where they’re at. It’s clear that we have to continue the patient work of trying to build unity between disparate organizations, and we have to build organizations of struggle that will allow us to put forward our agenda independently from and against the Democratic Party and all pro-austerity, pro-capitalist politicians.
Nicholas Davenport is a member of Solidarity, a student at the University of Maryland, and an activist in various struggles around Baltimore.