Baltimore and the Rights of the Poor

​Well… there goes our trip to Baltimore. ​We’d been hoping to see the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, but I see it’s been postponed sine die.

If you’re inclined, now is your chance to laugh. Get it out early.

Here’s a problem in describing how cities work: Any example I might pick to symbolize the decay of Baltimore can always be ridiculed: Weep, weep my friends for that lousy corporate CVS, the one that nobody really liked anyway!

See how easy that was?

The one direct effect I have experienced from the recent riots is that my daughter and I will possibly not be seeing a giant pink taffeta poodle pedaled down the streets of Baltimore by a bunch of probably inebriated art students. I’m unlikely to suffer any of the riots’ more troubling effects, like having to walk an extra half mile to get my asthma medication. Or like getting my car torched.

(And yes: Leading with the pink taffeta poodle might just be the definition of white privilege, but at least I’m, you know, aware of it.)

Cities are hard to explain. They’re made up of millions of tiny little things, and of the networks of trust and expectation that exist among them. Any one of those things—a CVS, a giant pink taffeta poodle, a population of inebriated art students—does not make a city. Almost any one of them can be laughed at, or just dismissed as trivial, in isolation. But good, functional cities are networks. They’re not isolated nodes. A city isn’t the big taffeta poodle, but it might be the expectation that there will be something fun, and free, to do in the streets on some warm spring afternoon. For which we can thank the art students.

And other expectations too: After we see the giant pink taffeta poodle, and when my daughter gets stung by a bee, there’s the CVS, and after that, when we decide we want dinner, we have several choices at hand. And if we want a room for the night, there it is. And if we want to relocate to Baltimore, we might just be able to find decent housing and jobs.

I think we can all agree that that’s what a city should look like. But how does it come into being?

I suspect that some significant trust has to be there first. Without it, few will venture to try new things. Restaurants won’t open. Parades won’t be held. Families won’t move in. Few will try adding new threads to the network. And when the old threads wear out, they will not be replaced.

For a very long time the networks of trust and expectation in the city of Baltimore have been fraying. But it’s not because of the rioting, which is only a symptom, if an advanced one, of an underlying condition. The well-documented culture of police brutality in Baltimore has meant that one of the bigger threads in the network—the ability to turn to police when you or your property is threatened—cannot be depended on. And when that thread goes, so go many others.

It’s long been known in Baltimore that the police can’t be counted on to perform their core functions, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods: In such places the police either can’t or won’t reliably protect persons and property from attack. Not without levels of collateral damage that any reasonable person would deplore. And when you don’t have security, you can forget all about community.

That’s part of why, paradoxically, the poor need property rights even more than the rich: What the poor possess is definitionally small. As a result, it’s all too easy to take everything that they have. Including their sense of dignity. Including their ability to trust. And, finally, including their sense of community, which has to start (and I do feel a bit pedantic saying it) with the understanding that community leaders and enforcers aren’t just out to squeeze them for cash. That the leaders and enforcers don’t see them merely as yet another home to be searched, another gun to seize, another dog to shoot, and another marijuana conviction waiting to happen.

The poor need security not just in their own property, but also in that of others. And these others aren’t necessarily poor. It’s a good thing whenever the owner of a grocery store franchise feels confident enough to get started in a neighborhood that maybe wasn’t so well-off, and that maybe lacked good choices beforehand. But that won’t happen without a measure of trust, and when the community has good reason not to trust, well, outsiders probably won’t trust either.

Contrast all this to the property rights of the rich. Paradoxically, the rich often barely need formal protections of their rights at all. Their property just isn’t threatened all that much, whether by the police or by anyone else. And when the property rights of the rich do get threatened, the rich can fight back. Definitionally, they have many more resources at hand, including non-financial ones: The rich have political influence, private security choices, and just… moving. The would-be owner of a grocery store franchise isn’t compelled to open in any particular neighborhood, or even to go into business at all. His money can always sit safely in a bank.

The rich also aren’t living so precariously: Even if all else fails, and if a rich person’s car does get torched, he can just buy another car. Yes, that’s bad, but it’s not going to ruin him. The same can’t necessarily be said of a poor person, for whom a car might be her single most valuable possession.

So while I’m complaining about the loss of a silly (but fun) kinetic sculpture race, let’s all remember just who depends the most on the networks of trust and expectation that can either live, or die, in our cities. Let’s also remember that those networks depend on protecting the all too fragile property rights of the poor.

Update: We are informed that the drivers of all kinetic sculptures are to be sober at the time.