Austerity in Baltimore: residents protest closure of city recreation centers

by Nicholas Davenport

August 11, 2012

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.

  • Nick says:

    Below is a great speech made at an earlier protest by Alana S., an ISO member and rec center activist. She makes some points I forgot to mention here—that while the city is closing recreation centers, the state is spending $150 million to build a new youth jail in Baltimore, and that the combination of the new youth jail and the rec center closures constitute part of a continuing assault on Black communities, particularly youth. It seems to me that the criminalization of black youth is a distinct and separate issue from austerity (which is a wealth transfer from the working class to the rich) and needs to be acknowledged as such in our struggle.

    * * * * *

    As we’ve heard from everyone here today, more and more and at an ever-younger age, Black youth are being criminalized. We see them portrayed as hoodlums and gang members in the media. We’ve heard a state delegate make reference to Black youth mobs in the Inner Harbor. City schools are increasingly policed and racial profiling has led to the traumatization and even death of Black youth at the hands of the police. A clear message is being sent to Black youth that they are considered worthless and that no future other than mass incarceration is expected of them when millions of dollars are earmarked for the construction of a new youth jail while schools, youth jobs, after school programs, and rec centers are underfunded. We are dealing here with systemic, institutionalized racism. If we are going to preserve a future for today’s Black youth, we all have to take a stand directly against racism, together.

    When I say that the closing of the rec centers is an issue of race, I want to be very clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that we need rec centers so that Black youth will be contained instead of out on the streets. I refuse to participate in this racist narrative that sees all Black youth as potential criminals. They deserve freedom of movement and the civil right to walk, shop, and socialize anywhere without being threatened or harassed.

    We need to say that the reason we need rec centers is not because Black youth are potential hoodlums, but because they are potential leaders. The truth about Black youth is that they are talented, creative, athletic, brilliant, and full of potential. THAT is why we need rec centers. They deserve to have mentors, leadership opportunities, room to grow and develop their skills, a place where they can try out their talents, practice, and excel — and to do all of this in a place that is a safe haven from racial profiling and police brutality.

    Taking a stand to save the rec centers means standing up for our city’s Black youth and affirming their worth. It means taking a stand against criminalization. The fight to save the rec centers is itself a fight against racism.

    So, please join us this Friday, August 10th for a day of action to save the rec centers. There are several events throughout the day, culminating in the march that Ms. McCray spoke about at the Mary E. Rodman recreation center at 7:30 pm. All of the events can be found on the Occupy Baltimore calendar online, so please join us for as much as you can of this important day of action to save the rec centers.