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Where I Come From

Was It Something I Said?

It’s been just weeks since we were last in touch, but so much has happened that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Dear Mayor Rawlings-Blake,

How are you?

It’s been just weeks since we were last in touch, but so much has happened that it’s hard to know where to begin.

OK. OK. Who am I kidding? First things first, right? Congratulations on your big election victory. I wasn’t sure you’d be excited about it since you already held the job and were always so heavily favored to win. I mean, some people in your position might have felt they’d secured the mayor’s office on a rent-to-own lease—same desk, same paperweight, just a more permanent arrangement post-election. But pictures don’t lie. After the primary votes were counted, you were ecstatic, and I’m really happy for you.

I was very taken by the speech you gave that night. In it, you laid out your vision for the city, with “better schools, safer streets, and stronger neighborhoods . . . a growing city where families move in and businesses choose to invest,” and called us all to unity in support of Baltimore’s rebirth.

Those are some of the lines that will be quoted most, but my favorite was this: “We all want the same thing . . . a city where we accept opportunities to lift each other up and refuse the jealous temptation to tear each other down.” Because of the size of some of our problems and the tough choices we’ll all need to make, you later added, “Our vision for Baltimore is rooted in straight talk.” Helping each other. Telling it like it is. I was so relieved to hear this, because until I went back and watched the footage from your victory speech, I thought you’d chosen to ignore numerous invitations to lift up residents who need our help the most. It’s such a funny story, and it took me a while to realize how silly I was being. Oh my goodness. I’m so embarrassed. Here’s what happened.

Back in October, inspired by the plan you’re supporting to end homelessness in Baltimore, I asked you to sleep with me and anyone who was willing for one night in front of City Hall (“Please Don’t End Homelessness,” Where I Come From, Oct. 12). A coalition of students planned the Nov. 19 event called A Bench Is Not a Bed, but we never heard from you.

I’m really sorry you missed it, because it was awesome. Approximately 300 people showed up. Students gave out food and sleeping bags. We heard from some amazing speakers, conducted workshops, and even sang a little, practically in front of your office door.

But not everything went according to plan. First, while we were allowed to gather until 9 p.m., the city wouldn’t give us permission to stay overnight. A lot of police officers stood by watching the clock. They even sent a helicopter to circle downtown for hours after Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, who had been traveling from New York to Washington, D.C., on foot (talk about a display of unity), briefly joined our event before heading to the Inner Harbor.

Now this is where things get screwy.

After our permit expired, the police threatened us with arrest. One officer even tried to intimidate a member of our group with the vague but ominous pronouncement that, “Jail is no place for someone like you.” Not wanting to be raped in a holding cell, we left City Hall and a few dozen of us spent the night with Occupy Baltimore, which, ironically, didn’t have a permit either. All this made news as far away as Seattle.

I gotta tell you, I was incensed. I even gave that helicopter the finger, because for a while it appeared that just weeks after you were elected, the city sent armed men to disperse a group of homeless people and their supporters. Mayor Rawlings-Blake, in the heat of the moment I started to think you just weren’t that into us—not into the poor, not into their advocates, and not into young people who were willing to put their bodies where their beliefs are.

Then I listened to what you said back in September and realized I must have been mistaken. You made such a good case for solidarity and helping the downtrodden that I’m sure I just misinterpreted things, right? I must have, because otherwise, despite what you said, that speech would have marked the start of four years of small-minded, heavy-handed rule, the kind of authoritarianism you see in third-world countries and movies with subtitles.

So, Mayor, please tell me I got it all wrong, would you, or that it was just a bad dream, because I really don’t know what I’d do if it turned out that I was right. Honestly, I can’t even describe how devastating that would be.

I’m gonna sit tight for now, but please write back soon, OK? I really need you to respond this time. I’m sending a stamp to make it super easy.

Your friend,

Lionel

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