Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The president’s Twitter attack on Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings reflect a law-and-order manifesto with a long history.
We are now in Day Four of Donald Trump’s Twitter War on Baltimore and, by extension, Elijah Cummings, the House representative whose district includes parts of the city. Cummings presides over the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has launched several investigations and hearings into Trump’s activities. Today, Trump declared that the Maryland congressman should “investigate himself,” alleging that “billions of dollars” have been “stolen and wasted” in Baltimore, which he told reporters was a “filthy, dirty … horrible” city.
This is a roast Trump has been performing on Twitter since July 27, when he began questioning Cummings’s leadership and calling the Maryland city a “very dangerous & filthy place” that is “rat and rodent infested.” On Monday, Trump attacked civil rights activist Al Sharpton, saying the MSNBC analyst “hates cops & whites,” just for visiting Baltimore for a conference.
But Trump’s tweets aren’t really about poverty or rodents—Cummings’s 7th District, which also includes wealthy white suburbs, has a higher median income than the national average. (And D.C., according to the Baltimore Sun, has more rats). Instead, his attack on Baltimore is rooted in the deeper history of “law and order” politicians feeling the need to overpolice majority-black cities like Baltimore. By signaling that a city with black leadership is out of control, he’s invoking a manifesto often attributed to Richard Nixon—that without more aggressive policing, the streets would descend into chaos. The dog whistle here is that whites living within Baltimore and in Cummings’s district would be claimed as victims.
When Baltimore gets shaded for its crime and poverty, journalists and academics often point to the fact that the city has been shaped fundamentally by racial discrimination. We point to how Baltimore is, in many ways, the architect of racial segregation: It was the first city to pass a racial segregation ordinance in 1910. While that ordinance did not survive court scrutiny, it lived on in spirit and real estate, metamorphosing into federally sanctioned redlining policies which kept African Americans locked into these high-poverty areas, choked off from investment and city services. Those lines of segregation and disinvestment are still evident in Baltimore to this day.
What’s sometimes overlooked in that historical narrative of Baltimore, however, is that the residential segregation ordinance of 1910 was as much about policing black people, as it was about determining where they could live. In the oft-cited 1910 New York Times report on the ordinance, an “eminent attorney of Baltimore” named Milton Dashiell explains that the root of the segregation policy is the enforcement of the city’s “Police Power,” a power found in a provision of the city’s 1796 charter. That provision defined “police power” as giving cities the authority:
To pass ordinances for preserving order and securing property and persons from violence, danger, and destruction, protecting the public and city privileges from waste or encroachment, and for promoting the interests and insuring the good government of the city.
In the early 20th century, Baltimore was experiencing a surge in its African American population from what’s known as the Great Migration. Dashiell argued in the New York Times article that “the moving in of negroes depreciates property” and that it “also tends to the disturbance and destruction of the peace to a marked degree,” though without citing any evidence. The presence of black people moving into Baltimore’s white neighborhoods was threatening enough that, as Dashiell told the NYT:
It seems conclusive that the city, under its police power, has a right … to step in and, by the prohibition of further influx of negro population into the white districts, prevent further destruction in value.
Baltimore city attorney Edgar Allan Poe (yes, a cousin of the sullen poet) argued, using some bit of legal legerdemain, that the government’s prerogative on how to determine African Americans’ living arrangements rested in its power to police. Said Poe:
Legislation of the character mentioned has been invariably upheld as a proper exercise of the police power of the State, nothwithstanding the fact that in certain Northern States legislation prohibiting the separation of the races in the schools, public conveyances, and public places has been declared valid for the same reason. In other words, legislation of a diametrically opposite character, the one enforcing the separation of the two races, the other prohibiting it, has been sustained on the same ground, to wit, the police power.
Today, policing Baltimore, and cities that look like it, has been Trump’s unfulfilled desire since he took the White House. One of his very first acts as president was forcing his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to try to undo a consent decree with the Baltimore police department that had already, for the most part, been signed and sealed. The decree was created in response to the rampant abuse, corruption, and racial discrimination the Justice Department found in that department after several Baltimore officers were arrested for killing Freddie Gray in 2015.
The Trump administration wasted tremendous energy and resources trying to kill off this decree and those like it in other cities. Instead of making police departments operate smarter—and in alignment with the Constitution—Trump argued that it was time for police to get rougher. These consent decrees, in Baltimore and cities such as Chicago, would allow inner-city crime to spin out of control, the president warned.
But that’s not exactly what happened. Despite decreasing local trust in law enforcement and several high-profile police corruption scandals, Baltimore’s crime rate dropped 7.6 percent between 2017 and 2018, and the murder rate fell by 9 percent, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice. That crime drop also happened despite the long litany of reforms imposed upon the police department—reforms that some argued would intensify crime and the so-called “Ferguson Effect”—and despite the fact there was no permanent police commissioner for most of 2018.
Baltimore still has some of the highest violent crime rates in the nation, but, again, it is also one of the most segregated cities in the nation. (Somehow, the talk of how “dangerous” and unlivable Baltimore is hasn’t stopped Republicans from holding their annual policy retreat there this coming September.)
Trump’s efforts to kill police reform in Baltimore failed. Courts upheld the Baltimore police consent decree, just as they did with the Chicago police consent decree that Trump also tried to kill. Trump’s attempts to more aggressively police cities that refuse to capitulate to his immigrant deportation agenda have failed as well. This has not and perhaps will not stop Trump from pushing for more vigorous policing of black and brown cities, though, as his attack on Cummings has shown.
Baltimore’s 1910 try at legalizing racial segregation did not survive in courts, but it survived in other ways. As University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor Paige Glotzer recently wrote for CityLab:
The ordinance was quickly overturned on a technicality, but over the next several years, white Baltimoreans mounted a pressure campaign to ensure the passage of three subsequent versions. … Baltimore’s segregation ordinance was finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 1917. But the use of racially restrictive covenants only grew in response, and so did efforts by policymakers to link African Americans in Baltimore with disease.
Something similar may be happening with consent decrees and police reform today. Last week, Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector got into a Twitter spat with the city’s head prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, over a consent decree report that the Baltimore police department are still not adequately investigating officers accused of misconduct.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to demand more militaristic policing tactics and to paint Baltimore in disease-infested terms. That could be the cruel point of Trump’s Twitter offensive against the black-led city and Cummings: To keep alive in spirit what he hasn’t been able to win in court.