On October 31st 2010, a group of Black-led grassroots organizations got together for Youth Justice Sunday to launch our opposition to the construction of a 104 million dollar Youth Detention Center in East Baltimore. This marked the beginning of a struggle to stop the construction of what we called the “Youth Jail.”
Other established non-profit and philanthropic organizations descended on this effort to stop the youth jail. A Stop the Jail Coalition was formed that was comprised of both of these kinds of organizations. Throughout our fight there was ongoing internal tension between the white led, bigger, well financed non-profit organizations and the more grassroots Black led organizations. The tensions centered around the tendency for white led non-profit organizations to assume leadership and control over these types of coalitions. This conflict was manifested in January of 2013 when the secretary of Corrections and Public Safety met with the members of our coalition that where the more mainstream white led nonprofits and philanthropic institutions and struck a deal. The deal as we were told after that meeting, was that the state would halt the construction of the Youth Jail, in exchange for supporting a 30-bed treatment facility.
LBS, and the other Black led grassroots organizations were excluded from this meeting and were not present when this deal was made. The jail that the state wants to build now, is a smaller version of what was supposed to be built in 2010, not the treatment facility we were promised. Thus, our opposition to the new jail is just as strong as our opposition to the old one.
Budgets are moral documents that gives an indication about what public officials care about. In Baltimore what we see are major investments made in criminalizing our people, instead of investments being made to give us the tools to empower ourselves. The jail that is reportedly going to be built is an example of an investment that buys into a narrative of Black criminalization, as opposed to embracing the inherent value of Black life.
Our strategy on dealing with our youth should be about preventing the conditions that produce the situations that lead our people to incarceration, and to provide substantive alternatives to incarceration. Until major investments are made in these kinds of efforts by way of investing in the grassroots organizations and individuals who are of and from the communities most directly affected by the system of white supremacy, we will continue to see the pattern of philanthropic co-option which prevents grassroots responses to the unethical and unjustifiable conditions of oppression and neglect in Baltimore’s most needy communities. This is distinct from the “solutions” being presented by political leaders, which are more of the same failed approach and not the fundamental rethinking which is needed. Stopping the jail is just one element of a larger fight to demand the kind of investment in our communities that facilitates capacity development by independent Black led grassroots organizations.
Lawrence Grandpre is the Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. His focuses include criminal justice, police accountability, and community-based economic/educational development. He is the co-author of “The Black Book” and his work has been featured in The Guardian and The Baltimore Sun.