What the women living in Baltimore public housing who were subject to the vulgar demands of workers in those buildings endured mustn’t be viewed in a vacuum. The crimes against their bodies and spirits are a working metaphor for how the most marginalized among us are now regarded — with contempt.
At least 19 women living in Baltimore public housing had to dig deep to find their voice and an ear to listen to harrowing tales of maintenance men who refused to make repairs unless they were compensated with sexual favors. If they didn’t, the tenants were forced to live with roaches, water leaks, and mildew in heatless homes.
This week, Baltimore’s housing chief Paul Graziano and the women’s attorney, Cary Hansel, reached an agreement for an undisclosed amount, which must be approved by the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Department of Housing. The women had initially sought $10 million a piece.
Affidavits from several of the women highlight disgusting details of fending off and being forced to give in to three maintenance men, working for the housing project, including one complex where Freddie Gray, the 25-year old man who died in police custody, lived. The lawsuit also accused the workers of preying on minors in their sexual quid pro quo racket.
“What do I have to do to get things fixed,” a 33-year-old single mother who lived in one of the complexes asked a housing authority maintenance worker. “What can you do with this,” he reportedly said, exposing himself.
Another resident reported the worker as saying, “I can wax your floors; I’ll give you some wax alright.” And he allegedly told yet another resident: “You don't want to get with me? You think you are having problems now, you just wait.”
Many of the women’s complaints were ignored. One even got as far as the Housing Authority’s Inspector General’s desk, but that too was overlooked for two years until the lawsuit was filed.
From a poll-friendly Donald Trump excoriating everyone from Muslims and undocumented immigrants or Ben Carson’s privileged amnesia on what life at the bottom really looks and feels like, it’s time to change the discourse around the poor.
Eerily reminiscent of former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw case in Oklahoma City, these maintenance workers— and the people they work for— felt comfortable ignoring these women, many of them single mothers, deeming them too powerless to challenge authority. The way this government agency treated these poor people is the same way government bodies often relate to members of other marginalized groups. Weapons used in this war include fomenting xenophobia based on religion and national origin (us vs. them) or people of other races (black vs. white). This is how Officer Jason VanDyke interacted with 17-year old Laquan McDonald in Chicago on October 14, 2014, when he shot him 16 times in the street or how the Tea Party reacts to the presence of Syrian refugees seeking refuge in our country. It’s the way Trump enlists the poor to act outside of their own best interests.
This ethos goes beyond race. This case highlights the presence of an undeclared class warfare that seeks to demoralize all poor people. It poisons political discourse, undermines American institutions and chokes the lifeblood of democracy.
There will be a changing of the guard in 2016, from the top down. If movements such as Black Lives Matter and the intention behind #sayhername mean anything, they will show that people are mad and aren’t going to take it anymore. Thirteen women in Oklahoma City stood up to be counted after being raped by Holtzclaw, and they are getting justice since he is headed to prison for what will likely be the rest of his life. These Baltimore women went public, eloquently detailing their trauma and finally have received a belated form of justice.
The point is for people to get involved. The government can't continue to run roughshod over the marginalized when people block out rhetorical distractions, choosing instead to create a critical mass and stand together. Indeed, much work needs to be done first. But the question remains: what are you going to do now?
Deborah Douglas is a journalism professor at Northwestern University. Kanu Iheukumere is chief policy and research officer at Bethel New Life, which fights poverty and provides a path to jobs and entrepreneurship in the Chicago area.