• Free for All Baltimore

“Police Ordinances- Repealing the Prohibition on Playing in the Street."

Good afternoon.  My name is Ben Dalbey.  I am a co-founder of Free For All Baltimore, a local non-profit organization which provides free open-access play opportunities for youth in northeast Baltimore.  Free For All Baltimore is a proud and successful year-one grantee with the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund.  We have served over 250 children with our after-school programming over the last three years and we are currently staffing and running free programming three days a week after school in a previously closed Baltimore City Recreation and Parks building.

I am here this afternoon to speak in support of Council Bill 18-0285 because it is a small and important step toward prioritizing the lives and interests of children, and particularly Black children, in our city.

We know that all children play.  It’s what kids do.  Big kids and little kids.  In all kinds of situations and circumstances.  But our dominant institutions and culture of white supremacy do not value, protect or provide for the play of all children equally.  The history and demography of northeast Baltimore means that there are thousands of mostly Black children moving through our neighborhoods every day, living out their childhoods under a pall of racism and white supremacy.  Kids doing things like going to and from school, and playing outside in their own neighborhoods.  We are familiar with the “Barbeque Becky” phenomenon.  Northeast Baltimore is full of white people – my social peers – who see it as their civic responsibility to police the behavior of Black youth.  I’m speaking of things like seeing online that your neighbor’s scooters have been stolen and then seeing Black kids riding scooters down the street, and then calling the cops because you assume Black children are thieves when in fact their father has just bought them new scooters.  I’m speaking of harrassing middle and high school-aged kids for stopping to talk with each other as they walk down the sidewalk after school, when in fact they are just enjoying time with their friends and are quite literally looking for a place to be. 

And then there is the institutional racism built into policing the behavior of Black youth seeking opportunities for recreation in the very few public spaces that do exist in their city.  I’ve seen a Black boy threatened with handcuffs in the library for the “crime” of pulling a chair out from underneath his friend as he was getting ready to sit down – a behavior that for a free child would be considered a classic prank.

The school my children attend is a typical Baltimore city school in that it is mostly Black.  The grades are prek through 8th grade.  There are almost 900 kids in the building and there is no usable playground.  The existing equipment is old and in such a dangerous state of disrepair and that the school community has fenced it off for the year while we work to find money for repairs and seek longer term solutions for a new play space. 

This is my son’s ninth year at the school.  My daughter is in the fifth grade.  For several of those years, a child has been struck by a car somewhere outside the school at dismissal.  It is a strange word to use in this context, but I will say “thankfully,” the most severe injuries that I know of have been broken bones.  We’ve tried for years – unsuccessfully – to get an additional crossing guard to attend to the extremely dangerous four-way intersection at Harford and Old Harford Roads and Glenmore Avenue.  Eventually, a child will be struck by a car at that intersection.  An adult was just hit there a month or so ago.  Unfortunately, I’m sure there are plenty of other situations like this across the city.  For those of us who are concerned about cars and children’s safety – as I am – those would be good places to start.

When my colleague and I started Free For All Baltimore, we did some research and found that there are seven schools with 3,200 students within a mile radius of our site.  2,000 of those children and young people have no park or recreation center within walking distance of their homes.  We do have a lot of streets.  Often, they are quiet open spaces that invite playful activity.  In our current context, the ordinance prohibiting playing in the street can only be enforced in ways that reinforce racism and oppression and deny the participation of children in the life of their own communities.

Repealing the prohibition is an important step toward creating public space for children.  Repealing the prohibition may be more important for the message it can send to our communities – a message I believe needs to be augmented and amplified.  That is, all of us have a responsibility to organize our city around meeting the needs and serving the interests of the 90,000 Black kids who call Baltimore home, and who should feel and be at home here.

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